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Construction Innovation and technology

Starting a new project? Ask these questions first

7 min read / November 2, 2021 / Greg Heckart

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Asking questions to ensure you have enough information to estimate and bid a project is critical, and so is learning from your practices and people.

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There are various ways to determine if you are on schedule and profitable. In addition to traditional site visits, you can use technology from telematics and remote applications to track progress in near real-time from almost anywhere.

All construction projects have unique considerations, but there are several common questions you can ask to help you plan, execute, and learn with each one. Here are five important questions to think about when working on a new project.

Do I have all the data I need to put together an estimate and bid the job?

Having a set of plans doesn’t always tell the whole story. To set yourself up for success, it’s critical to have a thorough understanding of what the job site looks like before you ever think about submitting a final bid. Site owners, developers and general contractors will often have a walk-through prior to the bid date. Attend the walk-through meeting so you can see the actual conditions and elevations and determine if there are items on-site that are not on the blueprints or documents. Those will need to be addressed and considered as part of your bid.

A site visit gives you a chance to ask questions, as well. If there is something at the site that is not listed on the plans — such as a small pile of concrete — you can determine who is responsible for its removal or if it should somehow be incorporated into the sitework. There will be a cost, whether you are hauling it off-site or repurposing it, but the difference in your final estimate could be significant. 

“Putting a set of eyes, or sets of eyes, on the site makes a world of difference,” said Mike Salyers, senior product manager for Komatsu’s Smart Construction solutions. “Even better would be adding a drone to survey the site. That gives you the ability to create a 3D model of the site. Use that in conjunction with your observations and the 2D paper plans, and you have a great representation of the site and can build a highly accurate plan and a more competitive bid.”

Are the machines I have really the best ones for this job?

Think about this question before you put the blade or bucket into the ground. Using the proper machinery for a job is important. It doesn’t make sense to bring a tight tail swing excavator to a wide-open job site where mass amounts of material need to be moved quickly. Conversely, a standard excavator is not practical for confined spaces, such as digging close to a building or in a lane of traffic.

Each job site has unique characteristics. What works well on one job might not be the right choice for another.

“Knowing which machines are the best match for a particular job comes from experience. In the past, getting to the right answer often meant sitting for hours manually counting loads, or worse, waiting until a job was finished and calculating everything up to determine if you made or lost money,” Salyers said. “Today’s technology comes into play here. You can use it to get near-instantaneous, actionable information. If you’re on track, great. If not, adjust the machinery and processes.”

As a bonus, equipment with new technology could actually be attractive to prospective operators. With today’s labor shortage, that could be important. Automated intelligent machines with joystick controls and graphic screens may be appealing to generations who grew up gaming. Intelligent machine technology also brings new operators up to speed faster, making them proficient sooner.

“We have used our intelligent machines as a recruiting tool,” said one earthwork contractor. “Operators we talk to see that we are using them and want to be a part of a company that’s using advanced technology. Some of them comment that it’s like a video game.”

Improperly equipping a project can lead to frustration, lack of productivity and even decreased profits. If you don’t have what’s needed for a particular aspect, consider renting. This allows you to get the job done without a long-term commitment to machinery you only need for a short amount of time.

Am I leveraging and maximizing technology?

From initial GPS grading systems to software that replaces traditional pen-and-paper estimating, construction technology has grown considerably. That technology is allowing companies to track every phase of a project digitally and share that information with all relevant parties — owners, contractors, etc. Job site management software and apps are abundant and save time and paper costs.

Using a drone during prebid and estimating is only one way that companies can maximize their potential power. Flyovers done on a consistent basis provide valuable data you can use to compare where you are in relation to your initial plans to see if you are on track for planned profitability or if adjustments are needed.

Bommarito Construction, based in Fenton, Mo., uses drones to track jobsite progress. “I can take the information gathered from those and put it together to see the quantity of materials that have been moved,” said Project Manager Ryan Meers. “The technology gives us an accurate picture of what a site looks like at certain points of its development.”

You can also use data from the machines themselves. Nearly all new Komatsu machines have telematics that deliver production-related information such as hours moving earth versus idle time, modes used, and more. This data can be used to track job-site practices and ensure operators are using the machines and matching them to the materials and applications necessary to help maximize efficiency and productivity.

Telematics let project and fleet managers see information remotely in near real time, so they can make faster decisions if changes are needed. There are also applications available through desktop and laptop computers, as well as smartphones and tablets, that let you make plan changes and see what operators see remotely, saving you time and the expense of driving to the job site.

Today’s machines are more technologically advanced, too. Remember those early days of GPS grading when you needed bolt-on components that got damaged and had to be taken down and put up every day? They are still around but might not be for long.  New equipment now has that technology built in.

“Companies are saving time and money and outpacing the competition that are still using the old methods,” said Salyers. “Technology allows you to change modes and match the machine to the material and application.”

What am I learning from the project?

Rick Hood, owner of Rick’s Plumbing & Excavating Inc., based in Hot Springs, Ark., is an example of what can happen if you are observant and open to new ideas. He started out in plumbing, but his company has since grown to offer many services related to earthmoving, home building and remodeling and constructing cement block buildings.

“As I was putting in pipe, I watched framers put up houses and how footing guys tied steel and poured concrete,” Hood said. “When opportunities came along, I told myself I could do the same. I believe to grow you have to be willing to take some chances. I did, and they paid off.”

With technology, you don’t have to physically be on the job site to track production or rely on timecards and anecdotal information to see if your schedule and budget line up. Learning to use technology and apply data to job site practices more quickly is a great way to grow.

"Every job should be a learning opportunity, not only for yourself but your team, too,” said Salyers. “Collaborate with each other to assess your practice and see where improvements can be made. If you are a business owner with years of experience, pass your knowledge on and help your staff members grow. Additionally, don’t be afraid to listen to them with an open mind. They just might have a great idea that will increase your production and profitability.”

What do I do with my profits?

There are many ways to use the money you make from projects to help your business. Some suggestions include using the profits to grow your business, paying down or refinancing debt, investing in your staff, or saving for a rainy day. It’s always a great idea to talk to your financial adviser to determine what’s best for you and your business.

“You don’t have to make all-or-nothing decisions about what to do with your cash once your company reaches the black,” according to the article “5 Things to Do With Your Small Business Profits.” “You may choose to leave some cash in the company to increase its value, pay a dividend, or give your employees raises. You could buy a new piece of equipment and increase your own salary. It’s up to you and your goals for running your business. Being in the black just means you have a lot more choices and opportunities.”

Asking questions to ensure you have enough information to estimate and bid a project is critical, and so is learning from your practices and people.