An Instrumental Experience
September 2, 2006
In a mild-mannered yet assertive tone, David Grimes tells me about his experiences surveying, emphasizing the importance of honesty, integrity and smart business practices. From his home office overlooking a private golf course in Ventura, Calif., Grimes enjoys his coffee as we talk about days past and days forward. He's had a successful run in the profession and the future seems just as promising.
He started surveying in 1961 at age 19 with his uncle, Glen Bramble, a California PLS. "My first job was as an ink draftsman and chainman," he says, thinking back to a day when titles were allowed to be gender specific. "The primary mapping performed was forensic mapping of accident scenes, a lot of auto and airplane accidents. Our field tools were transit and tape. Maps were drawn in pencil and inked on vellum. The final work product was a map, usually at 5 or 10 scale, about 3 feet by 5 feet for display in the courtroom."
Those maps were created with a surveyor's precision and an architect's illustrative tools-on special paper with an ink wash color for highlighting the roadway that enhanced presentation. Bramble, a 1931 University of California-Berkeley Phi Beta Kappa-degreed architect, was the first professional in Los Angeles to offer survey maps tailored for court cases involving traffic accidents. They became so well-known that they were eventually known as "Bramble Maps."
Clients called seeking the expertly designed Bramble Maps for support in their court cases. The creation of those deliverables, so sought after by attorneys, taught Grimes some valuable lessons that he continues to use today. "First, you have to do this stuff right. It has to be correct. Then you need to produce more in a given hour of time," Grimes explains, reminiscing about one particular day in his career with Bramble. "We would sketch out roughly where everything was and then measure it. I can remember going to a site 60 miles away. Well, on that day I forgot a trivial feature measurement and wanted to draft it in an approximate position in lieu of making a return trip to the site." Bramble, Grimes continues, made him go back to get that one feature measurement-on his own time and mileage. He says he quickly learned to "do it right the first time" and then concentrate on increasing speed.
Grimes spent 10 years learning from Bramble, followed by a couple of years at top design firm Psomas in its Beverly Hills office. He then broke out on his own, founding Grimes Surveying & Mapping Inc. (GSM) in 1974. By that time, he had attained PLS status in California (in 1970) and Nevada and Arizona (in 1973). GSM is a general land surveying firm performing general land surveys such as architectural, ALTA, boundary and construction surveys, and has been a leading forensic surveying firm in Southern California since Glen Bramble's retirement in the mid-1980s.
GSM's personnel consists of two professional land surveyors (Grimes himself and Russel Beck, PLS), four field assistants and two CAD operators, two secretaries and one financial officer. Yearly gross receipts have grown steadily over the past 32 years, Grimes proudly notes a projected record of $1.6 million this year. Revenue from forensic mapping services account for about 40 percent of these total revenues.
"I feel very strongly that one reason for this extraordinary revenue average of $230,000 per year per technical employee is a direct result of our utilization of the most advanced surveying tools," Grimes says, specifically citing his firm's use of a Leica Geosystems (San Ramon, Calif.) HDS3000 laser scanner, three Trimble (Sunnyvale, Calif.) S6 DR stations, Trimble R8 GNSS real-time GPS surveying system, high-end Dell workstations and laptop computers, AutoCAD (Autodesk, San Rafael, Calif.) software and Hewlett Packard plotters as well as consultant-provided color digital orthophotographs. Grimes says his clients love the full color large plots, which are typically 3 ft x 6 ft for courtroom presentation.
With this arsenal of instrumentation and equipment, the notable legacy of the Bramble Maps continues today as "Grimes Maps."
Influential Tools and TechnologyGSM's reputation as a firm with great integrity, a solid toolbox of offerings and production of standout products and services has carried it for many years, leading it to its current respected status today. Grimes Maps are known and requested. "Today's attorneys don't want to take a chance on someone who hasn't yet performed numerous times on the witness stand," Grimes says. He's confident that he can stand by his work, no matter what the circumstances of a case may be. The advanced technology he uses supports this. But getting to where he is today did not come without its challenges.
From his days in the 1960s using a 200-ft steel tape and theodolites as measurement tools, the Peters Book of trigonometry tables, Monroe and Kurta calculators for simple calculations, and hand-inked-on-vellum drafting techniques, Grimes has seen numerous technological advancements in his surveying years. He seemed to always find a way to purchase the next new surveying and mapping tool and considers himself very keen on the foundations of surveying technology. He used HP calculators, EDMs, total stations and small format plotters in the 1970s and 1980s, which he has upgraded today to Dell computers with 4 GB of RAM and 300 GB hard drives, reflectorless auto-tracking total stations and large-format plotters. Real-time GPS receivers are GSM's tool of choice for medium- to long-range aerial and boundary control monumentation surveys. In 1998, he saw something promising in a new data acquisition tool: the pulsed laser scanner.
