Geo Week News

June 13, 2011

Quality surveyors being squeezed from both sides

The best thing about the recent Hexagon conference, with its accompanying HDS track, was the opportunity it gave me to sit with surveyors who’ve been scanning for years and get their take on how the market is shaping up. One thing I quickly realized: The early adopters are now stuck in the middle of two forces conspiring to steal their margin (by their way of thinking, anyway – hey, we were having beers, maybe I fell in with them a little bit). 

1. Newcomers to the scanning game who’ve identified the new technology as a wide-open market and are taking advantage of scanner price reductions by FARO (and now Leica’s C5) to get into the game. Because they’re brand-new and hungry for business, they’re willing to “buy” jobs by bidding low and saying yes to just about every customer demand. 

Of course, in the RFPs, the asset owners say that experience will be considered, but people in the field are finding that low-bid wins, especially in this economy, where pennies are being pinched everywhere. 

Guys who are more established, have larger operations and overhead, and who refuse to lose money on jobs are getting out-bid all over the place, leaving them soured on the business opportunity for scanning. Even worse, they’re often being called in by the guy who won the business when they need help. Let’s just say they’re being less than accommodating when that request comes in. 

What’s the solution here? Well, maybe these quality surveyors are just further behind the innovation curve than they think they are. Just because they were early adopters once doesn’t mean they’ve got their fingers on the pulse of the market forever. Do they need to take a look at their workflows and make sure they’re getting all the efficiencies they should be getting out of the technology?

Further, are they chasing the wrong jobs? Are their business development people qualifying the right leads? Price should certainly be a differentiator, but if the asset owner is fixated on price, maybe you need to walk away and show them what happens when you get what you pay for. Then offer politely to pick up the pieces later. 

Is it a buyers market? Almost certainly. There aren’t a lot of jobs out there for anyone. But it costs money to put together bids. Try to make sure it’s worth it before you throw your hat in the ring if your a laser scanning service provider.

2. BIM software developers and the resellers of their software are pushing asset owners to require BIM more and more often. When they’re putting out that RFP for a job that involves retrofitting or adding to an existing structure, that means they’re requiring scan-to-BIM, but there aren’t a lot of options yet for an easy workflow that allows for cost-effective scan-to-BIM. As a consequence, the guys who know what they’re doing are actually bidding what they know the job will cost (ie., thousands and thousands of dollars in modeling (say, Cyclone) and remodeling (say, Revit)), then getting beaten by ambitious and hungry service providers who figure they’ll get the job first and figure the deliverable out later. 

The problem is, the asset owners don’t seem often enough to be understanding just how that Revit model is going to be used by the design firm they’ve hired, if at all. 

Yes, there is onus on the asset owner to be educated enough to see through the marketing and technology hype, but there is also onus on the surveyor and scanning service provider to develop relationships that allow you to be seen as a technology expert and a trusted source of information. Before that asset owners asks you to model every single brick in the existing building, you need to be in his/her ear explaining not only what that’s going to cost, but what value it’s going to have down the road. 

The results of points 1 and 2 are that quality surveyors are being squeezed from both ends. On the one side, they’re being forced to lower the costs. On the other side, they’re being asked to deliver more. Lost in the middle is the margin, unless they’re vigilant about mitigating points 1 and 2 to the utmost.

But, you say, aren’t these points just the whining of surveyors who got into the scanning market early and have been marking things way up, but who now can’t do that anymore because they’ve finally got some competition?

I don’t think so. I think this has the potential to be a real problem, for two main reasons related to the two problems above:

1. Asset owners are going to be disappointed by the results of their scanning projects, and they’re going to blame the technology, not just the firm that screwed things up. When underbid jobs come in late, and with problems attached, the inclination by asset owners is going to be, “Eh, this laser scanning isn’t all that helpful.” Next time around, they go back to information the “old-fashioned” way, and have to be convinced all over again that 3D data capture offers significant benefits for the operation of their facility going forward. That damages the industry as a whole and slows the speed of adoption. 

2. These new service providers are going to be stung by their underbids and struggle to reach profitability. A high rate of failure tells investors that the technology is unproven or unprofitable and scares away those who might be looking to invest in new business models. Angels talk to other angels. Mezzanine lenders talk to other mezzanine lenders. Bankers talk to bankers. If start-up cash quickly turns into bankruptcy declarations, that’s bad for the industry. 

And both of these things don’t even begin to get into long-term problems an asset owner might have if he/she is working off bad data. What are the liability issues a scanning provider might be looking at if an inaccurate model is delivered that leads to design flaws that leads to safety hazards? I think the answer to that is still in the future, but be sure that something to that effect will eventually be litigated. 

What’s the solution here? Asset owners should be wary of both rookie service providers and software marketers/resellers who are advising in their own best interests. Even if the scanning itself is being handled outside the organization, it behooves facility managers to understand laser scanning best practices and undertand what goes into each kind of deliverable. If a bid looks too good to be true, as the saying goes, it probably is too good to be true. 

Further, laser scanning service providers need to understand the scan-to-Revit/scan-to-BIM workflow and its many intricacies. Delivering BIM with a high level of detail is time-consuming and costly, and though you wish there were a button that would allow you extract models from point clouds, it doesn’t currently exist. 

In an industry as nascent as 3d data capture remains, I think service providers have responsibilities that go beyond paying their own bills and generating their own profits. They have a responsibility to the industry as a whole, to help this still small sector grow as more and more people see the benefits the technology has to offer. Whether you like it or not, you are evangelists for the technology and the benefits it provides.

This isn’t the restaurant biz. People have to eat. You get some bad sushi, you don’t swear off seafood forever. But asset owners don’t have to commission the acquisition of 3D information, and if they have a stomach-turning experience, they might never go back. 

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