Hands On: Chicago Steel Tape; A Plethora Of Products

Some time back in this column I reported on a couple of metal detectors, one of which was the then relatively new Chicago Steel Tape Magna-Trak 100. When the opportunity came to visit the factory, I was eager to go. In addition to a Hands On test of metal detectors and a prism/target assembly I felt that a behind-the-scenes look at the plant and products would benefit curious types like me. Besides metal detectors, CST manufacturers and sells many items for the land surveyor. I did try the new Magna-Trak 102 which I will discuss later.

CST actually has two facilities in Illinois, one in Bradley and the other in Watseka. The company outgrew the Bradley location, which is now used mainly for manufacturing and fabrication. The second one does some manufacturing and has recently been expanded again to accommodate warehousing and distribution. The company has expanded more than 600 percent in the last six years.

Impressed With Quality Approach

I drove to the first facility, where I was given a quick tour of the research and design area and the production area by Duard Wilson. My background includes tool and die design and the smell of hot cutting oil brought fond memories. What's this got to do with surveying? Just as you recognize quality equipment by brand name and reputation, so does a tool designer recognize equipment in his field. I saw familiar makes and models of lathes, mills, drills, etc. that showed me CST is careful about the quality of the basic components of what it makes and sells. This impressed me, as did the workmanlike manner and expertise of the techniciansI observed. It is sort of like recognizing a good instrument person when you see one running the gun. You get a feeling of confidence and trust. From this facility I followed Wilson down to the Watseka facility.

There I met Ash Puri, Vice President/General Manager, who took me around, and also Dennis Nardoni, the owner of CST. They told me that the reason they do their own fabricating is due to the relatively small number of parts the company produces in comparison to, say, the big three auto makers or the electronics industry. Most outside production shops are geared to multimillion runs of parts, and smaller runs often find themselves on the back burner. The shops have to jump for their best clients, too! Smaller, custom shops naturally charge a lot more. So to provide the best value to the surveyor, and to control quality, CST acquired the machinery to do it themselves. A state-of-the-art metal coating, not painting, system was installed recently. The "paint" actually is a powdered material that is bonded to the metal by electrical methods. Then it is baked on in minutes, virtually eliminating drying of any kind and yet environmentally safe. Of more concern to the surveyor is the improved durability of the finish. It does not chip or wear off easily.

Changed Mind About Tripod Clamps

Tripods, tripods, and more tripods. Aluminum, wood and, to my surprise, a lot of recognized brand names of total station manufacturers. Noting my reaction, Puri informed me that they are the largest producers of tripods for the "private label" market. That is, they make them and put, say, Craftsman, Spectra-Physics, Topcon, Nikon, Pentax, Leica, Sokkia, etc. names on them. By making them, I mean they cast the metal parts, feet, heads, etc., process and coat the wood or machine the aluminum and then assemble them. Fiberglass components are also used where they can be to good advantage. They also make the clamps, including the newer lever-action type. Some of my old habits die hard and, being skeptical of the lever variety, I asked to pick one out at random and to set it up to see how good the clamping action was. I picked one, set it on the floor and then hoisted my own weight on it with no slippage at all. This is something that my threaded wing-nut-style clamps can also do, but only with heavy "torquing" on the screw. It was impressive enough for me to see their value, especially when speed of setting up is considered. Oh yes, the clamping pressure is adjustable. So, regardless of the brand name on yours, you may actually be using a tripod made right here in America by American workers. Pretty neat to my way of thinking.

Next were the "Tru-Lock" prism poles. I've had enough vertical misclosure on trig level runs with the threaded knurled-brass-knob types to make me wish for something better! After a couple of weeks in the field, the dust inhibits their smooth operation and you really have to torque them to keep the prism height. Even with that, they sometimes slip downward when shooting a topo. In my practice, I extend them and then pull hard with some "weighty" leverage to check the slippage and take them apart and clean the threads when necessary.

