A Way to Grow

January 1, 2007
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Many surveyors nationwide are finding business opportunities with machine control and working with systems such as Leica Geosystems’ GradeSmart 3D solution for dozers and graders.


Machine guidance and control technology continues to be a topic of great debate among land surveyors; some view its advent as an opportunity, some as a threat. The pocket of progressive surveyors who have used the technology report productivity advances up to 50 percent as well as the acquisition of new business through new services. Opposers to the technology negate its impact as positive, noting instead that it is yet another technology to replace man. While numerous surveyors will be unaffected or little affected by machine control due to cadastral services being their mainstay, a great number of surveyors will be challenged to adopt the technology to stay afloat in the construction segment of the business.

For the adopters, this advancement in technology has been--and will continue to be--the impetus for numerous process changes and a changing role for the surveyor. This, too, requires some flexibility. While embraced by many and opposed by others, it seems that machine control is definitely being recognized in the profession. As a relatively new technology, what effect that recognition will have on the profession as a whole is to be seen. How surveyors react to the opportunities offered by the technology may determine much of their status on construction sites.

Surveyors today are able to provide machine operators with accurate digital data by utilizing solutions such as Topcon's 3D Office, which is used in all the company's 3Dxi control systems including those for excavators.

Growth Opportunities

James Rowden, RPLS, of Grapeland, Texas, has spent several years performing construction surveying. Eight years ago, he began working as an employee of a general contractor involved in substantial work for the Texas Department of Transportation. He views machine control as a positive opportunity for surveyors: “I don’t see the use of machine control cutting out surveyors. I actually see it increasing the need for surveyors,” he says. “Many of our jobs are rehabs, rebuilding rural highways with very little traffic and very little maintenance in the last thirty to fourty years. There is no control, no alignment on the plans and no proposed profile. Any grade-setter can measure down the middle of the road, marking stations and pulling offsets. To use machine control, it would be necessary to survey the road and design an alignment and profile that best fit the road before construction can begin. Once that is done, construction can begin with less chance of overrunning rock quantities, less time building the road, no need for the grade-setter crew and a better quality road when it is finished.

“On jobs with control and proper design, the contractor will still want the surveyor to set up the alignment and the equipment,” Rowden continues. “I have yet to see a set of plans that the alignment or profile doesn’t need to be tweaked or adjusted to work right. I don’t think most equipment operators are capable or willing to do this, and most contractors wouldn’t trust them to do it.”

Rowden’s view of machine control is echoed by the manufacturers who promote machine control technology. “The person who really knows that data--the data that goes from the design software out to the machine as well as dealing with the as-built information--is the surveyor,” says Bryn Fosburgh, Trimble’s vice president and general manager of Engineering and Construction Business. “On the construction side of the business--because you’re seeing this technology embraced by many machine manufacturers and customers--you’re going to see the surveyor become more involved in the information side of the business. Surveyors are perfectly positioned for this, because today they manage information on the cadastral side of the business all the time and maintain that data integrity. This is a logical progression into a new market and offers a lot of growth for the surveyor.”

“An automated machine still requires data,” says Bob Williams, president, Leica Geosystems Inc.--Americas Region. “It’s got to come from a surveyor ultimately--a surveyor who understands what the machine is doing and how the data is being processed. The site contractor is dependent on the site design, which has to come from the surveyor. Surveyors have an opportunity to move closer to the construction market, especially [for] the contractors doing large infrastructure site jobs, to provide site preparation. If surveyors don’t do that, certainly I expect contractors will move up to do the prep work.

“I view that as a co-responsibility of the manufacturers to make sure that the surveying community understands the technology and the application [of machine control]. The good news to surveyors is that the adoption rate on automated guided machines is still relatively low, but it’s rapidly increasing. And certainly in the next three to five years, that adoption rate will continue to increase. There’s time for surveyors; the technology hasn’t passed them by.”

“Traditionally, the surveyor, not the contractor, has been the more technically savvy contributor to the jobsite in adopting electronic equipment, data collection and software,” says Ray O’Connor, president, Topcon Positioning Systems. “The operation of heavy equipment is within the contractors’ comfort zone, but the creation, manipulation and use of electronic jobsite data may not be. It is in this portion of the automated construction process that presents a new business opportunity for the professional land surveyor.”

The surveyor’s critical role as data manager in projects utilizing machine control include the knowledge and application of sophisticated design software, such as Trimble’s Total Control software.

