Seven Myths About Laser Scanning

June 1, 2010
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Fact: Laser scanners facilitate complex projects, such as airport surveys. This airport was scanned from the perimeter fence.


Over the last few years, surveyors have been bombarded with articles and information on laser scanning. But how much of it is hype, and how much of it is reality? After all, the traditional surveying tools still work just fine. There’s no reason for every firm to buy a laser scanner or learn about the technology.

Or is there?

The fact is, believing this myth and six others about laser scanning can affect your firm’s ability to compete in an increasingly digital market.

Fact: The ability to complete projects faster and gather substantially more data can lead to greater profitability.

Myth No. 1: Laser scanning isn’t relevant to my business.

Firms focused on residential or commercial boundary surveying have had little use for laser scanners. What good are thousands of data points in locating property corners? They’re not. But if you’re having trouble finding traditional boundary work, you might want to look to other markets to expand your business, and scanning technology can open some new doors. Even if you’re not prepared to purchase a scanner, it would be wise to learn about the technology and its capabilities. At a minimum, you need to understand point clouds and start thinking in 3D rather than 2D. Often, partnership opportunities exist for firms that are technologically savvy and understand how to use their services to benefit a scanning project, even if they don’t own a scanner themselves.


Myth No. 2: Scanning equipment is overpriced.


Firms that haven’t yet taken advantage of scanners often claim they’re waiting for the prices to drop. However, the prices have dropped significantly over the last few years, and the gear is now more manageable. Think about the evolution of other technologies, like computers and cell phones. Can you think of how you ever got along without these devices? 3D scanners are entering a similar phase, becoming more mainstream, easier to use and more affordable.

If your firm can’t afford to purchase a scanner outright, consider renting a unit instead.


Myth No. 3: ROI takes too long.

When you purchase a scanner, you also have to consider the cost of software, training and productivity loss during the training phase. Depending on the system, you might end up spending $80,000 to $150,000 or more. With this level of investment, a common question is, How long will it take to get our money back? Instead, you should be asking, How much is it worth to get our foot in the door with clients that wouldn’t have ever considered us before?

The marketability factor of a scanner is tremendous. Consider the RFP process. If a client receives one presentation with black-and-white line drawings and another with a visually appealing 3D color image of the project on the cover, which one do you think will grab their attention? Our firm has been awarded jobs based on our 3D presentation alone.

Scanners are also useful in restricted areas since they allow for noncontact data capture at a distance. We recently did an airport project that would have required a special escort who could only work limited hours. Certain parts of the site were fenced off with no access, and the weather was uncooperative. It would have been difficult to plan the work with traditional surveying tools. Using a scanner, we were able to survey the no-access area in great detail from the perimeter fence. Within one day, we had all the data we needed, and the rest of the work was done in our office. As a result, we reaped substantial savings.

Scanners can also save your firm money on resurveys. One of the biggest budget killers for any project is returning from the field and realizing you’ve missed something. With a scanner, you know all the data have been captured the first time.

Scanners also give firms the ability to create proposals for projects that they might have otherwise avoided because of the cost in estimating. For example, we were asked to team on a design-build proposal for a complex bridge project. Using traditional methods, it would have taken us weeks to collect the data needed for the proposal, and we would have lost a lot of money and time since we were not awarded the project. Instead, we collected very detailed data in just two days.

One other consideration is the safety factor. There are just some jobs we couldn’t do without the scanner. An on-ramp for a busy interstate is one example--it would be difficult or impossible to stop the traffic to measure the roadway with traditional tools. With the scanner, we never have to cross into traffic, but we still get the data.

Myth No. 4: No one will buy in to the technology.

Don’t give up too easily. You’ll probably need to spend a little time educating your team before you can expect them to embrace the idea. After we as company owners had agreed that the scanner was a good fit for our business, we had the manufacturer come in and demonstrate the equipment for all of the project managers. We told them it would be a group decision on whether to buy the unit. Discussions followed, and everyone decided they were on board with it. Having a 100-percent buy-in meant that everyone was open to training, and it also meant they were willing to take the equipment out and use it once it was delivered.


Myth No. 5: I’ll need to charge more for scanning projects.

We initially entered the scanning business thinking that we needed to adjust our fees upward to cover our increased overhead from the scanner purchase. But once we started working with the technology, we realized there were enough gains on the back end--including time savings--that it didn’t cost as much as we thought. The ability to complete projects faster and gather substantially more data with less time in the field allowed us to realize greater profits without increasing our prices. In fact, we’re so much faster on some projects that we can often underbid our competitors.


Myth No. 6: I’ll need a specialist operator.