New Prism Pole Locking Mechanism

Even some other maker's older style clamping mechanisms do not maintain constant prism height under field conditions. So, in the manner of the tripods, with Puri's permission, I grabbed one, extended it and put some pull on it. It didn't budge. When I got to the point of almost pulling with my entire weight by bending my knees with no slippage, I stopped for fear I would bend the pole. Although I have not given it a true field test, it seems more positive than most that I've used to-date. Yet it didn't mark up the pole. Maybe some readers can provide some feedback on your experience with these newer locking mechanisms.

I was impressed with the obvious commitment to improve these basic components of everyday surveying. Most of us are so used to setting up tripods and using prism poles or, in the case of GPS, antennae poles, that we tend to take them for granted. That is, until we encounter a problem. It is nice to know that a manufacturer is listening and striving to improve even these basic tools.

CST also makes differential leveling rods, bipods, tripods, tribrachs and hand levels. You name it and they probably make or sell it. Just get their latest catalog to see for yourself. You will find most everything except total stations, including laser levels, both the contractor variety and the familiar carpenters variety. Two novel items are the lighted safety vest and lighted tripod belts. These come under the category of "Why didn't I think of that." Night work immediately comes to mind, but of even more value is the high visibility in poor ambient lighting conditions, say fog or haze. This is important not just from just a safety perspective, but for target acquisition too. My interest was piqued by the prism, prism targets, tribrachs and tribrach adapters that they carry/manufacture for every major name brand in active use today, except for the Kern-style, four-legged tripods/adapters.

Automatic levels and open standard transits are made for different markets under different brand names. CST has recently purchased the Berger line of equipment, familiar to many builders and patrons of Sears' Craftsman products. Unlike most mergers or acquisitions, CST did not throw out all their records. Sensitive to the role of land surveying in history, the records of the Berger Instrument Company, from Berger's first to the present, have been saved and put in safe keeping by the folks at CST. And they are proud of doing so.

Old Babbitt Chain Machine

On the way to the locator area, sitting in a corner, is the machine that started it all. The machine that put the babbitt metal on a steel tape automatically at precise intervals is still in working condition and could be used if needed. I was pleased to see the origin of the company.

Once in the metal locator area, I was guided by the man who designs them, Alan Hemetta. He's the guy behind the new "erase" feature. Locators were everywhere, in all stages of production. Here is where they are calibrated. I was given a demonstration that made it look easy. Even I could handle it, maybe. This is also the area where they are repaired. Most locator repairs are shipped back to their owners in 48 hours or less from receipt in this department. This is possible due to the use of sub-assembled components in the original manufacture or as replacements in the repair. The unit I saw being repaired as I entered was calibrated before Alan and I grabbed a Model 102 from stock and went out to the test site.

We walked out to the field, where ferrous items are buried at different intervals and depths. Our unit got them all. Next we went over to the chain-link fence that surrounded the field and used the 102 to locate pins within inches of the fence. As soon as I passed over the iron, the locator screamed from the fence's influence. Pressing the erase button silenced it, and by withdrawing slightly I could pinpoint the iron. This procedure was repeated several times at different locations with the same results. Alan could probably have given me a detailed technical explanation for this, but I was more interested in what the unit did than how it does it. I'll leave the details to him and just enjoy the ability to locate irons near chain-link fences. It also did not seem to make any difference as to whether we were between or at the fence posts, pressing the erase button achieved similar results.

The Ability To Listen To Customers

I asked for and was given a catalog to read on my way home on the plane. Prior to my visit, I was under the impression that CST made locators, tripods and tapes. Now I know better. I suggest you use the cheaper method, and request a catalog from your nearest dealer, but you might, with advance request, get a quick tour for yourself. You'll probably leave with the impression I did. Here is a company with pride in its people and the ability to listen to its customers.

Al Pepling is the New Equipment Editor for the magazine.

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