Expanding Business

Those surveyors who have targeted their services on construction staking may see an upswing in business from the addition of machine control technology, if they market and apply themselves to area developers and contractors. Those surveyors who see the addition of machine control technology as a potential business opportunity in the way of data file creation services have the opportunity to expand their businesses.

“Our business,” Topcon’s O’Connor says, “is to develop and sell the most advanced measuring and positioning systems available. To compete in the marketplace, these systems must improve the accuracy, efficiency and productivity of the work performed by land surveyors. Often the goal of increased productivity is misinterpreted, and manufacturers are accused of providing new systems that eliminate jobs. Nothing could be further from the truth. No smart business has a goal of decreasing its customer base. Our goal is to provide solutions that enable a surveyor to grow and expand their business so that they require more and more positioning solutions, and more people to operate them.”

“[As] the growth in the residential housing construction market flattens out and more and more projects are focused on infrastructure projects, the traditional surveyors have to move closer to the infrastructure market with machine automation,” Leica Geosystems’ Williams says.

“I view it as a change in the marketplace,” says Tim Verney, a professional land surveyor in Oregon. “If I want to continue in site work construction layout, I need to adapt to the new realities of the marketplace. I think it is a market niche that surveyors should step up to fill. I’d like to think it is an area of growth that my company can move into in the future. The bottom line for me is, how can I make this change profitable for my company? That’s what I’m trying to figure out.

“I try to base my fees on the value of my work to the client,” Verney continues. “Figuring out what that value is, especially for something I don’t have a lot of experience in, is the challenge. So, more rhetorical questions: ‘Do I want to develop expertise in this area and market that?’ ‘What additional skills would I need?’ ‘Is it something I would enjoy?’ and ‘What’s my liability exposure?’”

Liability is a topic of great concern for surveyors considering the use of machine control technology. A recent controversy in California focuses on the DTM files that surveyors supply to contractors for use in the construction machines. The Board For Professional Engineers and Land Surveyors was tasked with answering the question of whether surveyors would be charged with aiding and abetting unlicensed contractors who use the files for site design. The explanation from the Board was that no violation would be issued for providing electronic data to a contractor who is unlicensed to perform land surveying or civil engineering. The debate appears to become heated when the digital data is put to use--does this application fall under the definition of land surveying or civil engineering services? Since the stakes on the site that traditionally directed the machine operator to mass excavate and grade the site are removed, they are replaced with a DTM file. Many believe that this new deliverable blurs the definition of staking. Then comes the issue of who holds responsibility for the frequent changes made to files during construction. The majority of surveyors believe the contractor who receives the files obtains the liability for the data, but no cut and dry regulations exist in most states to support or oppose this.

For now, contractors fare well to adopt the technology along with qualified local licensed land surveyors and civil engineers to oversee the grading processes on construction projects. Surveyors are also needed to localize the site and tie benchmarks to the GPS structure. And nobody does this better--or with the acceptable license--as the land surveyor.

“[We have the choice to] educate the contractors as to their potential liability and how WE can remove that liability, provide oversight and QA functions and help the project along,” says Ian Wilson, owner of Ian Wilson Land Surveying in Temecula, Calif. “We are the ones who must perform the boundary survey, set aerial targets, create the DTM, manage the design DTM, establish control and calibration pads for contractors, and provide QA services. By maintaining responsible charge and control of the work, we open a new income stream and an area we can market ourselves.”

Surveyors must realize, however, the skills (which are new to some) required to utilize advanced machine control technology. Surveyors on many of today’s construction sites now act as data managers and must learn new software programs.

“They need to become more affluent with the different design software providers and work with that data and how that interacts with the machine and on the site,” Trimble’s Fosburgh says. “There’s still a significant part of the business that is not done by the machine that the surveyor continues to do. They’re still going to be quite involved in the measurement stage, but more importantly they’re going to be involved in the data management of [projects].”

Sidestepping the "What-Ifs"

Some surveyors fear that continuing advances in technology will further blur the lines of applications requiring GPS measurement, allowing unlicensed individuals the ability to freely use the instrumentation without penalty. But for now, practices are restricted in some manner. The answer to this concern--from the manufacturers and surveyors who use the technology--is for surveyors to acknowledge and take advantage of the opportunities available to them, thereby avoiding the loss of jobs to others who can potentially operate measuring equipment. Especially now with the chance to shine above others with their measurement expertise, surveyors can market themselves as the competent operators of measurement and positioning equipment, and as the licensed individuals to perform measurement, positioning and grading tasks.

“The question is not whether the future jobsite will be completely digital,” Topcon’s O’Connor says. “It’s who will step up and grasp the opportunity to grow and expand.”

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