Scanning and Processing Partnerships

A common refrain I hear when talking with surveyors about 3D laser scanning is that the technology looks cool, but how do you make money doing it? The start-up costs especially seem onerous for a firm that’s been performing traditional surveying services. Not only must you buy a scanner, which is no small investment, but you’ve also got to invest in software licenses and powerful work stations in order to manipulate the data you collect and deliver information to your client in actionable formats.

Yet, offering laser scanning services is awfully attractive: it allows vastly increased speed of data acquisition, reduced labor costs, and increased safety, plus new markets for your services. One solution to offering this service is in partnering with other companies during the stages of data manipulation and delivery.

How do you start out without first putting yourself in a hole? Gabriel Callari set out to answer that question in 2007 when, with a partner, he founded the ABI Group based in Brussels. A construction engineer and land surveyor by training, Callari was introduced to scanning when he was hired as a Leica dealer in 2000, moving on to be the sales manager for the Belgium/Luxemburg region from 2005 through 2007. “Everybody agreed scanning technology was the future,” Callari said, “but almost nobody dared to buy.”

So Callari decided to launch his own business, buying the demo Leica HDS3000 in July of 2007. He saw a market where traditional surveying was becoming very price competitive and hoped to use the new technology angle to get himself in the door and start building relationships.
His initial goal? “If we could scan one day per month, that would pay off the scanner,” he laughed. “That meant a lot of prospecting and demos.” But he started to get work. First up was scanning the inside of a large holding tank in Antwerp. Then came a historical preservation job scanning a Henry VII tower. Callari recalls that the client “wanted to buy a scanner [and] I said, ‘Don’t do that! I’ll scan it for you.’” Then came work from Arcelor Mittal and other jobs in the steel industry, such as surveying train tracks. The scanner was paid off.

This brought up new challenges, however. “Handling the point cloud is not complicated,” Callari said, “but delivering an end product that’s not a point cloud is a little more complex. We had two options: Do it ourselves, or find partners who could do it better than we could.” This led them to Tilmant, who provided the 3D modeling services and then resold to end customers for about $75 to $100 an hour.

Without this partnership. ABI would have been forced to hire employees, gambling that more work was in the offing. With the partnership, ABI could contract out just that modeling and back-office work it was winning, without worrying about employees sitting on their hands between jobs.

LaserScanning Europe has a similar arrangement with as many as 15 partners throughout the continent and can even act as a partner themselves, taking in scans from other service providers, preparing the scan data, and delivering 3D models back.

“I think companies are looking for laser scanning,” said Eike Thiele, co-founder of LaserScanning Europe, “but don’t have the manpower to process huge data sets.”

Or maybe, at the outset, you don’t get into the 3D modeling piece of the industry at all. “Most of our customers are just looking for a CAD file,” said Thiele.

That’s been the experience of Nitsch Engineering, a firm based just outside of Boston. The company bought a Leica Scan Station 2 roughly a year ago and is now getting between five and ten percent of its surveying revenue from laser scanning, reports Paul LeBaron, senior project manager.

For example, Nitsch recently completed a job for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, scanning five bridges in five different communities as part of a project to improve bridge crossings over CSX railways. The scanner “allowed us very safe access to the underside of the bridge,” LeBaron said. “We didn’t have to send a crew member up on a ladder to pick up critical information. It allowed for very quick acquisition of the data that we were there to obtain.”

Thus far, Nitsch Engineering has completed the laser scanning, processed the data, and prepared AutoCAD drawings for each bridge to show beam locations, bridge seats, batter of abutments, and elevations on the underside of the structures. These are the same deliverables as would have been created with traditional survey methods. As the project moves forward, Nitsch Engineering will provide full support for project control, prepare easement and right-of-way alteration plans, and—upon completion of the bridge reconstruction—provide as-builts of the bridge structure, which will also include laser scanning.

While Nitsch could also provide animation with all the data they’ve collected and pretty 3D models, LeBaron said he’s not interested right now in the wow factor that scanning can provide: “We try not to use the scanner as a gimmick. It’s just another piece of instrumentation that we have and pull out when it’s most appropriate. Our main approach is to use it in conjunction with solid survey practices. We don’t try to buffalo our clients with, ‘Look how pretty this is.’ Yeah, it’s a beautiful tool, but the raw point cloud, most of our clients can’t deal with that. 3D modeling is where [customers] really increase their cost. 2D CAD drafting is what they’re normally looking for.”

There’s room between these extremes as well. What you deliver post-scanning often depends on how savvy your client is. For example, 3DES, a laser-scanning service-provider based in Cincinnati, recently scanned some piping and valves for a Fortune 100 utility that needed good information about one of its process plants. “We helped them get an idea of where they stand,” said Robert Glassburn, VP of operations and project engineering manager. “Our job was to capture those valve stations, collect the data, and present it in a format that was usable to them.”

In this case, the client was 3D savvy. 3DES used its FARO Photon 80 scanner for two days, then registered the scans and presented the utility with edited point clouds they could easily import into their Aveva software and use as part of their piping models. The client was effectively the back-office processing partner, as they had the in-house resources to use what was close to raw scan data.

Your clients can be partners in other ways as well. Query them to see if there’s a market for scanning services before you invest. Buying a scanner is best when you can hit the ground running.

“When I first started scanning about nine years ago, the scanner almost broke me,” said Scott Pool, CEO of GreenScan3D, which has carved out a niche surveying golf courses but also does more traditional work. “You better have work for that scanner; otherwise it’s not going to pay.” Pool’s work has grown steadily to the point where he did about 2,000 scans last year with two scanners.

And he still leans heavily on his partners and clients so that he doesn’t get too tied up in back-office work that would overwhelm his small firm. “One big client—they have 20 people modeling that we keep busy all year long, and that’s just me scanning for about three months,” Pool said. “Basically, I prefer to shoot it, line it up, and then I’m done.” He’s echoing many surveyors working with laser scanners. “It’s easy. The modeling you have to be careful with. It’s hard to define exactly what you’re going to model.”

Communicate early on what your client wants as a deliverable, line up your partners and some work, and then get ready to buy a scanner. Because it’s becoming clear that 3D laser scanning—and its younger brother mobile scanning—is upending much of the traditional surveying industry.
Sam Pfeifle is editor for the SPAR Point Group, a news, analysis, and consulting group that runs the SPAR International, SPAR Japan, and SPAR Europe conferences. You can find more of his work at www.SPARPointGroup.com. The next SPAR International will be held in Houston, March 21-24. Learn more at www.sparconference.com.

» Back to our March 2011 Issue

Website design and hosting provided by 270net Technologies in Frederick, Maryland.