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Digger Man Blog

by Nick Drew  |  Wed 30 Oct 2019

Easy Digging

Taking a look back at one of my Earthmovers articles which in part features Steve Armstrong an experienced operator who has embraced GPS machine control.

Easy Digging
Based in Bagshot, Surrey, the Wooldridge Group has seen many changes over the years since it was first founded by two brothers Ian and Graham Wooldridge in 1975, initially as a small agricultural firm baling hay and straw during the long summer months. As we all know, agricultural work can be hard going, especially during the winter months, as such the two brothers decided to look at other ways to provide some income. In a familiar scenario, they decided to purchase their very first excavator and a couple of road sweepers, which were to be the catalyst for what the company has become today. The Wooldridge Group of companies today has a turnover of £51 million and employs around 300+ people including sub-contractors. The business has continued to grow and diversify and is run as four separate divisions. Wooldridge Contractors was first established in 1984. This side of the business is heavily involved in housing development works for a number of leading house building clients including Bovis Homes, Linden Homes, Vanderbilt and Berkley Homes, with whom they have had a working relationship for over 20 years. The division runs an extensive fleet of 80 + machines including hydraulic excavators, dumpers and forklifts. Many of us will probably be more familiar with Wooldridge Demolition, which somewhat surprisingly was only established in 1997. The company is a high-profile part of the business and they are regular winners of Considerate Construction Awards, most recently securing the Gold Award for its Ergon House project. This arm of the business has its own fleet of specialist demolition spec machines and attachments including high-reach excavators. Wooldridge Plant was founded in 1982 to focus on road sweepers, of which they currently run 11 in total and in various sizes. These units predominantly cover areas in Surrey, Berkshire, Hampshire and West London. The other arm of the company is Heronsbrook Homes, which was established in 2001 with a focus on building top end bespoke housing in Chiswick, Burnham, Ealing, Ascot and Maidenhead. The Wooldridge Group’s excavators of choice come from the Hitachi stable and the fleet is dominated by the distinctive orange machines. Having said that, there are examples from other manufacturers in that fleet. There were plenty of Hitachi’s to see on the day of Earthmovers site visit to a Bovis Homes development in Wokingham, Berkshire, where Wooldridge Contractors are currently doing all the groundworks and infrastructure for around 250 + new homes Talking about the machines, Wooldridge Contractors Senior Site Manager Sean Donovan said, “As a company we tend to stick with Hitachi kit as we find that a vast majority of our long serving operators prefer them over anything else, mainly for their consistent smoothness of the hydraulics, power in the dig, and high levels of comfort in the cabs, at the end of the day, happy operators are productive operators!” Like many other companies at the moment, Wooldridge are investing heavily in GPS machine guidance systems, which it’s fair to say are definitely the future for our industry. Talking about this aspect Site Manager Sean said, “Initially we were worried that some of our older operators might struggle with all the new technology involved in these systems, but we have been pleasantly surprised to discover that it’s not the case at all, some of these guys have had to change a mind-set that they have had for over 20 years and it’s fair to say that most of them have adapted to it all very well”. Sean continued, “We have drawings all made up by our engineer, this site we are working on is a bit strange anyway, as we have a founding level, but no top of concrete level, so we design on the minimum amount of concrete they ask for and what’s more feasible depending on the depth of the founding level, it all depends on if it’s cheaper to build up in blockwork, or to bring the concrete level up for health and safety reasons, so it’s safer for the guys building the foundation”. “So ultimately the engineer designs the file, pops it onto a dongle, which is then plugged into the machine. This rules out the need for any old-style pins, no spray lines, enabling just the machine and its operator to dig that foundation, to the right depth, first time, and totally on his own with no need for any ground crew, which is safer for all concerned. It really is amazing how the technology is moving forward all the time”. One of the operators on site who has really embraced the 3D GPS system is Steve Armstrong who has been operating machines for some 36 years having first started back in 1983. Steve has been with the Wooldridge Group now for around 6 months operating a Hitachi Zaxis 135US-6, talking about his mount Steve said, “The Hitachi is what I would call the connoisseurs machine of choice for site work, this model in particular is great in this application, the zero tailswing and the dozer blade makes it the ideal tool house groundworks. The hydraulics on them is in my humble opinion, the best you can get, especially performing grading work, there is no “dip” when you pull in the dipper and boom, even from full stretch, it’s just a great all-round tool”. Steve continued, “With the machines compact dimensions, if I can get the tracks in a gap, I know I can move about safely. In addition having the dozer blade makes it so much more stable in the dig, it’s also very handy for levelling up the machine when digging footings, I’ll often track in sideways on to line up for a pull, then using the GPS I will zero myself up with the blade so I’m digging square in the ground not at an angle. This has been my first experience of using GPS systems on excavators, although I have used them on dozers previously, the Leica Icon 3D is a great bit of kit. We use it for all the roads, drainage and the footings, it’s so handy, like having a virtual footing in the ground, the lines never disappear, not like the old days following spray lines that are like a dog’s leg, the nice thing about this set up, is it’s so easy to use and makes my life a lot easier, just brilliant!”.
“I’m also a big fan of tiltrotator’s and am fully competent on them having spent time with one at a previous employer, once again a great piece of kit to have in the arsenal, that is my dream really, to have a tiltrotator combined with the GPS system, it would be the ultimate set up!”. On another section of the job one of Wooldridge’s Hitachi 225USR LC excavators, in the hands of another long-standing operator Jerry Moher, was busy digging for drainage in a new road, this machine is also fitted with a Leica Geosystems 3D GPS system and all excavation work was being undertaken using the guidance kit. All the drainage risings were being loaded onto one of the company’s Bell B25D articulated haulers and the trench would be backfilled with the appropriate material as specified in the plans. Every operator who has a GPS system fitted is responsible for its safety and the expensive removeable items such as the monitor and twin receivers are removed at the end of the shift, placed into safe storage and refitted in the mornings. Sean Donovan was keen to tell us about how the GPS improves progress on the jobsite, “Although it takes a bit of getting used to to start with but once the guys have got it, it’s fantastic. From my point of view, it’s just what the industry needs right now as a lot of the old skills are missing these days, every position on sites is stretched to the max nowadays and that’s right across the board from site agents to labourers, so this kind of technology really helps and will have a big role to play going forward. Overall the systems have been pretty reliable really, we’ve only had the odd hiccup when the servers have gone down, but I must also say that Leica have provided good back up with any issues”. Sean continued, “With GPS it’s great, you don’t have to rely on a man who may not turn up for work the next day and who might have taken the drawings home with him in his coat pocket, it’s all there in the machine or on a stick. It also frees up our engineers, who can now work remotely covering several jobs from one central office location, it really is money well spent as I see it”. The uptake of technology in the plant and machinery sector of the construction industry is really gathering pace now, in many ways manufacturers are taking on the standards which have been set by the agricultural sector over the past decade, I suspect this is just the beginning and predict exciting times ahead as more and more forward thinking companies like the Wooldridge Group embrace it.

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