High-definition surveying services

September 2004 » Feature Articles
Three-dimensional laser scanning, which is becoming more commonly known as high-definition surveying, is a fairly new technology that has gained acceptance and increased use quickly in the geomatics industry. Additionally, the hardware and software tools' abilities and userfriendliness have matured significantly, even within its short lifespan.

What to consider before investing

BY SHANON FAUERBACH, P.E.

Three-dimensional laser scanning, which is becoming more commonly known as high-definition surveying, is a fairly new technology that has gained acceptance and increased use quickly in the geomatics industry. Additionally, the hardware and software tools' abilities and userfriendliness have matured significantly, even within its short lifespan.

Many firm leaders now are deciding whether or not to make the leap into this new arena, and if so, how. They know it can require a significant investment for the firm and its staff. While some firms have ventured into the technology by subcontracting to others who already provide the services, many firms are looking at acquiring or renting their own systems. Most turnkey systems cost more than $100,000, which adds an extra measure of scrutiny to the purchase-decision process.

Additionally, staff members have to be trained on the technology, which costs time and money. Staff members must be committed to the new technology and the learning curve they will face. Although fundamental surveying principles apply to laser-scanning projects, practical implementation of laser scanning is different enough from standard surveying that classroom and field training, as well as plenty of practice time, are important. Of course, clients also may have to be educated about its advantages, and this can prove to be a time-intensive and challenging proposition. Yet, the significant promise of what high-definition surveying can contribute to a firm's bottom line put such obstacles in perspective.

According to Geoff Jacobs, senior vice president of strategic marketing for Leica Geosystems HDS Inc., a division of Leica Geosystems AG, many civil engineering and surveying firms have used the technology to expand their businesses. It has helped them capture new clients, provide additional services to existing clients, and in some cases, enter new markets.

"In practice, many firms are providing high-definition surveying services as added value for existing clients to reinforce their firm's relationship with them," he said. Also, the technology can increase profitability and a firm's surveying productivity. Jacobs added, "The technology's growth has been so significant in some geographic areas that some firms have invested in it to minimize the risk of losing key clients to other firms that are offering the services." Likewise, firms that position themselves as "fullservice" in terms of surveying offerings have found that they need 3-D laser scanning to maintain this position.

In addition, adopting new technology, such as high-definition surveying, helps firms with employee retention. It attracts high-end surveying, engineering, and architectural talent because firm reputation and sophistication are key considerations for job searchers.

For the clients, the benefits include significant cost savings and shorter project duration, often with fewer hassles. For example, Jacobs explained that when using laser scanning you could avoid the need to set up scaffolding, the need to close traffic lanes, or the need to implement other logistical aspects associated with traditional field surveying procedures.

"In many cases, it's flat out faster and cheaper, even if other logistical aspects don't apply," he said.

Additionally, many clients believe the quality and completeness of the data is better than that of traditional survey methods, thus reducing downstream design and construction risks. This completeness also can allow the scan data to be re-used for subsequent client needs on the same site or structure, with almost immediate turnaround.

Key considerations If you are interested in high-definition surveying technology, you should consider the following before purchasing a system: When is the best time to make such an investment? Some civil engineering and surveying consultants wait until they have a large project lined up to make an investment of this type. In that way, revenues from the first project can be applied to make a big dent in the ownership cost.

The disadvantage of waiting for a big project is that you risk losing the competitive race if you wait too long.

Is our firm involved in the right types of projects to make purchasing a laser-scanning system worthwhile? Jacobs said, "Sites with a lot of detail and structures that are tall or complex, such as tunnels, bridges, plants, and building facades, are good candidates for laser scanning." Busy roads also are good candidates because you can capture road surfaces with high accuracy, even with traffic flowing and without having to implement extra traffic control. The technology typically is not used for traditional boundary or cadastral surveys, but rather for engineering, topographic, as-built, and detail surveys.

Are there alternatives to purchasing a system? Some firms subcontract an experienced service provider. Of course, the worry with such an arrangement is that the subcontractor could steal the client. However, numerous subcontracts have worked out well for the lead firm, the subcontractor, and the client.

Another alternative is to receive formal training on the system and software, and then rent them as needed. Some firms buy the software, which typically costs around $20,000, and rent the hardware as needed. Today, many dealers provide rental services. Manufacturers or knowledgeable dealers can provide training.

