The Race is On! How Topcon Develops Technology

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With the introduction of the Sweet Sixteen suite of products at the 2003 ACSM in Phoenix and the Elite Eight product suite at the 2004 ACSM in Nashville, Topcon sent a clear signal: they intend to be the number one technology provider in the surveying industry. Most significant to me at the Nashville convention was the introduction of Millimeter GPS, Topcon’s combination of laser and GPS that solves the poor vertical accuracy of RTK GPS. More about Millimeter GPS later.

A couple of weeks prior to the dedication of their new building, I had the pleasure of visiting with Eduardo Falcon, Senior Vice President for Product Development and Overseas Operations, at Topcon’s new headquarters building in Livermore. We discussed Topcon’s technology, and Falcon told me a bit about his experiences that led him to the company.

Falcon came to the U.S. from Argentina, where he obtained a degree in surveying engineering and a masters in geophysics/ geodesy. He received his first professional surveying license in Argentina in 1979 and is currently licensed as professional surveyor in Ohio. He worked for a construction company doing highway construction, then spent eight years as a commissioned officer in the Argentine Air Force, involved with infrastructure and mapping of military and civilian airports. From Argentina, Falcon came to Ohio State University under a fellowship. He earned his masters degree in geodesy under Dr. Clyde Goad (Goad is Topcon’s VP of Software Engineering and has been involved with Topcon for more than 10 years with his company GeoComp Ltd.) and was a research assistant for Admiral Bossler at OSU’s Mapping Center. As an experienced licensed surveyor, Falcon has spent time in the field and is well aware of the importance of good equipment and the necessity for good support.

With the acquisition of Javad Positioning Systems (JPS) four years ago, Topcon signaled that it realized the importance of owning its own GPS technology. The acquisition also pointed to the failures of existing instrument companies to forge OEM relationships with GPS manufacturers. Topcon itself had experienced unsatisfactory relationships with Allen Osborne and Ashtech. As soon as it acquired JPS, Topcon embraced the technical powerhouse that exists in Moscow (and which came along with the acquisition of JPS), and in fact, has increased the number of engineers there from 120 to 160. As an example of Topcon’s global reach, the Millimeter G PS product was developed in Moscow, Japan, Australia, Ohio, and California.

Topcon is also doing radio research in Moscow. The company uses three approaches with radios for RTK: units designed by Topcon, Satel radios, and Pacific Crest radios. The HiPer Pro uses a Satel radio 450-470Mhz UHF radio that employs Free Channel Scanning which will automatically switch to another channel when interference exists. The HiPer Lite uses a spread-spectrum Topcon-designed 900MHz radio that also looks for unused spectrum. Pacific Crest radios are employed in Topcon’s HiPer + and other older GPS RTK equipment.

Falcon outlined the three goals of each product team: 1) the desire to be first to market; 2) to develop revolutionary, not evolutionary products; and 3) to create new products that make existing products obsolete. As an example of the last goal, Falcon referred to Millimeter GPS, which has the potential to make robotic total stations obsolete. He related a story about TPS President Ray O’Connor: Having come from the laser industry, O’Connor is a "product guy"; he commented on the plethora of cables that came with existing GPS equipment. The outcome? The wireless, cableless HiPer series. O’Connor used cell phones as an example: "You don’t see cables on cell phones," he said, "they just work."

According to Falcon, Topcon’s GPS and GLONASS boards are made in California, and the units are assembled in Livermore for worldwide distribution. Taking a page from the Topcon Tokyo factory, the GPS units are assembled in cells. Everything an assembly person needs is within reach and a great deal of care has been placed on maximizing efficiency. For example, Falcon explained that valuable time was wasted when assemblers had to switch electric screwdriver tips, and the simple addition of an extra electric screwdriver eliminated this. In addition to efficiency, a great deal of attention is paid to quality. New units are burned in for 24 hours, then run through quality control tests. Each unit is tested again before being sent to the dealer, then once more by the dealer.

Next to the assembly/ testing area is a mammoth warehouse. The inventory system is wireless and products are barcoded. Falcon colorfully described the turnaround in products shipped as "vicious," (translated, very quick). We watched as semitrailers were unloaded and the contents lifted high in the air with high-tech narrow-body forklifts. With the narrow body, the shelves are able to be placed much closer to each other, thereby making room for more shelves.

Next to the warehouse loading docks are the service and quality control departments. All equipment imported from Japan undergoes testing and calibration before being sent to the dealers. The large equipment repair facility has state-of-the-art equipment for quick turnaround on repairs. Falcon pointed out that the G P S equipment is so reliable that Livermore has only two G P S repair technicians. Dealers send their instrument repair people to Livermore for training, and for those who are in-house repair people, training is more or less constant. Topcon’s dealers also come to Livermore for training, some for as long as a oneweek course. The goal is that by providing more dealer training, the dealers will become more self-reliant and thus provide immediate response to customer needs. Technical support is free for customers, but Topcon prefers that customers first contact their dealers for support. Videos are used in dealer training, and Topcon employs an in-house videographer. Customers can also purchase specialized web-based training. Part of the repair facility is a unique parts storage and retrieval system. Twentyeight feet tall, and holding more than 10,000 parts (worth $3 million) it’s a vertical "carousel," from which parts can be retrieved in seconds.

Outside in the parking lot Falcon demonstrated the Millimeter GPS. (Confession: when they first announced this product in Nashville, I quickly assumed that it would be a contractor’s tool. This is not true; it is useful for any surveyor with grade stakes to set.) In a nutshell, Topcon has married a rotating laser that emits a fan-shaped beam with RTK GPS. The laser fan throws out a 10-meter "wall" to provide millimeter-accurate vertical measurement within the "LazerZone" and the RTK provides 10 millimeter horizontal accuracy. One unit will cover nearly a thousand-foot diameter circle, and because each unit comes with a four-channel selector, four of the units can be used together to extend the working area to nearly 1.5 miles long. We walked around the parking lot, which was not unlike normal working conditions, and it was amazing how quickly the display settled down to millimeter accuracy. When I held a finger over the sensor eye on the rod, the vertical immediately started drifting (as expected when dealing with GPS vertical), but as soon as I removed my finger, within two seconds, the vertical settled down and didn’t change. I can see real use for this tool, and Topcon expects it to replace robotic total stations. I was also impressed with the built-in safeguards that let the user know when he or she has strayed above or below the 10-meter fan.

Boxes were stacked everywhere on the day of my visit. National Sales Manager Peter Wallace explained, "We moved over the weekend, and didn’t miss a beat. We were open for business as usual on Monday morning." This spirit pervades the entire company. Employee turnover is extremely low, and managers are "grown" from within the company.

Topcon strives to build systems that are completely integrated, systems that just work out of the box. Simplicity is the key. Falcon claims that Topcon was first in the market with a completely cableless GPS system (the HiPer Lite). He also made a case for using the G LO NA S S signals simply because more signals make for a faster, better solution. Whenever Galileo signals b ecome available, Topcon’s GPS equipment will work with them. According to Falcon, most manufacturers organize their companies by vertical markets whereas Topcon is org anized by function. This structure makes possible high integration b etween technologies because engineering resources are managed globally.

By constantly keeping its eye on the real objective–helping its customers make more money with technology– Topcon has won the largest share of many segments of the American market. Productivity is the mantra, and Topcon focuses on allowing surveyors to do not only high quality work, but more work in the day.

Marc Cheves is editor of the magazine.

A 694Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE