By Larry Trojak

The hallmark of most highly-successful companies is the ability to adapt to change. Though it might seem daunting just to maintain the status quo in today’s challenging business environment, the truth is, “good enough” simply isn’t good enough any longer. Companies must evolve just as the landscape around them does.

Case in point: when confronted with a change in regulatory policy affecting how its stockpiles could be verified, coal mining operations in central Alabama demanded immediate compliance from the engineering firms that oversee that activity for them. Those firms had a serious decision to make: find a way to meet the customer’s new demands or risk losing that part of their business (or worse yet, losing the customer altogether).

For PERC Engineering, which counts several mine and quarry operators as some of its most key clients, that scenario was real and its decision was gutsy. The firm supplemented its traditional surveying strengths with a new GLS-1000 laser scanner from Topcon Positioning Systems. The result has been a new component to its business, additional market possibilities and, most importantly, a satisfied customer.

Getting the Numbers
Founded in 1981 with a staff of five, PERC Engineering (the acronym originally stood for Permitting, Engineering, Reclamation and Consulting) has grown to between 40 and 50 personnel, and offers a broad range of services covering everything from civil engineering, to testing, surveying, and mine engineering. According to 26-year veteran Lynell Early, the company’s vice president of surveying, doing work of one kind or another for area mines has been a big part of the company’s focus for a long time.

“The Warrior coalfield runs through this area and, as a result, has spawned a number of coal companies which have managed to remain operational, even in these tough times,” Early said. “We provide a number of services for the mines—as well as for area limestone and aggregate quarries—one of which is verifying onsite inventories. That can include piles of material that have already been mined or quarried, or material that remains in place awaiting such action.”

Early said there are alternative methods to verification, such as tracking volumes as they leave a site by truck, or relying upon aerial photography.

“The mine operator could weigh each truck as it leaves, but that’s inefficient and it would be far too costly to slow them down for weighing. Aerial photography can be a bit on the costly side as well but, more importantly, it puts the operator totally at the mercy of the weather. If the site is clouded in, there’s simply no chance of an aerial photo taking place. So, many of the operators turned to engineering firms like us to survey the piles or benches and give them their numbers. And that’s what we did for a lot of years.”

Changing Their Mines
The change in practice at PERC’s clients operations was the result of a mandate from the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) which said mine operators had to ensure the safety of any personnel walking on piles of material which had reclaim tunnels beneath them. According to Early, traditional surveying of a client’s material piles—many of which did, in fact, have tunnels beneath them—couldn’t be done without walking the piles.

“We looked at a number of alternative ways to stay with the traditional surveying approach while, at the same time, complying with the MSHA mandate,” Early said. “But, they were either too cumbersome or too slow. Fortunately for us, we’d been regularly attending seminars our equipment supplier, Earl Dudley Inc. in Birmingham, had been putting on, several of which covered the use of Topcon’s GLS-1000 Laser Scanner. We didn’t know it at the time, but we were looking at the tool that would help us meet our customer’s needs and MSHA’s challenge.”

By nature of what it is designed to do, Topcon’s GLS-1000 was a perfect fit for PERC Engineering’s needs. The unit sends out a laser beam that captures data at 3,000 points per second at a range of 500 ft to a typical surface