Web Exclusive: Turning the Tables
Few people will miss 2009. Marked by continued layoffs, widespread pay cuts and a languid housing market, the year held little good news for any economic sector, much less for the surveying and mapping professions. POB talked to a number of equipment dealers and surveyors to get their predictions for 2010, and no one expects to see a quick recovery. However, there are some glimmers of hope as we enter a new decade. What’s more, today’s professionals can take key steps to position themselves and their firms to capture new opportunities that are on the horizon.
Professional PredictionsThe outlook for 2010 is mostly cautious and perhaps a bit grim. Bill Powers, manager of the Survey Division for Seiler Instrument Co., doesn’t expect to see a significant change in the markets served by the surveying profession. “I believe it will take at least [another year] to start utilizing all the currently developed real estate, which is the mainstay of surveying firms in the Midwest,” he says.
Daryl Huffman, regional sales director for Duncan-Parnell, echoes these sentiments and points out that uncertainty continues to be a factor in the launch of new projects. “We hope that the spring brings some stabilization in the surveying community and that there are some projects that finally get under way,” he says, noting that a number of federal contracts for floodplain studies, homeland security and other projects seem to be on hold. “Firms have the contract, but work orders haven’t been issued. And I’ve heard rumors of private projects, but nothing is moving there yet, either-the fear is still there. Most of the estimates I’ve seen point to the end of 2010 to work through existing inventory and build new inventory.”
Still, there are some signs of improvement. John Matonich, president and CEO of ROWE Professional Services and president of NSPS, says that he expects business to remain flat through most of 2010 but that the energy and infrastructure sectors should provide some opportunities for growth. Ed McCaffery, marketing director for Positioning Solutions Co., believes 2010 will be better than 2009 with business improving overall. And Randy Black, LS, general manager of Hayes Instrument Co., says he is seeing pockets of increased economic activity in some regions. “I do believe we are climbing up,” he says, “and this next year we will see continual growth in the survey industry as more people get confidence back in the dollar.”
Technology TrendsFirms that diversified their services and embraced key technologies early on have fared the best throughout the downturn. When asked about the most promising technologies of the new decade, most individuals rank laser scanning-both static and mobile-at the top of the list. “All of the surveying technologies are going in that direction,” Huffman says. “People want robots with cameras and scanners with everything on them. The more data you can get someone faster, the more likely you are to become the technology leader. And you might be able to charge a higher price because you’re doing it faster or giving them more.”
Matonich agrees. “Scanning is a really hot technology right now,” he says. “I’m not sure it’s quite at the level that we can universally use yet, but it’s coming very quickly. Mobile scanning in particular is going to have a big impact.”
For firms that aren’t quite ready to jump headfirst into scanning, robotic total stations with imaging capabilities are providing a versatile solution. “This instrument not only allows for traditional total station work but can be a one-person, fully robotic topo and stakeout instrument, automated point scan instrument and 360-degree photo book,” Black says. “This allows surveyors to have at their disposal multiple collection options and, most importantly, [increased alternatives for] what can be offered as a deliverable to the clients.”
As the hardware for these technologies continues to advance, software will increasingly become key to harnessing the capabilities of the equipment and providing real value to clients. “As people invest in hardware that captures a billion points of data, they have software that can handle it, but sometimes the workflow between the two is less than ideal,” Huffman says. “Whoever can bridge that gap will become the market leader because they’ll be able to take metadata from the field to a deliverable faster.”
RTK networks are also expected to continue playing an important role in the surveying and mapping professions. “We have seen more interest in networks in general and in handheld rovers in particular,” McCaffery says, noting that lower equipment prices and improved network connectivity are helping to fuel demand. According to Black, one of the best ways to take advantage of these advances is with network GPS receivers that the receiver, modem and data collector in a single unit. “With network RTK corrections becoming widespread, having a state-of-the-art GPS receiver that has all the components combined into one piece of hardware cuts down on the cost, reduces weight and clearly cuts down the latency time of the data collection,” he says.
J. Peter Borbas, PLS, PP, owner of Boonton, N.J.-based Borbas Surveying & Mapping, president of the Geographic and Land Information Society (GLIS) and outgoing chair of ACSM, notes that georeferencing data into a national framework-specifically, the National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI)-will become increasingly important regardless of the technologies used to capture the data. “If all the surveyors in the country were to georeference their data into the national framework, the data would become much more valuable,” he says. “If clients know that they can get valuable data from a surveyor, they’ll continue to go back to the surveyor because of that value.”
Successful StrategiesWithout a rebound in land development and construction, a surge in demand for surveying and mapping services seems unlikely. Still, there are areas of opportunity for individuals and firms that are positioned to capture them. “You have to take a hard look at your strengths and figure out how to capitalize on those strengths and use them to help people,” Matonich says.
That might mean partnering with other firms to share expertise and resources, which has been a successful approach for ROWE and other companies. Huffman notes that it might mean serving markets other than land surveying, such as forensics or homeland security. It might also mean pursuing opportunities in building information modeling (BIM) or in data prep for machine control. “If your traditional client base isn’t spending money, then you have to look outside that box and find a different market,” Huffman says. “Figure out what you’re capable of providing to someone who might be spending money. When you’re thinking outside the box, that might be anything.”
Many firms already have the necessary skills to tap into these and other markets; they just need to think more broadly. Other firms will need to re-evaluate their expertise in light of the continued changes. Borbas says that increasing education will be vital to the continued success of the profession as a whole. “Technology is allowing us to get much more value out of our data and provide more value to our clients, but we have to understand how to do that,” he says. “An ability and desire to keep learning is essential. Education is the key for surveyors right now.”
McCaffery agrees. “We’ve seen a seismic shift in what the surveying world is,” he says. “Individuals who are only willing to do things the way they’ve always done them are going to struggle. But the professionals who are on the leading edge with training and technology and can figure out how to adapt are not only going to survive, they’re going to really thrive when everything turns around.”