Montana Contractor Embraces Trimble GNSS Grade Control on Compact Track Loaders

Eagle River Construction & Excavation Cat track loader with Trimble grade control 2

Whitefish, Montana-based Eagle River Construction & Excavation LLC has made a name for itself as a go-to specialty contractor for commercial earthworks and utilities jobs throughout Montana’s Flathead Valley. Founder and owner Corey Hale recalls building his career in construction following his work in the oil fields.

“In the early days, I was a one-man operation using a mini excavator to take on small jobs such as spec houses,” he said. “Largely self-taught, I spent a lot of time improving my skills both as an operator and as a project manager and emerging business owner.”

He officially founded Eagle River in 2017, soon after getting his first commercial job performing the earthworks for a new Starbucks building. Hale recalled, “That opportunity gave me an entry into the commercial space and to the potential of GNSS that I had seen on some equipment.”

Subsequently, he contacted Caleb Ihrig at SITECH Western States to look at pricing, and soon after bought his first base and rover to check grades. In 2022, he tested the Trimble Earthworks Grade Control Platform on a dozer.

“That opened my eyes to what machine control, and specifically Trimble Earthworks, could do for me,” he continued.

He then considered putting grade control on one of his excavators and a compact track loader. “It was during this time that Caleb brought up the Trimble Works Plus Subscription option,” he said.

Trimble earthworks on a big excavator

The Trimble Works Plus subscription is a flexible program available in the U.S. and Canada that lets contractors invest in the latest hardware and software. The fixed monthly fee includes installation, hardware and software upgrades, full factory warranty and repair or replacement of accidentally damaged hardware, and SITECH support for everything from on-machine grade control systems, to off-machine base stations, to data collectors and rovers. Also, every subscription bundle includes a single license of Trimble WorksManager and Trimble WorksOS field-to-office software to easily transfer data to and from devices over the internet.

“I really liked the fact that it’s just a monthly payment over a certain amount of time,” said Hale. “But the biggest benefit is that my hardware and software is always current. This program has made it super easy to invest in GNSS across my fleet — and I have the full support of SITECH and Trimble.”

Currently, Hale has his base stations, rovers and Trimble Earthworks licenses on his subscription.

“If I buy any more machines or need any more Trimble equipment, I will definitely go through the Works Plus subscription — it just makes investment in technology much more manageable,” he said.

The Talent/Technology Crossover

Eagle River Construction & Excavation Cat Track loader with Trimble grade control

The flexibility to invest in technology across his fleet through the Works Plus subscription has provided Hale with an unexpected benefit of talent development.

“Like many in the industry, we’re having a hard time finding operators,” he said. “When we do find someone, even if they don’t have a lot of experience, the technology helps get them up to speed very quickly. The software is user friendly, and once they use it a few times, it’s pretty straightforward, especially on a dozer.”

While the excavator is a bit more complicated, Hale says the Trimble Earthworks “autos” or automatics mode is a lifesaver. “I’ve taught everyone on my team how to use it on every piece of equipment including the excavator. It’s super simple because the operator controls the stick, and Trimble Earthworks controls the boom and bucket. It’s been really nice.”

Competitive Advantage

Eagle River Construction & Excavation Trimble Cat compact track loader

Hale recalls one of his first jobs with GNSS-enabled equipment was in Columbia Falls, supporting the construction of a new 18,000-square-foot ACE Hardware store. As the earthworks subcontractor, Eagle River was tasked to dig and pave the parking lot, sidewalks and curbing, prepare retention ponds, a storm detention system and sanitary sewer systems and install erosion control. 

“We built the entire job using our 3D model and GNSS,” he said.

Hale’s workflow is entirely 3D. He receives the design files from the engineer, then has a local service build the model, loads the designs on the equipment with WorkManager and gets to work.

“We pretty much built this entire job off of my 3D model with Trimble Earthworks,” he added. “Interestingly, we couldn’t get the surveyors out there to survey the building corners because they were so busy — but we had the control network, so we got to work. It worked great.”

A more recent project is the earthwork on a senior affordable housing complex in Kalispell. As the earthworks subcontractor, Eagle River is tasked with all of the earthwork for the construction of the three story, 31-apartment structure. Those efforts include installing storm drains, digging and installing the water, fire and sewer utilities, paving the parking area and constructing curbs and gutters.

“We are doing this entire project with grade control. I dug 100% of the foundation with my Cat 320 hydraulic trackhoe excavator equipped with Trimble Earthworks. Once I completed a section, I verified the depth with the rover,” said Hale. “The whole process is straightforward and accurate. It’s definitely a huge time saver, while also saving on material costs.”

While he hasn’t calculated an ROI from using the GNSS, he sees benefits in operator efficiency, job productivity and accuracy, and customer satisfaction. His goal is to GNSS-enable all of his equipment and have his entire team — now numbering 10 operators — trained on every piece of equipment.

“I see that happening soon with help from the Works Plus subscription,” he said. “Once we have technology on everything, we can do projects faster with a smaller team. That makes us very competitive when bidding on ever more complex jobs against much larger earthworks contractors. That’s the GNSS advantage.”

Vicki Speed is a freelance writer focused on the trades.

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