How are the services priced? Various pricing practices are being used today.

According to Jacobs, for field services, a common method is to add to the traditional crew rate (which allots for one truck, a total station, a two-man crew, et cetera) an hourly or daily rate for the scanner as a separate line item.

Other firms use a premium crew rate to adjust for the fact that they are bidding the job using a scanner crew, rather than a traditional one.

The labor costs for office work are priced at CAD operator rates or at a premium, since the technician requires expertise.

"Lump sum pricing, if permitted, can be lucrative once a firm has enough experience in cost estimating high-definition surveying projects," Jacobs said. On some projects, firms price services at or slightly below the cost of doing the project traditionally, and pocket the savings. In other circumstances, firms bid a premium for using a 3-D scanner, knowing that the client will pay more for data collection to complete the project faster, to obtain more rich data, or to experience other benefits offered by this technology.

One firm's story Shared experiences are great learning tools.

Read on to get a first-hand look at how a Danvers, Mass.-based civil engineering and surveying firm entered and succeeded in the laser-scanning service market.

Meridian Associates, Inc., a 50-person civil engineering, surveying, and landscape architecture services firm, with three offices in Massachusetts and Florida, provides valueadded services using leading-edge technology.

This business model helped fuel 10 percent to 15 percent growth for the firm during each of the past 15 years. The firm's investment in highdefinition surveying technology contributed heavily to its continued strong, growth.

The firm first purchased a laser-scanning system in 2001, at a time when it did not have a specific project lined up for the system.

Believing strongly in the future of the technology, as well as the staff's ability to market and deploy it successfully, the firm leaders took a leap of faith. The team was eager to inform clients and prospective clients about the addedvalue, leading-edge service that it could offer with the new technology.

Although laser scanning can provide significant benefits for clients, in the beginning, Meridian found it challenging to market the services, and spent considerable effort educating clients. According to Don Bowen, Jr., P.L.S., a principal with Meridian, "Once our clients understood the potential benefits and felt more comfortable with the technology itself, we turned to identifying specific projects and opportunities that would provide our clients with the greatest return on their investment in our services." Meridian purchased Cyra/Leica laser-scanning hardware, along with Cyclone 3.0 office software. Since training was a priority, two staff members spent a week at Cyra/Leica's headquarters in San Ramon, Calif., for combined classroom and field training. Afterward, the crew practiced on test projects during a threemonth period before it felt comfortable and confident enough to bid on projects.

They experienced expected challenges as they acclimated to the new data-collection method, and learned important keys to successful project execution. According to Bowen, some of these included the following: mastering project execution in the field and in the office; making sure that geo-referencing and registration (i.e., stitching multiple scans together) are done accurately; and establishing sound office workflows for creating the desired deliverables, including standard, 2-D plans and elevations from the rich point cloud data.

After this preparation period, Meridian Associates won its first, major laser-scanning project. "The project was a great success," Bowen said, "both from a project execution standpoint and a profitability standpoint." Today, Meridian uses high-definition surveying systems heavily for as-builts, engineering, and detail and architectural surveys. Bowen said, "Laser scanning has proved to be most advantageous on projects with complex geometry, and on those with vertical or overhead structures that are otherwise difficult to reach, making accurate surveying problematical." Laser scanning technology has benefited Meridian Associates' business as well. The advantages offered by the technology helped the firm secure many new clients, some of which have since retained traditional surveying and engineering services from the firm as well.

The technology also opened the firm up to new markets, such as heavy industrial; entrenched it more heavily in other markets, such as architectural, especially historic renovation projects; and allowed it to enter new geographic regions.

Additionally, Bowen shared that existing clients have been more than satisfied with quicker turn-around times afforded by the new services the firm could offer. For example, on one project, Meridian Associates was able to provide architectural as-built surveys within two weeks, instead of five weeks.

Meridian Associates has seen the adoption of laser scanning increase, thus reducing the need for marketing efforts, and has been pleased to see more cost-effective and userfriendly software and hardware develop to support the technology. "We believe that our expertise with this technology provides us with a solid, competitive edge," Bowen said, "and our staff is excited for the future of highdefinition surveying and our ongoing role in its use."


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