He saw the scanner advertised in an industry magazine and met Ben Kacyra, founder of Cyra Technologies (now Leica HDS) with a plan to investigate the Cyrax 2400. "I looked at what it could do and saw the possibilities," Grimes says. "My first scanner purchase in 1999 was the Cyrax 2400, a 90-pound monster with a 40 degree x 40 degree field of view. You had to place four to six registration targets for every single scan, and you needed 10 separate scans to cover the horizon from only one position and two to three positions were required for the typical roadway court map survey. I soon traded up to the lighter 50-pound Cyrax 2500 in mid-2001. The field of view was still 40 x 40 degrees and 10 scans were still needed to cover the horizon from just one position. It was a slow process both in the field and in the office."
With about $200,000 invested at that stage and little revenue generated from the scanner, Grimes wondered about his investments. "This was truly being on the "bleeding edge' [of technology] and frankly not profitable at all. The only real upside was that we were learning this new surveying technique and [we were] in the loop for another upgrade," Grimes says.
But at November's end in 2000, Leica Geosystems bought Cyra Technologies. Three years later, the company built and branded the HDS3000, a time-of-flight scanner with a 360Âº horizontal x 270Âº vertical field of view. In July 2004, Grimes' belief in scanning as the tool of the future finally came true with delivery of his own HDS3000. This device measures more than 1,000 points per second, obtaining millions of points in about one hour. To run the scanner, the user employs Cyclone processing software and CloudWorx.
"This scanner has a much better field of view, essentially a full field," Grimes says of the HDS3000. "One to two setups are all I need for a typical court map scan job with six to eight targets per scan." While the scanner's full field of view, high accuracy at long range and robotic surveying capability combined with target acquisition via his reflectorless total station offer one-person operation potential, he doesn't always use the instrument in a solo capacity. He sometimes finds it helpful to have a second person onsite: one sets up the instrument and opens a new computer job file, which he says takes about a half hour, while the other person sets up and acquires targets.
Grimes says that the value of this technology is no longer in question since the process is now highly efficient. In fact, he says the scanner is always available in one of his survey trucks.
Putting Scanning to UseGrimes' forensic surveying projects account for about 40 percent of GSM's overall business, and the scanner is used on all of the jobs. "The scanner is used on most forensic mapping jobs and on many of the architectural design and ALTA survey jobs we do," Grimes says, noting that dense vegetation is now the only real deal-breaker for utilizing the scanner on a typical scanner job.
From surveying 3,000 points on the bottom of the Exxon Valdez in 1990 to determine damage patterns, to numerous boundary disputes, slip and fall and electrocution accidents and general aviation accidents, to city street, freeway and other highway automotive accidents, Grimes works on just about every type of forensic scene there is. His resulting Grimes Maps are very successful in forensics court cases. "I have had no problem with the courts' acceptance of scanning as an accurate and reliable surveying tool since I have checking procedures [that] ensure the integrity of the data," Grimes says. "I have had many maps based on measurements taken with the scanner accepted by superior courts in various Southern California counties."
Grimes has logged an endless list of attorneys as clients, as well as counties, cities and state agencies, accident reconstruction firms and casualty insurance companies. He considers the laser scanner to produce a "richer product," saving him one-third the cost of traditional data collection methods. With the scanning tool, Grimes says he delivers a timely product with more information at a better cost. "Many surveyors feel it is too expensive," he says. "I know it is a revenue generator now and promises to be a real money-maker when the rapidly expanding competition in the scanner manufacturing community begins to drive initial expenses and maintenance and software costs down."
Smart BusinessGrimes is no amateur when it comes to the business side of surveying and in understanding the marketplace for his services. With each tool added to his inventory, a price list is set. "We typically charge the scanner at $300 per scan, with most jobs completed with two to four scans for an average per job scanner revenue of about $800 in addition to the hourly charges for the field operator." He believes most surveyors don't charge enough today for their valuable services and notes that many still quote outdated surveying fees in spite of workload backlog increases that can approach the four- to seven-week range.
Nearly two years ago Grimes noticed a turn from the usual buyer's market for clients to a pronounced seller's market for surveyors. He believes this is driven by two factors. One is a 50 percent increase in price for most Southern California residential purchases over the past five years, which has many homeowners opting to remodel, resize and add on to their properties in lieu of a new purchase. Nearly all of these cases require a full architectural design survey of the existing property. The other factor affecting the market for surveyors is a severe shortage of surveyors. Grimes believes that taken together, these factors have put land surveyors into a classic seller's market, suggesting that increased fees will not be met with a decrease in business.
"I know that raising my prices over the last two years was a real winner," Grimes says confidently. "The marketplace is so strong in Southern California, the backlogs are so great that I gave up fixed fees. I've received no decrease in acceptance of my new prices. I believe that many surveyors may be missing out on a good chance to really increase revenue, profit and salary for their employees, and investment in new technology."
Scanning the FutureGrimes will continue to rely on his laser scanner for forensics jobs, as well as other viable projects. He looks forward to lower hardware and software maintenance costs as well as improvements in the technology to advance it to "where the end-user can deal directly with measuring within the point cloud and plotting the results."
In the meantime, he is considering a second scanner for his other California office location in Los Angeles. His main scope, though, is on Leica Geosystems' new Scanstation, a laser scanner with total station features. It appears that he still has that same hunger he's always had for new technology, and, as he says, the "next best thing for my toolbox."