(Photo by Michael Goodman for ENR)

Inside a small conference room in West Des Moines, Iowa, a high-tech showdown was taking place. At one end of the table sat engineers from the world’s largest equipment builder. At the other end sat engineers from a major supplier of surveying gear. The two groups were locked in a high-stakes fight over technology potentially worth hundreds of millions of dollars in future revenue. Stuck in the middle was Dwayne McAninch, the humble referee. “I’m not interested in being a hot dog,” he says.

Omniscient. Operators can work directly with engineering files. (Photo courtesy of the Mcaninch Corporation)

An earthmoving contractor from southern Iowa, McAninch brought order to the confusion that Caterpillar Inc. and Trimble Navigation Ltd. faced when they co-developed groundbreaking technology designed to automate the repetitive earthmoving business. Eager to explore the possibilities, the chairman and CEO of McAninch Corp. helped them focus on what the customer really needed and convinced the equipment and technology giants to retool designs and test prototypes on his equipment in the field. After pioneering its use on earthmoving projects, McAninch set out on a quest to teach the construction industry about the benefits of digital grading controls, while the two former competitors went on to form a lucrative partnership.

On the Board. Dispatcher Craig Kinzie confers with McAninch in front of a digital display of the firm’s fleet. (Photo by Michael Goodman for ENR)

That was seven years ago. What emerged from the meeting was the start of “stakeless” construction, where heavy equipment operators take cues from a computer screen rather than thousands of wooden stakes in the ground. Old-fashioned grade markers are not yet obsolete, but they are dwindling and surveyors could not be happier. “It is the biggest advancement I have ever seen,” says McAninch, who has been moving earth for half a century.

McAninch, 69, is driving earthmoving—an old-line construction business—into the digital age. He is the industry’s “missionary” for three-dimensional grade controls, says Steven W. Berglund, president and CEO of Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Trimble. James W. Owens, chairman and CEO of Peoria, Ill.-based Caterpillar, says that “Dwayne’s been a real pioneer” in digital earthmoving.

Earthmover. Father and son, then and now (top left and right)
Former President Clinton, Glennis and Dwayne share a laugh (middle leftt); McAninch gets Iowa Gov. Vilsack geared up about digital
earthmoving (middle right); Owens and McAninch talk shop (bottom)
(All photos courtesy of the Mcaninch Corporation except middle right Tudor Hampton for ENR)

Since 1999, the man who steered the controls’ early development has gambled millions of dollars on the once-unproven technology. Through word of mouth, he educated owners, engineers and contractors by producing videos, giving talks at conferences and inviting competitors to Des Moines to see his machines work. He made the unusual decision to share performance data with the rest of the world. McAninch believed that open communication would help the industry warm up to digital grade controls. Otherwise, “we’d have had a wonderful idea that didn’t go very far,” he says.

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  • New vendors have arrived, spurring competition and lowering prices, as more contractors are going digital. They consider the “smart” controls to be the biggest advancement in earthmoving in more than 50 years. Contractors are saving developers “a ton of money” with it, says A. Ross Myers, CEO of Worcester, Pa.-based American Infrastructure.

    For pioneering the use of breakthrough project controls, popularizing them and pushing the earthmoving business to innovate, the editors of Engineering News-Record have select ed Dwayne McAninch to receive this year’s Award of Excellence.

    GPS Genesis

    Only recently has Des Moines been the center of the digital earthmoving universe. In 1994, the Dept. of Defense completed a constellation of 24 global positioning satellites now orbiting about 11,000 miles above the Earth, ending an ambitious, 20-year program that cost nearly $14 billion.

    The satellites gave the U.S. military unprecedented tactical benefits, but they also were a boon to the private sector. McAninch discovered GPS while visiting Caterpillar’s research facility tucked away in Mossville, Ill. At the time, GPS was primitive. Low-grade receivers limited use to a few hours each day, but some thought the devices eventually could drive vehicles autonomously.

    When Caterpillar rolled out its first GPS dozer controller in 1997, McAninch was the first contractor to know about it. He responded with great interest. “I’m a dirt mover,” he says. “However you can move it the quickest, the best and the least expensive is what I look for.”

    Supplying GPS gear to Caterpillar was Trimble Navigation. It gave the equipment giant the tools to develop the early controller, called the “Computer-Aided Earthmoving System.” CAES caught on fast among mining and military users but never received accolades in construction. McAninch pressed Caterpillar for a more accurate controller.

    Chuck Schaidle, a Cat research manager, introduced McAninch to Trimble, which released its own dozer control module in 1999 called “SiteVision.”

