Secrets of a 21-Century Surveyor
Technology enables small surveying businesses to ease growing pains and maximize their potential
At some point, every successful small surveying firm inevitably faces the same question: How much work can you reasonably handle without compromising quality or taking on too much overhead?
For Akins Land Surveying, based in Alliance, Ohio, that point came about a decade ago. Founded in the mid-1980s by Alliance native Bob Akins, PS, the firm had strong roots in the small town. Over the years Akins’ community involvement took many forms, from speaking to local service and community groups to sponsoring teams for local golf outings to administering Trig Star, a trigonometry test that the National Society of Professional Surveyors sponsors for high school students.
“It’s important to be active in the community where your livelihood comes from, and it’s important to give back, too,” said Akins. “I love the town where I grew up, and the people have embraced me.”
Akins’ son, Jared, and his daughter, Vanessa, joined him in the business over time. Keeping the staff small enabled the business to weather several economic downturns, and by 2004, the business was growing again—enough that the company had to make a crucial decision. Should they hire more employees, or upgrade their technology to increase productivity?
Making the Move to Robots
Jared Akins began talking to his father about purchasing a product he’d seen at a conference — the Leica TCRP 1205 Robotic Total Station. He believed the technology would increase their ability to do business and help them to overcome the common small business issue of meeting larger project deadlines with limited personnel. After talking to a friend, who had bought one and loved it, and then shopping around and determining that the deal was right, they decided to go ahead with the purchase.
The Akinses found that using the equipment gave them much greater flexibility in the scope of services, size, and quantity of projects they were able to undertake. They discovered that they were able to save over half the purchase price on the robotic total station the first year, just in the wages and benefits they didn’t have to pay to additional crew members. Then there was the time element. When doing topographic work and construction layout, Jared Akins’ speed on projects doubled or even tripled because he no longer had to stop at intervals and wait for an instrument man to line up the crosshairs on the prism to take shots. “It’s instantaneous,” said Jared Akins. “As fast as you can push a button to store a point, it does.”
“Jared does most of the work by himself now,” said Bob Akins. “We occasionally have a second person go out when it’s a safety issue or for convenience in expediting the project.”
Three Questions to Ask Before You Upgrade
1. How much versatility does the technology provide? If you often work under both wide-open sky and canopy in a single job, you might have already decided to forego GNSS. But did you know that some GNSS and robotic total station solutions are designed to work together in a single project seamlessly, so that you can switch from one to the other without changing parameters or settings and thereby increase your productivity? And now with the advent of multistation technology, it's possible to easily combine GNSS, total station measurement and laser scanning on the same job for maximum versatility. Challenge your rep or dealer to show you solutions that can help you grow your business.
2. How long will the technology last? In today's fast-paced environment, technology changes rapidly. Still, you want to be able to maximize your investment. Instead of looking for the highest number of channels in GNSS technology, for example, check to see if the solution is upgradeable when new satellites come online. That way you'll have a solution that meets your needs today and tomorrow, without paying for extras you don't need.
3. How much support will I receive from the manufacturer? Whether you encounter a problem on the jobsite or just need a trusted resource for advice and information, support is a key piece of the puzzle. There's no substitute for good customer service. Make sure you're working with a rep or dealer who is responsive to your needs and has the expertise to help you quickly resolve challenges.
Alex Cherchian handles geomatics sales, support and training for Leica Geosystems in Indiana and Ohio. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Auto Points + an ATV = Innovation in the Field
One time when he was out surveying a field by himself, Jared Akins came up with the idea to mount the prism onto an ATV. He built a bracket to hold it at the right height, and then, with the instrument’s Auto Points feature, the robot automatically tracked the prism and took a shot every 50 feet. He was able to do the topographic survey of 10 acres in two hours, which would have taken the better part of the day on foot. “We had the finished product to the engineer in about four hours,” he said.
“I’m old school,” said Bob Akins. “So we went out and spot checked it. It was the first time we’d used Auto Points, so I just had to see for myself. … I was surprised at how well it came out.”
Since its total station upgrade, the firm has added the CS15 Data Collector, Viva Software, and the Viva GS15 GNSS to their arsenal of Leica Geosystems solutions. Each new technology addition has given the firm increasing confidence.
Akins Land Surveying at a Glance
“The GS15 works flawlessly on the Ohio Department of Transportation’s VRS RTK network,” said Jared Akins. “And the support from Leica Geosystems is great. Anytime we’ve had a question, we’ve been able to get someone on the phone for technical support right away.”
Akins Land Surveying sends in the equipment periodically to have it cleaned and calibrated, and they’ve never had a breakdown or a problem with any of the products.
“If you take care of your equipment, it will take care of you,” said Bob Akins.
Technology Serving the Community
Bob Akins has found that the technology comes in handy in his community involvement. The city hosts an annual Greater Alliance Carnation Festival to celebrate the local florist who developed the scarlet carnation for President William McKinley, a native of nearby Canton. When a triathlon is included in the order of events of the festival, Bob and Jared Akins set the robotic unit up on shore and take the prism out on a boat to set the points for the positions of the buoys in the lake for the kilometer swim.
Akins Land Surveying also works with various city departments, such as engineering, zoning and building, planning commission, and the water and sewer department. “I stay out of politics,” said Bob Akins. “But we work closely with the people who work for the city. We help them out whenever we can.”
Completing projects quickly, providing accurate results, and saving people money has given Akins Land Surveying a good name in the community, and clients know they can trust Bob and Jared to be fair. “These people are like family to me,” said Bob Akins. “Hometown proud is our motto.”
That motto combined with the willingness to embrace technology has paid off for the small firm.
“I’m 65 years old, but my son has ushered me into the 21st century,” said Bob Akins. “It’s been a little bit of a learning curve for us, but once you catch on, your business can really take off.”
Beth Wilson is a freelance writer based in Bremerton, Wash. For more information about Akins Land Surveying, email firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about surveying solutions, visit www.leica-geosystems.us.