Geo Week News

May 3, 2005

Laser Scanning: The Know-How Dilemma

Laser scanning service providers have a challenge: How to grow the market? How to keep the pipeline full of new prospects? And how to expand the market into new domains? Because laser scanning isn’t used just in civil engineering and process plants – today everyone from the FBI to submarine makers to architects are finding value in laser scanning. 

But service providers who’ve mastered the subtleties and nuances of today’s 3D laser scanning systems find themselves on the sharp end of the fork. If you’ve spent the last five years honing your craft, learning the workarounds, mastering not only how to execute a laser scanning project but also how to quote it, you may be less than willing to share these details with the world, particularly your competitors. After all, this is a new and emerging capability, and right now it’s concentrated in the hands of, dare we say, several hundreds of individuals worldwide – certainly fewer than several thousand.

The dilemma, of course, is that one of the key obstacles to developing more business is lack of prospect awareness. A savvy and educated prospect with a real economic need is probably the best candidate for buying services. So how should service providers educate more prospects about not only the capabilities but also the limitations of this technology – without giving away their secrets?

The dilemma is far from new. Once upon a time when you needed a sextant to know where you were on the briny deep, the navigator going on deck to take the noon sight would circle the mast three times, sniff the wind and flip a gold coin – active subterfuge to conceal from the crew exactly what was going on in determining the line of position. This subterfuge was a matter of job security and locking in crew loyalty if not affection. Naturally that kind of thinking could not last forever – more navigators were trained, and of course today every boater in the world has access to a $100 GPS system – and by the way, millions of them have been sold.

Dave Reinhart, vice president of INOVx Solutions, Irvine, CA, one of the firms that’s been at this a long time, says, “We’re just kidding ourselves if we think that keeping this information to ourselves is good for us or for the industry. A one-hour lecture from the world’s best service provider will not turn anyone in the audience into an expert.” We agree – if you attend a Harvard Medical School lecture on the latest angioplasty techniques, I hope you won’t think yourself expert enough to start practicing on me. It obviously takes more than just hearing about it to become a qualified professional. On the other hand it’s important to stay abreast of what’s out there, to be able to make intelligent choices. 

Dilemma for hardware and software vendors

The dilemma facing service providers also confronts laser scanner hardware and software vendors, but in a slightly different form. Vendors want to expand the market, sell more hardware, sell more software, and expand the base. More qualified service providers means more opportunity to sell hardware and software. On the other hand, there has to be a way to reward the early adopters and early champions with early profits for their pioneering efforts.

Owner/operator role

The owner/operator, the head of the food chain, has an important role to play here. And we’re not talking about appealing to altruism. In these markets, owners certainly have the opportunity to squeeze every nickel of margin out of scanning projects. But service providers need sufficient margin to invest in training their people. This is how the industry grows – the baton of expertise is passed from person to person. It’s on-the-job training where expertise is really developed. And few educational institutes are turning out land or industrial surveyors with project-hardened project execution skills. Service providers must have the margin to train and develop internal resources. It is unreasonable to expect the A-team on all your jobs.

A related risk is that owners can tighten down margins to the point where the service provider may feel compelled to take shortcuts when it comes to survey control and quality control. This is very undesirable – for all parties, including the owner. Owners can slaughter the goose by being too thrifty.

Another value that service providers deliver – in the early stages of the industry’s development, service providers are taking most of the hit for the technology turnover. So they have to be very smart buyers. Owners should remember this – built into service providers’ price is that they are paying for the product turnover necessitated by rapid technology advancement. And for service provider principals, instrument purchases are no small matter – to put it in context, a laser scanner typically costs more than two cars and somewhat less than a house.

The value proposition is quite compelling. We hear reports of payback ranging from “Put a dollar in and get two back” to “Put a dollar in and get 20 back” in reduced schedule, rework, cost. And of course owners are under a crushing burden to maximize their own margins. The challenge is not to be so short-sighted as to stifle development of this new technology and the new work processes needed to exploit it.

All of this is self-serving for us, of course. We have a clinic at SPAR 2005 that focuses on survey control and quality control – what kinds of errors can occur in registering point-cloud data, and how can they be prevented? When is conventional total station surveying needed to augment laser scanning? What procedures on site will minimize back-office surprises? Our expectation is not that the highly qualified service providers taking part in this session will reveal everything they know. But we believe attendees will leave this session better informed about the capabilities as well as the limitations of both the technology and the service providers, and how to specify and control the quality of laser scanning work. 

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