    While equipment engineers were refining GPS controls in the laboratory, McAninch would soon perfect them in the field. Eager to take his company digital, McAninch invited delegates from both firms to Des Moines for a conference. Superintendents preferred SiteVision for its precision—about 0.1-ft tolerance—but they also wanted a module that came with Caterpillar’s field support.

    McAninch, who runs a $200-million-a-year business, was the unlikely matchmaker. “He then took on a role as really being the customer advocate for bringing Trimble and Caterpillar together,” says Mark Nichols, general manager of Caterpillar Trimble Control Technologies LLC, a Dayton, Ohio-based joint venture announced at the 2002 CONEXPO show (ENR 4/1/02 p. 10). Midwest dealer Ziegler Inc. became the world’s first joint Cat/Trimble equipment supplier. Today, the joint-venture’s advisory board consists of two Caterpillar people, two Trimble people and McAninch.

    Industry Icon

    McAninch’s subsequent field tests helped turn machine control into a global phenomenon. He spent millions retrofitting his machines with the controls while industry-wide, adoption was slow because there was no real data available on benefits of the devices, which cost up to $100,000 per unit.

    McAninch decided to go out on a teaching spree, producing a seminal video containing real field data to help spread the word globally. “We passed them out like candy,” says Joe McNamara, vice president of Trimble dealer Spectra Integrated Systems Inc. in Charlotte, N.C. Early users, he says, would “get into the technology and then hoard the information.”

    Today, builders in Australia are using it to speed up highway projects. In the Midwest, GPS-guided machines owned by Omaha-based Kiewit Inc. are moving thousands of cubic yards of earth each month on a $15-billion expansion at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. The technology also helped in the recent homebuilding boom, with computer-aided grade controls accelerating project delivery “by great lengths,” says Mike Crawford, CEO of Sukut Construction Inc., a large user in Santa Ana, Calif.

    Public authorities are writing 3-D construction methods into project specifications. But they are moving slower than private developers (ENR 10/3 p. 44). Take, for example, the $5.3-billion tollway expansion program near Chicago, where a 13-mile extension of Interstate 355 requires 9 million cu yd of excavation through 2007. Sharif Abou-Sabh, senior vice president for Kansas City, Mo.-based program manager HNTB Corp., says the road would be a “perfect application” for GPS grade controls, but it was designed before they were in regular use.

    The tide is shifting as other vendors have arrived. Since 2000, GPS surveying competitors like Topcon Positioning Systems Inc. and Leica Geosystems Inc. have stepped into the ring. “We’re just scratching the surface,” says Ray O’Connor, president and CEO of Livermore, Calif.-based Topcon. Similarly, software companies like San Rafael, Calif.-based Autodesk and Exton, Pa.-based Bentley Systems Inc. have written 3-D control protocols into their popular design suites.

    + Enlarge + Enlarge
    Transformation. McAninch converts plan (left) into a digital model (right) so it can grade the finished product (below). (All photos courtesy of the Mcaninch Corporation)

    Engineering firms are just beginning to catch up with contractors. Between 5 and 10% of all earthmoving machines now are equipped with satellite controls. That correlates with the percentage of civil engineers designing in 3-D digital models, which the machines need to interpret survey data. The change has put pressure on engineers “not to produce drawings, but models,” says Chris Bradshaw, Autodesk vice president.

    According to McAninch and other users, the new machine controls increase safety and cut schedules by as much as 30%. Charles T. Jahren, professor-in-charge of Iowa State University’s construction engineering program in Ames, says the benefits are “just too big to ignore.” In January, he started the first college class on 3-D controls. Tim Tometich, McAninch’s 29-year-old GPS manager, was a guest lecturer.

    Open Book
    Firm tells its story.

    Last year, McAninch Corp. produced another seminal booklet, GPS 101 for Earthmoving Contractors. The company’s outreach is helping educate a new generation of engineers and “pushing the industry to another standard,” says Eric Jestrab, a 23-year-old graduate student in Iowa State’s civil engineering program.

    Sharing is something that many contractors typically do not do. But McAninch is “an open, honest, transparent guy,” says Myers, whose firm now is one of the world’s largest machine control users and has consulted with McAninch in the past. Glenn De Stigter, chairman of The Weitz Co. in Des Moines, calls McAninch “the icon of the dirt guys.”

    Humble Roots

    McAninch’s ability to move earth with atomic-clock accuracy sprang from a lifelong love of bulldozers. Growing up on the family farm near Des Moines, he was fascinated by the roar of heavy machines and quickly learned how to run them. “I was a pretty good operator,” he says.

    John Dwayne McAninch was born in Polk County, Iowa, on July 18, 1936, to George and Gladys McAninch. Dwayne started his own earthmoving business at age 17. It was the spring of 1954. He convinced his father to sell him a used crawler...