Conference Review: Growth & Diversity – Trimble Dimensions 2010

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"Ten years ago Trimble was proud to be known as a GPS company," said Steve Berglund, president and CEO of Trimble, in his keynote address at Trimble Dimensions 2010 world users’ conference. Berglund went on to highlight the eventful decade under his leadership, and of rapid growth and diversification beyond GPS. While this growth and diversity have unquestionably been good for Trimble, is it necessarily a good thing for surveyors and the surveying industry? After reviewing this recent Trimble conference it would seem that the growth and diversity is good for surveyors and the industry as well.

Dimensions 2010, held November 8­10, 2010 in Las Vegas, drew more than 2,900 attendees; the largest attendance of the five Dimensions conferences to date, and with a record 450 sessions presented, it was arguably the largest single-vendor positioning industry user conference worldwide–and this despite the rocky economic climate. With many in our industry still feeling the sting of these past few years of hard times, and with rapid changes in the technological approaches to our respective surveying lines of business, how is it that this user conference appears to reflect stability, even growth? There were clues in the makeup of the conference sessions, the types of products and services presented in the Partner Pavilion, and in the broadening variety of attendees. There have been some big changes not only in Trimble and in positioning, but also in elements of industries and lines-of-business lateral to the purely positioning industry. How does this lateral growth affect land surveying? And will Trimble’s diversification have any negative effect on its surveying products and services lines? Berglund’s keynote address answered many of these questions.

Steve Berglund joined Trimble in 1999. Prior to Trimble, Berglund was president of Spectra Precision, a group within Spectra Physics, AB. Subsequently, in 2000, Trimble acquired Spectra Precision. This pattern of acquisition and partnerships continued throughout this past decade. In his keynote, Berglund displayed two full slides of listed acquisitions; more than 50 companies large and small, some with names readily recognizable by surveyors like Applanix, SECO, and Tripod Data Systems–all carefully chosen to fit into a corporate growth strategy. Berglund explained that the strategy is not so much a matter of focusing on production of certain types of hardware, software or services as it was to seek and fulfill the needs of industries that could benefit from the same kinds of "process" and precision (of not only position, but also of data acquisition and management) that Trimble had traditionally developed for the positioning crowd. Trimble has expanded data collection and management tools to many other fields, like forestry, agriculture, utilities management, waste management, and construction inspection to name a few; products and services such as Trimble® Connected Site™ and Trimble Connected Farm™–there is a running theme here.

"Converge. Connect. Collaborate."
Tying together the disparate fields of surveying, forestry, fleet management, construction and others, this theme was emblazoned on all displays and materials. There were even displays at the conference for precision agriculture (although it should be noted that there was no presence of Trimble’s lucrative marine, defense, and embedded systems divisions). According to Berglund the elements of connectivity, convergence, and collaboration apply to each, with an increasing reliance on similar technologies–like data collectors, Internet connectivity, data tagging, coding, geographic information interfaces, and many others. Berglund illustrated his thoughts on those three elements. He spoke of the convergence of technologies, mainly processing power and communications, citing how rapidly these have changed. An example from the 1800s was the Pony Express– then the fastest way to get a message over part of the vast American west and measured in miles per hour–which was surpassed in the speed of light with the advent of the telegraph. With higher and higher throughput available, converging via so many means, the next step is their connection, and most important, connections among the human elements. With these elements in place, seamless real-time collaboration can take place.

There are a number of Trimble products and services familiar to surveyors that have been around for a few years that were designed with these notions in mind, like Trimble Access (for data collection and data transfer), the Connected Site (real-time data management), Trimble Assistant (live in-the-field support), and Trimble Business Center (in-the-office project and data management that has also integrated updates or replacements for previous applications like Trimble Geomatics Office into a single new platform as modules). This line of surveying-related products and services was in many ways the first of these connected lines, tried and tested, then later adapted to the other lines of business. In some cases, ideas and developments in the other lines were adapted to strengthen and augment the surveying line.

Not only have these new lines of business for Trimble grown, resulting in a solid stock performance, but they have emerged strongly in global markets (as evidenced by the well-attended conference session tracks that were presented in Spanish, German, and Chinese). But foremost the Trimble line of surveying products and services has expanded from GPS/GNSS only to a more complete surveying line, such as Trimble S6, S8 and VX Total Stations.

This strong performance can be a good thing for surveyors who have enough to worry about in these trying times without being burdened by worries about the stability and long-term viability of their hardware/software/services vendors. Like customers of most successful companies, many at the conference cited confidence in this stability and growth as a key contributor to their ongoing loyalty. So business has been fairly stable, if not on the upswing for some. But for whom? I queried sales and marketing folks as well as attendees from businesses large and small. Many noted that some surveyingrelated markets have been down for years with little sign of recovery–like residential development and related cadastral elements. But public works, heavy construction, international markets, and monitoring have grown. Some even reported that they are having trouble filling key positions. However, with so many unemployed surveyors available, why the trouble filling positions? When pressed for details several came up with similar replies–that it is not simply a matter of seeking specific tried-and-tested skill sets. One surveying-engineering firm principal told me, "I need people who are willing to completely relearn their jobs on each and every project." Indeed, it appears that not only our tools have changed, but expectations have changed, too. We must be capable of working these new tools to cross traditionally rigid lines of business: converging, connecting, and collaborating. Below are a few more conference highlights that illustrate these points.

