April 20, 2004

Best Practices for Selecting a Laser Scanning Service Provider

Choosing the right service provider is one of the keys to success in laser scanning projects. Of course technical proficiency in operating a scanner is a baseline requirement, and some wherewithal in managing the resulting data. Knowledge and experience of the client’s industry and operating environment are also valuable – some say essential. But we believe the first question for clients is how the role of service provider should be conceived – what’s their real business value? Are you choosing a technician to operate a piece of equipment? Or is the search for a company that can understand your work processes and business objectives, and guide you to the tools and methods most likely to fulfill them? 

Another way to frame the question is: Who owns the customer in laser scanning? That is, who has the most influence over the customer’s decision-making – the scanner manufacturer, the software developer, or the service provider?

Who owns the customer?

Our experience has been that in new digital-technology markets, hardware companies are often first to establish customer loyalty and account control. But as markets pass from early adoption to the
beginnings of mainstream acceptance, customers’ hardware brand allegiance tends to weaken. Hardware choices come to be driven by other factors – how well the hardware works with the customer’s choice of software, and what solutions are recommended by systems integrators and service providers. In technical computing this has happened time and again in the past 25 years – with industries built around 32-bit minicomputers, then Unix workstations, then personal computers.

Of course this is not to say that hardware differences won’t continue to exist, or to matter. Manufacturers can differentiate themselves by tailoring their hardware for particular market niches. Price/performance leadership will remain important – in fact price wars are likely at some point. But as technology markets mature, generally hardware companies’ ability to maintain differentiation and account control lessens compared with that of software developers and service providers. Indeed, arguably the parallels between computing and existing-conditions capture markets are borne out by the survey instrument business, where two hardware giants with broadly comparable capabilities have come to dominate the industry.

Business value of service providers

Laser scanning service providers are a diverse group, but the best regarded agree on one thing. To create customer value and build loyalty – account control – service providers have to be a source of innovation and process change for clients. All caution that just owning a scanner is no guarantee of knowing how to use it. Of course, not every survey firm understands this, and for those that don’t get it, the going can be tough.

What service providers need from laser scanning hardware manufacturers and software developers is reliable, competitive product. Plus investments in high-level marketing and demand creation,
especially by scanner manufacturers. In turn, the value that service providers can create for the industry is accelerated adoption, and more of the project successes that have elevated laser scanning from a technical curiosity to an essential tool for more and more firms. 

Service provider core competencies

To identify a high-value service provider, what should customers look for? “First and foremost, you need to look for someone who has field experience” in the customer’s industry, according to Mike Swymn, laser scanning specialist with HICAD America. “Anybody can buy a scanner. But if they don’t have the technical background and experience in the field where they’re going to be scanning, it’s going to have limited success. You have to understand what you’re scanning, and why you’re scanning it.” How can customers judge that? “The crew that’s going to do the scan needs to have the experience and background to help guide the client in capturing what’s important to the project.”

Quantapoint CEO Eric Hoffman concurs. “Have they ever scanned in this particular environment?” He adds, “The service provider also has to have the volume – the capacity – to do your work. And they need to guarantee the work they do.”

Industry experience vs. general survey expertise

On the other hand, some well regarded service providers hold that a shortage of experience in a specific industry setting can be offset by technical proficiency in laser scanning, plus the surveyor’s skill in understanding spatial relations in the context of customer needs. “First, the client should be concerned about technical savvy – how adept the service provider is with the technology,” advises Mike Frecks, president of 3DS2, Inc. “Judge that by looking at their past performance and references. Talk to others who’ve been involved with them – it’s a pretty small world right now.”

As for prior experience in the client’s field, “there’s something to be said for that. However, a lack here could be overcome with a very good working relationship with your client. I know how to collect data – you tell me what your final work product needs to be, and we’ll go from there.” The key is “the professionalism of the people doing the scanning services,” he continues. “Talking to the client – I do that with every project. That’s part of the RFP process, and if it’s not, it should be.”

Right tool for the job

Frecks emphasizes that a core competence of service providers is “to understand spatial relationships,” not to push laser scanning. Not every measurement job is a laser scanning job, he points out, and an important part of the service provider’s role is to determine which tool is best for the job. He recommends that prospective customers get bids from “two or three companies that do data collection. To me, the service to the client is not about laser scanning – it’s about field data collection. There are lots of times when the client will say, ‘I want to do this and this,’ and we’ll say, ‘That’s not a laser scanning project, it’s a reflectorless total station project.’ I’ve seen laser scanning service providers out trying to scan miles of rail bed, for example, when a GPS would have been a far better solution.” 

Hardware and software considerations

How can customers gauge a service provider’s expertise with the technology? “Have they done laser scanning with the device they’re proposing to use on this project?” Hoffman advises customers to ask. “If so, how many projects, and are they of the same scope and complexity as the project we want to do here?”

“You also need to find a service provider that has a toolbox of software,” according to Swymn of HICAD America. “One software product is not always enough to handle every situation. Find a provider that has flexibility with its software – both CAD software and point-cloud measurement software. Also, the point-cloud measurement software should complement whatever CAD system you’re using. Right now there’s a wide range of laser software out there, and different packages
support different CAD systems. So it’s highly important to know what you need from the scan, and how you’re going to get it. Do you just need to identify tie-ins, or do you need to load merged, scanned volumes into a CAD environment? Do you need clash detection or not? All those software considerations go into picking a service provider.”

What should the client be responsible for?

Clients also have responsibilities to fulfill if a job is to succeed, cautions one contractor that has executed numerous laser scanning projects. “It’s incumbent on the EPC contractor both to communicate to the surveyor what’s important to capture, and to coordinate what’s going on in the
plant.” For example, during a revamp, “there will be times when the plant is disassembled, so scanning can’t go on. Or even times when you show up at the site to scan, and they weren’t notified to expect you, so you can’t get in. A coordination effort is required.”

“The service provider has to educate the client,” this contractor adds. “But the client in turn has to take the responsibility of knowing what he has to communicate to the service provider. The contractor or owner cannot depend on the service provider to answer all the questions.” Part of the problem, he notes, is that “how the contractor communicates, down to the terms used, varies from one industry to another, and even from one company to another in the same industry.”

“Start by specifying the project correctly,” Hoffman advises. “Best practice comes back to project managers having a clear awareness of what they’re trying to do before they go out to bid. In fact, good service providers will help you figure that out, pre-bid.”

Frecks of 3DS2 seconded this. “First the client will tell you what he’s trying to accomplish, and that tells the service provider what level of accuracy is needed. To place a table in a dining room doesn’t need high accuracy, but piping does. You need to interview the client to find all that out.”

The role of price

“After you determine that the service provider is qualified and can handle the technology, then there’s price,” says Frecks. “But the lowest price does not always get you the best project – usually it’s the other way around! So price is probably the third or fourth criterion. Second would be technical skill and familiarity with the customer’s environment and aims. Third would be past performance and references. Price would be down the line. If we’re comparing apples to apples, all the bidders should be within 10% of each other in price for scanning services. If they’re not, somebody hasn’t understood the scope of work.”

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