Technology advances are making it faster and easier for surveying and mapping professionals to collect data and provide increasingly sophisticated deliverables that solve complex problems for clients. But the situation also presents a challenge. With technology changing so rapidly, any new investment typically must pay for itself within five years, if not less. How can a firm make a solid business case to invest in the latest state-of-the-art system?

At Langan, an international engineering and environmental consulting firm headquartered in Elmwood Park, N.J., staying on the leading edge of 3D laser scanning technology is a chief objective for the firm’s surveying and mapping group. An early adopter of scanning technology, the company has rapidly expanded its arsenal of laser scanning equipment and expertise within the last several years. In 2006, the firm purchased one of the early Leica Geosystems ScanStation units. Since then, the firm has added a Leica ScanStation 2, a Leica HDS6000 and a Leica ScanStation C10. Recently Langan became the first to purchase the new Leica ScanStation P20, an ultra high-speed laser scanner that provides high scan density and high accuracy.

At any given time, all five of the scanners are in operation on various projects, from large infrastructure surveys to building information modeling (BIM) for a wide range of facilities and clients, and Langan sometimes needs to rent additional scanners to meet demanding project deadlines. How has the firm made laser scanning such a successful part of its business? According to Joseph Romano, PLS, vice president of the firm’s surveying and mapping group, there are no shortcuts. “With technology, everything is very dynamic; it’s always changing,” he says. “You have to keep track of the latest advances and make smart decisions to stay on the leading edge.”

Following are six strategies that can be implemented by any firm seeking to get the best return on their technology investment.

Identify Your Niche

The rapid pace of technology innovation presents exciting new opportunities, but trying to keep up with all the latest advances can be both frustrating and futile. Instead, investments should be made strategically and aligned with the company’s primary areas of expertise. “We can’t jump on every new technology as it comes out just because it’s new,” Romano says. “We have to make sure we’re making the right decision. Each piece of equipment has a specific role and fits a niche for us. We have to stay within our core strengths.”

Understand Your Capabilities

Investing in new technology is just one part of the equation. Although some clients might actively seek service providers who use the latest piece of equipment or software, most are more interested in how a firm’s capabilities fit a specific need. “As clients become more knowledgeable about the equipment and options available, having current technology is important,” says Matt Sipple, PLS, project surveyor for Langan, “but being able to explain why we use that equipment is just as critical.”

For example, being able to share how the density of data captured by the latest laser scanner can save time and money downstream compared to an older technology can be big selling point. “On some of the long term projects we’re involved with, we have been asked to rescan for details that previously we were unable to obtain,” says Sipple. Equally important is the ability to convey the benefits that experience and skill bring to a project. 

  An important step in any new project or client relationship is to understand the expectations of everyone involved and avoid the temptation to oversell capabilities. The technology alone is not enough to guarantee success; having adequate training and knowing when and where to apply the technology are vital.

Stay Up to Date on Software

With the trend toward building information modeling (BIM) and integrated project delivery (IPD), clients are looking for ways to add intelligence to their datasets. Often software can be a differentiating factor in choosing a service provider. “BIM and IPD are becoming more common as a final deliverable, and there’s a lot more demand for 3D design,” Sipple says. “Clients want more working models and datasets they can integrate into their own workflows. Staying on top of software development is critical to meeting these needs.”

Technology manufacturers and independent software developers have introduced new software solutions in the last few years that automate and streamline data processing and management. One example is Leica CloudWorx for Revit, a plugin that allows as-built point cloud data captured by laser scanners to be manipulated directly within Autodesk Revit software for an improved BIM workflow. “Previously we’d have to export the point cloud out of Cyclone and import it into Revit, and we’d lose our coordinate system and orientation because the software wasn’t compatible,” Sipple explains. “As surveyors, we have to ensure that everything is survey-accurate, so that meant a lot of time on our end correcting the model. CloudWorx for Revit has allowed us to bring in point clouds accurately, which saves us a lot of time in transferring files and checking for discrepancies.”

The streamlined workflow has allowed the firm to provide accurate deliverables much faster, which is a benefit to clients on a tight timeline. It also allows Langan to make better use of its internal resources. “Now we can have one person working on one side of the building and another person on another side of the building, each on a different part of the point cloud, and they’re all tied together because they all go back to Cyclone,” Sipple says. “It reduces the chance of error because we don’t have to split the data up and transfer to it other software packages. If additional data is brought in, everyone has access to it. And we don’t have to worry about the loss of data due to software incompatibility.”

Go Beyond the Minimum

A benefit of modern technology is that it can expand a surveyor’s capabilities far beyond what was traditionally possible. Although there is such a thing as providing too much data all at once (does the client really need billions of points in that model?), it can be difficult to predict the downstream requirements of a project. “Once we’ve collected the data, we can't increase its accuracy, so it needs to be collected correctly and for more than its intended purpose,” Romano says. “We try to anticipate our client’s needs and structure our data collection efforts accordingly.”

For example, the group frequently uses its ScanStation C10 when working on building exteriors due to the instrument’s speed, range and color capabilities, as well as its ability to capture a full 360-degree dome scan. Although the dome scan requires a few extra minutes of scan time, the additional data is invaluable. “It allows us to capture the scene—to get data everywhere surrounding the project site in case any other needs arise,” Sipple says. “We’ve had projects where the client has contacted us several weeks later wanting to know the elevation of the building next door, or an MEP designer needs models of the building’s existing mechanical, electrical and plumbing, and we were able to provide that data without having to go back onsite.

“Making additional data available as needed keeps the costs manageable for the client while streamlining the process. It also allows us to continue to add value as a project progresses.”

Break Down Barriers

Achieving success with a new technology requires identifying the potential barriers as well as knowing how to skillfully remove them. For example, individuals within a firm might be resistant to change or may lack the understanding needed to fully embrace a new technology. Creating a seamless flow of information often requires adapting to new processes and breaking down silos between roles or departments.

Barriers can also exist in a client’s understanding of a technology or process. “Everyone is at a different stage in technology adoption,” Romano says. “Some clients want everything in BIM, and others just want 2D drawings. Whenever we meet with a new client, we try to assess their level of technology awareness and identify any preconceptions they might have about the process. Then we either have to adapt to what they want or guide them to alternative solutions based on our knowledge and expertise. We have to spend a lot more time in planning to ensure a successful outcome.”

Invest in Relationships

Relationships are crucial in business, and this is especially true when investing in new technology. Having a strong network of partners and clients can make all the difference in how quickly a new technology investment provides a return. “We value the relationships we have with our hardware and software providers,” Romano says. “The feedback we give to them is critical, and they’ve never let us down.”

Langan also maintains relationships with past clients and participates in professional and community events to make sure the firm understands where the needs are in the market. “Some of our past clients that didn’t have an interest in 3D previously now have a client that wants something in 3D or BIM. They’re calling us up saying, ‘Hey, I remember you guys had that 3D laser scanning technology,’” Romano says. “In other cases, we’ve made connections at a trade show or professional event that took time to come to fruition but led to new projects eight to 12 months later. It’s all about relationships, and you have to nurture those wherever you are in the process.”

As clients seek increasingly complex deliverables, technology advances will continue to play a key role in enabling surveying and mapping professionals to add value. With the right strategy—and perhaps a little patience—firms can reap the benefits of a good technology investment.

“This has been a long road for us in scanning,” Romano says. “It’s rewarding to see our efforts paying off.”