Teachers. McAninch, Jahren sponsored class.

When he graduates this year, Nels Overgaard, a 22-year-old student at Iowa State University, plans to start up his own construction business. “He’s an entrepreneur,” says Charles T. Jahren, a professor in charge of the school’s construction engineering program.

One of Overgaard’s last chances to prepare for the competitive work ahead was a new class that Ames-based Iowa State offered this spring on digital earthmoving. “Everybody knows that GPS is out there, but they don’t always know how it works,” he says.

The new project controls are changing the lives of surveyors, engineers and contractors so fast that Jahren decided to organize the new class, which was the first of its kind when it opened in January. He drew on nearby McAninch Corp. for teaching help and content. Having the company that pioneered the use of digital earthmoving next door is “kind of like trying to take a sip of water from a fire hose,” he says. One of the main lecturers was Tim Tometich, McAninch’s GPS manager.

Over eight weeks, students received a comprehensive view of digital design and earthmoving. They learned to shoot topographical surveys with a $25,000 portable “rover”— a tall staff topped with a circular radio antenna—and progressed to moving dirt on autopilot with a $500,000 bulldozer.

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  • Chris Mazur, a GPS specialist at regional equipment dealer Ziegler Inc., kicked off the class with a historical perspective on how digital machine controls have developed since the late 1970s, beginning with two-dimensional, laser and sonic guidance systems and moving to today’s three-dimensional GPS and robotic modules. Contractors using 3-D controls can achieve grade tolerances of between 0.1 and 0.01 ft and complete their work in nearly half the time of manual methods. “The machine is checking grade by itself,” Mazur said.

    Field Day. Students like Overgaard (right) learn to take surveys with GPS rovers.

    Tometich took over the lectern with an in-depth look into the challenging use of 3-D controls in the field. He related lessons learned from early projects when Dwayne McAninch, the company’s chairman and CEO, was starting to use GPS. During a runway expansion of Des Moines International Airport in 2000, McAninch surveyors used portable GPS rovers to estimate the 5.2-million-cu-yd job in four days. It traditionally would have taken them four weeks. That allowed the company to get equipment on the job faster and complete it within 90 working days. “That’s when it really hit Dwayne’s head that this is the way to go,” Tometich says.

    Jahren brought together future designers and contractors. Hillary Isebrands, a 32-year-old doctoral student in Iowa State’s civil engineering program, says one thing she learned is that “part of the disconnect” in 3-D earthmoving is that “contractors are ahead of where the designers are.”

    On the last day of the class in March, Dwayne McAninch told the class that he was proud of their interest, promising: “I will be your champion in the future.”

    (Photos by Tudor Hampton for ENR)