The Most Affordable Entry Point into 3D Machine Control

It is almost cliche to read an article or news item these days that begins with "In these economic times.... ", but the phrase does capture the mood I have seen in my business travels in the US and abroad. The current economic environment presents challenges to be profitable which effects our investment choices; technology is such an investment choice. Some technology costs include the initial expenditure, training and cost of ownership. It is well documented that 3D positioning and machine control yields faster and more accurate results for all aspects of earth moving which yield tighter bids, faster job cycles and improved profit margins.

One technology choice I would like to revisit is the value of site management systems, sometimes referred to as grade management or site supervisor systems, as an affordable entry point to 3D machine control.

These 3D supervisor systems vary in their configurations but generally consist of an RTK GNSS receiver and a ruggedized field computer loaded with application centric software. These can be mounted in a pickup truck, ATV or on a GPS pole for use as a man rover/walk about. I have seen some of these systems also mounted in machines offering basic cut and fill, although the screens can be small and difficult to see. The rover does require a "correction" generally provided by a base station (static GNSS receiver) or from a 3rd party network provider.

The site supervisor rover prices can range from $13,000 to $18,000 plus the fee for using a network correction. If you are using a base station, add another $12,000 to $22,000 depending on configuration. These prices are much lower than a typical 3D machine control system, i.e., installed on excavators, dozers or graders, that can cost from $35,000 to $75,000 per machine depending on machine type, configuration and application. The price makes the supervisor system a good first step.

While most traditional survey data collectors can accomplish many of the daily tasks performed by grade checkers and site managers, site supervisor systems have a more focused user interface. This makes it much simpler to learn and use. Cut/fill, simple slopes, elevation checks, line offsets, etc are upfront and center speaking the language of the grade contractor.

By taking this first step, you have embraced a new process that can save you money almost immediately. The first example that comes to mind is bid verification. Typically, a grading contractor receives a set of plans from an engineer with the existing terrain and the site design including approximate volume calculations. When the grading contractor bids the job, calculating earth quantities, the data is usually accepted to be accurate enough for estimating. Cost padding is the norm to cover any discrepancies. But by using a 3D supervisor system, the contractor can quickly drive or walk a site collecting data that will provide an accurate existing surface. This offers accuracies of 1/10th' giving a solid foundation for estimations.  The bids are tighter and avoiding potentially costly errors the contractor traditionally has to absorb. In short order, the system proves valuable as an affordable insurance policy.

Another value for adopting a 3D supervisor system is being able to check grade for other machines. “This is like holding both ends of a tape,” a grade checker told me a few years back. Staking and collecting points is easy reducing dependencies on survey crews. This saves both time and money keeping the machines grading instead of waiting.
But perhaps the biggest benefit is the education and comfort using this technology.  Most of the supervisor systems work similar to the machine control systems so you have more of a business case and comfort level when you are ready to add a dozer or grader system.  If you purchased a base station with your supervisor system, the same base can broadcast corrections to an unlimited number of machines so you don’t have to repeat that cost.

If you are evaluating the benefit of 3D machine control for your business, consider the available supervisor systems. It offers an affordable first step perhaps giving your company a more manageable transition. I have included links to some of the products for which I am familiar. I hope you will check them out. As always, please do not hesitate to send me an email with any questions.

Randy Noland
Editor/Cofounder -
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Site Management Products:

Trimble - SPC900

Carlson Software - Grade Supervisor

Topcon - Pocket 3D

Leica - SBG GeoConstruction

Leica - Site Foreman

*This list of site management products is not intended to be all inclusive. If you have or know of another product, please send me an email and I will add the information to this article.’ wants to promote all things positioning and to advance the technology. Send info to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.  

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