Insights on the Future of Surveying

We last interviewed Topcon Positioning System’s (TPS) president and CEO Ray O’Connor in 2009. His recent promotion to senior managing executive officer of parent company Topcon Corporation adds to his growing lists of duties that now includes president of the Topcon Positioning Company, one of the three global companies that form Topcon Corporation. We wanted to know what the promotion meant for Ray and for the future of TPS (based in Livermore, California). Ray has always been a dynamic innovator and strong promoter of growth in the surveying industry, so we also asked for his perspectives on the future of surveying.

PSM: We have been witnessing a lot of introspection among surveyors and the surveying community about the future of surveying. What are your views on the subject?

Ray: There will always be the “glass is half full, half empty” discussions. I view it more as a glass overflowing. The growth is in slightly different areas than some of the traditional areas. Surveyors are well prepared for and have to become positioned to fill the role as the quality and control experts for the expanding geospatial needs that touch virtually all industries and countries.

PSM: Many surveyors have felt the pinch of recent economic struggles and see this huge wave of geospatial awareness and activity as passing them by.

Ray: I grew up in a small town in Ireland. When I was a child a bypass was going to be built around the town. People were very worried that it would ruin many of the town’s businesses and that even possibly the town would die. Today the town is one of the fastest-growing areas in Ireland. The bypass made it easier for new businesses to locate in the area, and the town is booming. I see surveying and the expansion in geospatial opportunities as much the same situation. In this worldwide geospatial boom, positioning and surveying are quite strong worldwide.

PSM: This geospatial boom—where do surveyors fit into it?

Ray: There is a lot of measuring going on! Everything is getting measured. Obvious areas of growth include automated construction, mobile mapping, and BIM. It is exciting to see where this is all going. To give you an example of the growth, when I joined TPS in 1993 the total world market for surveying instruments was around $800 million; now it’s $5 billion. TPS has experienced the same type of growth rate since then. As I said, surveyors are essential in the role of quality and control and are involved in so many different ways, with new opportunities being constantly created.

PSM: Tell us more about your promotion; the title is quite a mouthful (and I have trouble deciphering managerial titles). What does the promotion hold for you and your role in Topcon?

Ray: Topcon has been around since 1932, mainly as an optics and surveying instruments company. But it hasn’t made it to its 80th anniversary by staying the same. Today Topcon is composed of three “in-house” companies: Eye Care, Smart Infrastructure, and Positioning. As president of the Positioning Company and a senior managing executive officer of Topcon Corporation, I am fully in charge of TPS, with direct responsibility for all the divisions that make up TPS, which now includes Topcon’s European positioning operations. From a top-line standpoint, this means that TPS is now approaching 50% of the whole of Topcon Corporation. But most importantly to me, it shows the commitment that Topcon has to the positioning business as a whole and the surveying industry in particular.

PSM: You’ve had some pioneering roles in Topcon since you joined. It’s interesting to see your photo as the only “outsider” in the corporate upper management organizational chart. Some say the Japanese business culture can be challenging; how has your experience been?

Ray: Working within Topcon has been a great experience. Things are handled very methodically, but with surprising versatility. I like to joke that you won’t have to worry about walking into a meeting and getting hit upside the head with a baseball bat—there are few shocking surprises. Business and business decisions are handled very carefully, and they take time.

PSM: What have you brought to the table, and how has TPS benefitted from the strengths of your Topcon colleagues?

Ray: It is a good mix of caution and tried-and-true business practices on their part, and drive, innovation, and push for action on mine—a lot like successful personal relationships with a mix of styles. It seems to work well—in fact I received a prestigious Toshiba Business Person of the Year award, the first non-Japanese to receive it in its over 100-year history. (Toshiba is Topcon’s top shareholder.)

PSM: What is Topcon’s commitment to TPS and the surveying market?

Ray: Very strong, and I enjoy the trust. Topcon president Norio Uchida, whom I had the great pleasure of working very closely with in the mid-90s when we formed Topcon Laser Systems, began his career with Topcon in the surveying instrument division. And like I said earlier, TPS represents such a large share of Topcon—it has been the fastest growing division—there is an extremely tight bond with continued high expectations and equally high commitment. We’re dedicated to strong growth in surveying instruments, scanning, mobile mapping, machine control, and precision agriculture—a lot of worldwide growth.

PSM: We’ve seen surveying-instrument manufacturers hold national or international conferences, sometimes as part of larger parent company event. TPS does regional “road shows.” What are your thoughts on the two approaches to customer training and engagement?

Ray: The road shows—jointly put on by TPS and local dealers—are, in our view, the best way to get the specific training and outreach to the end users. It is important to us for the decision makers, the crew chiefs, the equipment managers, to be able to attend; holding these on a regional basis reduces travel issues for them. I’m not saying that we will never change the way we do things, but this model works very well for our users and us.

PSM: What is the coolest thing you’ve seen in the past year, professionally?

Ray: What has gotten me excited is seeing just how much data can be gathered.

For instance, scanners are capable of obtaining as many as 2 million shots per second. With all of that data, trained people are creating powerful geospatial resources that were unimaginable only a few years ago.

For sheer enjoyment, I’m very excited about the work we did with Shotlink. They do the official measurements for golf tournaments and other sports. Their previous laser method required setups on each hole, then hectically working from hole to hole. During tournaments their people were harried and constantly being exposed to being hit by a golf ball. We worked with them to create a system using GNSS rovers so they can move along very quickly, with less exposure, and get high-precision measurements with RTK or RTN.

Measurement opportunities are unlimited!

This interview was conducted by PSM’s associate editor Gavin Schrock, PLS.

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