Offsite Hands-on Sessions
As with past Dimensions, "hands-on" demonstrations of the construction lines were offered on a grand scale at an offsite location; essentially a live construction site. There were multiple offsite hands-on sessions offered to attendees during the course of the conference; there was also a pre-conference "Boot Camp" given at the same offsite location for Trimble sales, marketing, technical staff as well as dealers and development partne
rs. The two-day event, held the weekend prior to Dimensions, really put the hardware and software through its paces. But most important, it provided the training boost needed for many in the rapidly expanding line of products and services. It was a wild event; put a bunch of geeks in an open field with a pile of heavy equipment, high tech gear and software, and let them find out what the gear can do and find out who really knows their products.

Mobile Mapping
A convergence of multiple real-time positioning technologies in the form of a positioning system for mobile mapping vans was examined in a session put on by the Applanix crew. A challenge for both airborne and vehicle-based laser scanning is how to tighten the autonomous positioning capabilities of the mobile platform to reduce costly manual terrestrial registration of the data sets. The POS-LV line (position and orientation system for terrestrial mobile mapping) developed along with the POS-AV line (for airborne) has seen ongoing improvements and testing to its multi-pronged approach; a convergence of GNSS, inertial, and wheel-based distance measurement. Each technology alone has inherent weaknesses; GNSS can lose lock due to gaps in sky view, and inertial alone tends to drift. Adding a distance component (laser measured from a vehicle wheel) can fix drift in the inertial, and then the inertial processed together with the GNSS; without having to reinitialize the inertial at intersections. A most interesting development is in the application called SmartBase™, which has been around a few years, but has since been tried and tested with some outstanding results. SmartBase is a method for post-processing GNSS in a VRS™-like mode. Unlike Virtual RINEX, which has been around for nearly a decade and uses RINEX files produced by VRS infrastructure networks that can be used to post process when real-time communications may be limited or interrupted, SmartBase takes this one step further and processes the observations from a mobile platform in a sort of "play back" of what would take place in a real-time VRS operation. While scanning can yield relative precisions in millimeters, many mobile mapping consultants claim that with only a few ground registration points that the entire scan can have such dizzying precisions–not likely unless the outliers in the data set can be reduced, and such multi-pronged approaches are proving to be the way to do so. I was not the only attendee who commented we’d like to see something like SmartBase productized for the on-foot surveying and mapping markets as well.

Grade Control Meets VRS
Though many construction companies have been taking advantage of corrections from real-time networks for many years worldwide, an example from Musson Brothers Inc., a family-run construction company from Wisconsin, gave a very polished example of all of the moving parts working in harmony. Musson Brothers utilizes the SNM930 cellular radio to feed corrections from the WISCORS VRS network. The SNM930, like its counterpart in precision agriculture, the Ag3000, is one of a new style of hardened cellular modems specifically designed for the vibration and harsh conditions of heavy equipment. The modem initiates a VRS correction from the network, and relays that directly to a receiver or controller, or bridges that over via serial to a localized radio transmission for use by one or more GNSS receivers. One challenge that Musson Brothers found was that the WISCORS network did not cover all of their working territory, and they had to switch to a local base station; this they overcame with a switch that their own team fabricated to switch over between modem and radio sources. This company has seen substantial productivity gains by implementing grade control, and one highlighted project saw the grading of submerged site where staking would have been impossible.

Pink Bulldozers and Theft Deterrents
One advantage of large conferences is that they often include valuable sessions laterally related to the industry. For example, multiple presentations highlighted digital pens that have made inroads into construction inspection, plant management, inventory, plan markups, and site communications. The digital pen technology utilizes a unique ID for each pen writing on user-printable sheets of almost any size imprinted with a unique pattern (nearly invisible to the naked eye). This technology records, delivers and archives exactly when, by whom, and what was written in the field. It is likely that this technology could find its way into survey field books in the near future.

Another fine presentation was given by the very dynamic Stacy Kaufman of the privately operated National Equipment Register (NER) that provides a registration service mainly for the construction industry. Stacy went on to try to dispel many of the commonly held myths about construction equipment theft; a $5B per year problem in the United States alone. One myth is that gear ends up out of the country. Stacy said it is more likely to end up on a job site in the same town (hence the example of the company that paints their equipment pink as a theft deterrent). "There is no DMV for equipment," stated Stacy. "NER is like a national equipment DMV." Though surveying equipment presents more of a challenge to protect and track because of portability, the same anti-theft precautions and registration steps can help–certainly a great subject for state-level surveying conferences.

Right Time, Right Place
"We hope to eradicate professional embarrassment," said Berglund in promoting Trimble’s "Converge, Connect, and Collaborate" vision. In response to some offline questions, Berglund said that in particular the delivery of "the right information, at the right time, at the right place," was where all of this high-tech capability could be put to best use. I asked Berglund if he felt the user conference type of outreach was a core strategy for Trimble; he answered, "Of course it is of benefit to Trimble to evangelize a bit. However, our primary goal is to add increasing levels of value to our customers through educational forums and a comprehensive set of solutions." And from the apparent success of the Dimensions conferences, this appears to be a good strategy.

Gavin Schrock is a surveyor in Washington State where he is the administrator of the regional cooperative real-time network, the Washington State Reference Station Network. He has been in surveying and mapping for more than 30 years and is a regular contributor to this publication.

A 2.519Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE