3D Connected site for Fred Champion Groundworks by Peter Haddock

Established in 1983, Fred Champion Groundworks is now one of the largest contractors in the South East of England, building a great reputation from its origins in Cornwall to expand its portfolio of customers and projects.

And the business is now looking to a future of threes that includes 3D enabled engineers, 3D models and 3D controlled machines. This is all thanks to a major investment in 3D surveying and machine control equipment with Leica Geosystems and regional dealer One Point Survey Equipment, which has given the business a 3D connected worksite approach for its future.

The journey will be transformational for the environment, its team and the customers it serves, as I witnessed when visiting ‘Sherford Village’ a brand new town in Devon, near Plymouth, that is taking advantage of the new approach.

The greenfield site is the perfect example of why new developments should take a ‘connected site’ approach. Before any equipment even arrived on site the Champion surveying team had mapped out every house plot, road, utility trench and inch of the development, collecting data and turning this into a 3D site model.

This model is then fed into the equipment onsite through the Leica Geosystems ConX software, ensuring the machines and operators have the right information to complete an earthworks project.

Talking to surveyor Rob Elliott, who has been instrumental in the connected site journey Champion has taken, he explained how the business had embraced the technology, training and investment needed to make it a success.

Rob: “As a surveyor, I have been using 3D enabled equipment like the Leica Geosystems rovers, base stations and ground penetrating radar for a long time now. But until more recently, we still had to visit the site to support the earthworks teams with levels and checking.

“This involved a lot of travel time to and from sites which is unproductive. When we talked to Lee Knowles at One Point Survey about adding some machine control onto our plant to test the system, he was happy to help.

“Because we already used Leica Geosystems surveying equipment, it was natural to use its MC1 machine control system. This links seamlessly with its ConX web-based solution, designed to help us manage, monitor and share construction and survey data in real-time. It can even pinpoint where the equipment fleet is located.

“Because we can access ConX from the cloud, it means that multiple users in the Champion team can input into the system. This offers us a seamless link between every part of the process, from surveying to uploading a model and downloading ‘as built’ data.

Talking about how it phased the journey to a connected site approach, Rob added: “Initially, we opted for base kit installs on a dozer and excavator. These base kits allow you to make the machine ‘Leica ready’, which meant we could hire in the additional equipment needed, including the in-cab touch screen and receivers that mount on the machine.

“As part of this process, Lee also spent some familiarisation time with our experienced operators and surveyors that were part of the trial team. This involved training on how to use the equipment and even how we could dial into it remotely. Like anything new, it took a bit of getting used to, but we were soon able to prove the clear transformational benefits this could offer both customers and the Champion business.

“The first change for me was quite dramatic. Suddenly, I didn’t have to jump in the car to visit the test site. With each machine connected through the GPS phone network, I could download data and upload any model revisions from my connected office or a site cabin using the Conx software. 

“Not only did this save hours of travel time and fuel costs, but it also allowed me to be far more productive working on site models and reporting back to the customer on progress from day to day or week to week. Having this ‘as built’ data at our fingertips has also led to better interaction with our customers. At first, they were amazed that we could actually provide this information. To reassure them, we carried out a demonstration onsite with our surveying equipment to confirm the accuracy.”

The connected worksite – a team driven approach

Following the initial trial Champion has invested heavily in machine control, fitting base kits on over 25 machines and counting. It has also purchased cab kits and, where necessary, hires additional units from One Point Survey.

Rob Elliott continued: “Since we have adopted the role out, a second big change has become more apparent, and the experience has brought the team closer together. We have all been trained and supported by the Leica Geosystems and One Point Survey team and now work much closer. For example, we will dial into the cab, have conversations with the operators, and discuss what to do next.

“We have all witnessed a difference in the speed and accuracy of the project delivery. And it is great to recognise how much more our operators are achieving by using connected machines.”

Having visited many sites using 3D machine control, I always like to talk to the operators as they are the brains in the machine and the success of any technology adoption relies on how easy it is to use. On my visit to the Sherford Village site, I had the privilege of meeting Mark and Fred, two experienced operators.

Speaking to Mark, who was completing an incredibly complicated pond using a Leica Geosystems connected Case CX250D excavator, he explained how the system changed how he works.

Mark: “To be honest, I found it a bit tricky to start with, but once you get your head around the system, it’s so simple. I now just climb in the cab, turn on the machine, move to the next job position on site and start working. It has cut out waiting time as the model is in the machine. 

“It also makes the job much more interesting. Take this pond, for example. There is just no way I could have created something like this without GPS. The levels are so much more complex, and the end result is a lot more satisfying to look at from both my perspective and those that will be living next to it in the future.”

After speaking to Mark, I caught up with Fred, operating a Cat D6T dozer. He had only been using the Leica Geosystems MC1 system for four weeks. When I asked him about his initial thoughts, he told me about being apprehensive Fred: “Being dyslexic, I was worried about using the system, to be honest. But I have to say it is absolutely marvellous, as I can now go into the field and start working without needing an engineer to set up the plot for me.

“It’s amazing as anyone from the engineering team can access my tablet in the cab remotely, check levels and the model and answer the queries I have. Because they can also take control of the tablet, they can talk me through what I see. I am not alone in the cab anymore.”

I then spoke to Fred about any top tips he had for other operators getting to know the system. Fred added: “One of the things I did find a bit strange was when you get close to your level or grade, you can put the system into auto, and it controls the blade. At first, I found this very strange as you just have to leave the blade control alone, which any dozer driver will tell you goes against your training and instincts. But like any change, you get used to it and let the blade do the work.”

Making the connected site work 

Any move to a new technology driven approach like the connected worksite is only successful if the people and technology interface works. So to find out more, I spoke to One Point Survey specialist Lee Knowles: “You have to invest time, money and resources into people, hardware and software to make sure everyone understands how to play their part in its success. This is why as a specialist dealer, we work closely with both Leica Geosystems and customers like Champion to be that local support resource.

“For example, we have worked with Champion for years supporting the surveying team with all the equipment, service and advice they have needed. The trust we have built up with the team has made the difference with its big switch to the major 3D machine control fleet upgrade they are in the middle of now.

“Just as important is our relationship with Leica Geosystems and our key account manager, Mike James. He has been instrumental in supporting this deal, making resources and technical expertise available for a rapid rollout. The recent launch of the MC1 solution really has been a game-changer, as the cab kits that Champion have now purchased can work on any ‘Leica ready’ machine we have installed a base kit on. This means they can swap cab kits from one machine to the next if 3D is not required for a particular job and even hire more from us.”

“As we have been supporting them through each phase, we have seen the team achieving some great results with a recent project that would have previously taken four days, completed in just two.” 

Champion’s connected journey is incredibly exciting to report on, and the impact is not just restricted to its business, as other contractors, some of which support the team on projects, are also now adopting the technology. And one thing is certain: the new Sherford Village residents will see a huge advantage in being a 3D town as the 20 year project moves forward.