Point of Beginning

Evolutionary Effects

February 1, 2004
POB talks with TDS about its new hardware platform, its latest Recon modules, collaboration with Nikon and the future of the company.

The addition of the Nikon product line will provide a level of growth for TDS.
When a multitude of changes occur to one company in a short period of time, its customers-both current and potential-often have questions about how they will be affected. Tripod Data Systems (TDS) of Corvallis, Ore., is a good example. After a couple of years growing under the umbrella of Trimble Navigation Ltd. of Sunnyvale, Calif., TDS recently developed a new platform for its second-generation data collector, the Recon, offered two new modules for it, and collaborated on Trimble's joint venture with prominent total station manufacturer Nikon Ltd. These changes-and more to come-will be overseen by a new leader. TDS' long-standing president, Dave Scribner, retired from the company after 12 years, handing it off to former Director of Marketing Bill Martin. In response to this company evolution, POB asked the new TDS president some important questions about the company, its offerings and the future.

TDS' long-standing president, Dave Scribner (right) retired from the company after 12 years, handing it off to former Director of Marketing Bill Martin (left).
POB: You took over as president of TDS last month; what do you expect from this change in your position?

Bill Martin, TDS President: Since joining TDS in 2001, I have been working closely with [retired TDS President] Dave Scribner. When it became clear that I would be taking over for him when he retired, he worked hard to make sure I would be equipped with an understanding of the mechanics behind the success of TDS. I intend to build on Dave's success-his strong leadership, integrity and deep understanding of the surveying business-as we address the world of surveying, rugged mobile computers and GPS solutions. We will continue the practices that have led to our success-strong OEM and dealer relationships, and a clear focus on serving our customers' needs.

POB: What are TDS' future plans for channel partners and dealers?

TDS: Our success has been due in large part to our dealers. TDS dealers, currently 200 strong, have provided the local level of expertise and service that complement the TDS product line. I foresee no changes in this area. We will continue to make TDS products available to any qualified dealer that wishes to offer them.

POB: From a manufacturer's perspective, what are your thoughts on the future of the surveying business, especially consolidation?

TDS: The industry has seen a great deal of consolidation in the last five years. I do not believe this trend has completely run its course. Survey equipment manufacturers are moving to a model where they provide an entire range of positioning products-from automatic levels and theodolites to RTK GPS and laser scanning-for a broader range of customers. There are still some key players in the industry who have not yet attained this level of product offering. I see significant potential for further consolidation among these organizations.

I generally view consolidation as a good thing. Consolidation combines the best attributes of individual organizations into a single, stronger entity that can use the best attributes of existing individual products to develop better new products.

The most common point I hear against consolidation is the loss of options to the surveyor and the fear that fewer options will result in higher prices. I don't see this as an issue, due primarily to the continued emergence of more sophisticated surveying products from new players in the industry, most of which are based in China. It began with automatic levels and theodolites. As these manufacturers began to see some success with these products, they moved into manufacturing mech-anical total stations. If the major industry players do not remain sensitive to the product needs of their customers, both in features and cost, they will leave an opening for new players to fill the void.

The Recon's new extended CF-Cap supports larger CF cards including GPS receivers and 802.11 wireless devices.
POB: How about from a surveyor's viewpoint?

TDS: I think surveyors will benefit from consolidation through better products and surveying systems that are more fully integrated. Many of today's surveyors utilize different positioning tools-levels, mechanical total stations, robotic total stations, GPS. And in many instances these tools are used together on the same job. Having data collection and PC software that seamlessly supports all these positioning tools will make using combinations of tools much easier and more productive. Seamless integration of technologies is best achieved by all production teams working closely together.

POB: Let's focus on OEM relations: Will TDS continue to support all major manufacturers?

TDS: We have a very large user base that employs equipment produced by all major manufacturers. We have an obligation to these customers to continue support for all these instruments. The relationships we've built with other OEMs over the years allow us to provide an interface to the products we're confident in. OEM support is vital, both technically and for the equipment, to ensure we're developing the best interface possible for customers using instruments from other manufacturers. We will continue to support all major manufacturers for as long as those manufacturers provide us with the support we need to properly and reliably interface to their instruments.

POB: What are the major initiatives you have for the company's growth and positioning this year?

TDS: The addition of the Nikon product line will provide a level of growth for us. In addition to Nikon, we must look beyond data collection in order to facilitate significant growth in surveying products. We'll be applying resources to providing additional software applications that help accomplish tasks other than data collection-streamlining the surveying process, making field and office work more efficiently, and adding overall value to our surveying customers.

POB: How is the integration with Nikon going?

TDS: The addition of Nikon products was a natural step for us. TDS is experienced in survey sales and support, and the extensive overlap of the Nikon dealer network and the TDS dealer network make us uniquely qualified to support Nikon product sales in the United States. This is the reason Trimble turned to TDS after the Trimble-Nikon joint venture was announced. We are lucky to have former Nikon employees part of the TDS staff. By bringing in Nikon experts we were able to reduce the learning curve substantially. With the addition of Nikon, TDS now offers our customers a complete surveying solution-everything essential to the collection and flow of data, from field to office and back to the field.

POB: Now that TDS can supply instruments, data collectors and software, how is the company moving to integrate these components?

TDS: This is the most exciting aspect of the partnership. As partners, TDS and Nikon have an open exchange of information, so as we develop our respective data collectors and total stations, we'll be able to tightly integrate them for more efficiency in the field. For example, TDS can take advantage of features specific to Nikon total stations as we develop new collection devices and software. In the past, TDS has been able to design Survey Pro, and the Ranger and Recon so that they meet the requirements our customers demand. And we tried to make our products integrate as well as we could with the instrument. But we were still limited in how far we could take that integration. The Nikon-Trimble joint venture helps that integration effort. TDS and Nikon can now work closely to make the instrument take best advantage of the data collector features and vice versa. As a result, surveyors will be able to work more efficiently and more productively. And if a problem comes up-whether it's with the software, the hardware or the total station-our companies can communicate freely to resolve the issue.

POB: Why did you decide to change the operating system for the Recon to Pocket PC, as announced in October?

TDS: This change allows Recon surveyors to take advantage of thousands of applications and hundreds of accessories that support Pocket PC standards and conventions. Handheld computers are becoming more standardized, and Pocket PC-now called Microsoft Windows Mobile software for Pocket PCs-helps with this standardization. Windows Mobile is more standardized than Windows CE .NET, and the vast majority of consumer applications and CompactFlash card accessories work best with Windows Mobile. The Recon with Windows Mobile adds flexibility and utility-opening the door for more off-the-shelf Pocket PC accessory devices such as Bluetooth cards, network cards, GPS receivers and digital cameras. Windows Mobile software also features an easy-to-use interface and includes useful applications such as Pocket versions of Outlook, Word and Excel. The Recon with Pocket PC also lets surveyors expand the uses for their handhelds. For example, it lets the Recon act as a PDA for daily use. Keeping a contact list in sync with a user's office system becomes almost automatic. Users can work with spreadsheets on the worksite and add utilities to help manage their day or their business more effectively. And Internet connections and e-mail are easier to use and manage, which is useful for transferring files from the office to a remote site or transferring completed work back to the office. In the future, our users will see connectivity between TDS' data collection software, wireless communication made possible by the Recon and Windows Mobile, and Windows Mobile applications such as Outlook, Word and Excel. The data collector will no longer be relegated to just data collection-it will become a much more powerful and versatile tool, used in many more aspects of a surveyor's day-to-day tasks.

The AA PowerBoot Module allows users to run the Recon with two AA alkaline or lithium batteries.
POB: What's the most interesting/unusual application the Recon has been used for?

TDS: That's a tough one. I guess my personal favorite application story would be from a West Virginia caver. This guy used the Recon to map the inside of some deep, dark and nasty caves he discovered. He would tow the Recon in a bag tied to his ankle and crawl through the mud, water and rocks. He'd scramble and drag himself through tight crawlways-sometimes 1,200 feet at a time-and then pull the Recon from the bag and start collecting data again. It really proved the validity of our ruggedness tests!

POB: Tell me about the Recon's new modules and how they're useful for surveyors.

TDS: We originally designed the Recon to be modular to allow for maximum flexibility for its users. This past fall we introduced two new modules that show the possibilities for expanding a Recon. The new AA PowerBoot Module is a battery boot that allows surveyors to run the Recon using AA batteries. They can carry a few AA batteries in the truck and pop them in the Recon if they forget to recharge the battery, or if they find themselves in the field for several days without a way to recharge the Recon's regular battery. We also introduced a new Extended CF-Cap. The Recon's two CompactFlash slots allow users to add CF cards and accessories. But until now users were limited in the size of CF card they could use. In order to maintain the Recon's ruggedness, users needed to fit their CF cards under the Recon's standard cap. But now the Recon accepts larger CF accessories such as Bluetooth cards for wireless communication to a PC or surveying instrument, cellular modem cards for Internet access, and GPS receivers for navigation and reconnaissance purposes. And if users add the Extended CF-Cap, they still maintain the Recon's ruggedness and don't have to worry about drops, dust or water.

POB: What's the future of the Ranger?

TDS: Surveyors have come to depend on the Ranger, and they can continue to depend on it. The Ranger continues to be the right tool for surveyors and others who want to have a full physical keyboard on the unit. This past year we've improved both the cold weather specs and the reliability of the Ranger. The introduction of the Recon does not mean the abandonment of the Ranger. It means now we offer two great tools that focus on even more specific performance and application needs.