When we decided to purchase our first scanner three years ago, we thought we’d need a specialist to run it, so we hired a person with mechanical engineering expertise. We’ve since learned that all we really need is a good party chief. A person who knows how to move gear and people efficiently can be trained to operate a scanner.


Myth No. 7: The technology still isn’t practical.

It took us 45 minutes to set up our first scanner. Our new model takes six minutes. We also get more details and better pictures with less gear to move. Additionally, editing point clouds has become much easier. When we capture busy roadways and highways, we can easily strip out cars and other "noise" using the software that came with our scanner.

One legitimate concern is whether 3D point clouds hold value for clients. When we first started laser scanning, our clients couldn’t read or use our data correctly. They were accustomed to 2D drawings and didn’t have the ability or tools to work with 3D. However, this situation is changing as clients increasingly adopt new software. The popularity of 3D images will only continue to grow.


Like it or not, the digital age is here, and that means adding 3D digital scanning capabilities to your surveyor’s tool box. 

Sidebar: Making Scanners Pay Off

So you’ve decided to purchase a scanner. Now what? Here are some tips that will help you make the most of your new equipment after it arrives.

Talk it up. Once you have the scanner, you have to get the word out. Anytime we get a chance, we talk to local engineering and public works societies and local chapters of other related professions. We also actively network during breaks and dinners at trade shows and conferences. Being visible has opened the door to more presentations and more work. So, be sure to build education and networking opportunities into your schedule.

Show, don’t just tell. Don’t expect existing clients to be excited about getting your scanner on their job. The fact is, most don’t understand it. Focus on meeting their needs, not necessarily selling them on the scanning technology.

Leave room for imagination.
When you’re introducing scanner applications, don’t limit yourself. We used to tell prospective clients, “This is what the scanner will do.” We’ve since changed our presentation to focus on how the technology works because we never know where the discussion might lead. For example, at a Society of American Military Engineers meeting, an engineer knew about the excavation of an old steam ship in the New York City harbor and asked, “I wonder if it can be used on this job?” It’s something we could have never imagined--but we got the work.

Much closer to home, we had someone ask if it could be used to show a city commissioner what a holding pond would look like from an office building. We would have never thought of putting that on our list, but since we told them how the technology worked and demonstrated it, they were able to come up with a new application.

Make sure it’s on the checklist. Most firms ask, “Do I have a job for the scanner?” We did the exact opposite. On every job, we asked, “Will the scanner work on this job?” It was included as a possible tool on every project manager’s checklist from the beginning. Once they used the scanner and saw what it could do, it quickly moved to the top of the list.

Get it out of the shop. The bottom line is that the more you get the scanner out, the more comfortable you’ll be with the tool. Plenty of surveyors have their systems sitting on the shelf waiting for the perfect job. Meanwhile, their software hasn’t been upgraded, and the technology is moving so rapidly that they’re already behind. If it’s in your shop, it’s a tool. Use it.

Be open to redefining your procedures.
Scanners are being used on about 50 percent of our jobs. That has required us to reallocate our resources since we’re now doing less fieldwork and more processing work. You’ll gain better control with the scanner, but you’ll also need technicians who can run the units, process the data, and run the various software packages.

Look for strategic alliances. The GSA put out a multimillion-dollar contract that no one surveyor could bid. Other projects have fast-tracked deadlines or broad scopes that require collaboration between multiple firms. The key to providing a wide range of services is to find good strategic partners that can work with you to provide the services that you can't. Get these partners in place before you market the work so that you know your limits and capabilities.

Stay current. You can never stop reading and learning in this business. That includes reading trade journals, Internet blogs and online resources as well as attending conferences. The economy has required a lot of cuts in mission-critical areas, but staying current on technology trends is imperative.

Think about new markets. Having a scanner has opened doors to markets we’d never considered, such as forensic surveying. With construction down, having other markets to venture into has given us more stability.

Don’t throw away your other tools. We found out that the scanner didn’t do what we thought it could on some jobs. For example, when we were scanning a parking lot, the number of cars created a lot of holes where we lost data, and we had to use traditional tools to fill in. Always remember that the scanner is just a tool. And with every tool, you need to bring it out for the right purpose. It’s not for every type of survey.

Add value with “collateral data.” The amount of data a scanner collects creates a better product for our clients. Instead of locating every 50 feet, we now have every 10th of a foot. But that doesn’t mean we give the client everything up front. If it’s in the scope of services, it’s theirs. Providing data from the file at a later date falls under our disclaimer for “collateral data,” which we define as any data or information collected outside of the scope of services or not needed to produce the survey product. Our disclaimer states, “Any collateral data collected from the use of a scanner on this project will be the property of the surveyor, and any information produced from this data will be charged using hourly rates.”

--A.N. and F.B.

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