In early 2012, Frazier of Lancaster, Calif., became one of the first multistate concrete companies to adopt robotic total station technology for standard layout tasks. “It’s our policy to be progressive. For example, we used laser screeds early on,” says vice president of concrete Mike Prascsak. “We make that part of our presentations and interviews when preparing bids. Now, when we explain that we’re using the same tools as surveyors to set out points, and that we can even reset lost points if needed, contractors are amazed.”

Going robotic wasn’t a casual decision. In fact, since only about 10% of concrete subcontractors are using total stations of any kind for layout—as opposed to using stringlines and tapes—Frazier’s leap to a robotic instrument allowing a single operator to control the total station from the prism by radio or Bluetooth was groundbreaking. “We started by reading a lot of magazine articles, then we attended World of Concrete to actually look at different solutions,” explains vice president of operations Lonnie Herrell, who was the first to push for robotic instrumentation at Frazier. “Then we arranged for demonstrations from five companies. Finally, we narrowed our options down to two systems and had both companies do work on actual jobsites. We programmed in actual project data, and did layout work with a salesman present.”

At the end of this selection process, Frazier selected the iCON (Intelligent CONstruction) system from Leica Geosystems, a suite of interoperable hardware and software designed to work together smoothly and to simplify construction layout. The major components are the robotic total station controlled by a rodman using a tablet computer. Both components are ruggedized for construction work, but are still sensitive, sophisticated survey instruments. “We felt they had the right system for our particular requirements,” says Herrell. “We were also impressed by Leica’s responsiveness and the training arrangements.”

Fast and accurate

This way of working offers many advantages, compared to stringlines and tape measures. The most obvious is that most layout work can be done faster and with one person. “On one recent project, a 30,000-square-foot building, we had a total of 1027 points to set—that includes footing edges, pier locations, bolt locations—and one man, working with the robot, was able to do the work in two days,” says Prascsak. “Previously, that would have taken three days with a two-man crew.”

Another not-so-obvious advantage is the connectivity provided by the tablet computer, which includes a 3G cellular modem. Frazier has a CAD operator, Jason Karpynec, in the Lancaster office, who can do all the calculations needed on all ongoing projects, and email points as needed for upload into the tablet. He can even respond to requests from the field that need a quick turnaround. “Occasionally, we find errors in plans when we do our initial checks in the field,” Prascsak explains. “And when that happens, we can call Jason and, usually within an hour, he can do the calcs and send us the points we need.”

Prascsak also appreciates the independence provided by the new equipment. “Before, if a control point had been knocked out by equipment or something, we were basically stuck until we could get surveyors to come out.” he says “Now, we can almost always reset it ourselves. It makes a big difference, and we avoid a lot of wasted time.”

Herrell emphasizes the importance of being able to check the work of others. “The Azusa waste management facility was a huge metal building with more than 150 large bolt clusters to set,” he says. Working alone, Herrell set out the bolt locations and then, because bolt location was so critical, the prime contractor hired a surveyor to check the work. That surveyor found that bolt locations were off by a potentially devastating inch and a half. “In the past,” says Herrell, “we would have just accepted that we’d made a mistake. But with this technology, I looked a little closer.” A critical dimension update had not been conveyed to the surveyor. If Frazier had simply made changes based on the survey work, they would have perpetuated a serious error that could have had serious ramifications late in the project. Checking with the robot helped them to avoid very costly rework.

Additional advantages were subtler. Because layout is more accurate, final results are better too. “We’ve always done very accurate work, so it’s not a dramatic improvement,” Prascsak says. “But, at the end of the day, if our floors are even a little flatter, that’s a very good thing.” Using the robotic instrument is leveraging Frazier’s previous investments in 3D CAD modeling, and may eventually lead to new services. “We keep learning how to do more with the system,” says Prascsak. “And that may enable us to do new kinds of work, like machine control.”