The Future's 'Cloudy' (and that's a good thing)

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One industry that is characterized by continuous improvement is information technology. An IT innovation for business that has begun to penetrate the mainstream of business activity is enterprise cloud computing, which utilizes groups of computers in various locations that aggregate data storage as well as Internet gateways for network access from any location. The result is a level of data processing power and storage that rivals those of local or wide-area networks–accessible to work groups that are spread out across countries, continents or the entire globe.

Also, unlike company intranets that were utilized in business starting in the 1990s, enterprise cloud computing does not require significant IT infrastructure staffing for system maintenance at the local level. Now the individual worker has access to a powerful, work group-specific data storage system from anywhere. That’s the idea behind enterprise networks like Topcon Positioning Systems’ Magnet cloud-based enterprise solution and cloud-enabled family of software applications that was introduced to the public at Intergeo 2011 and launched in March 2012.

As the name implies, Magnet was developed to pull together the efforts of field crews, office staff–and, significantly, for the first time–managers. Now, all work groups can quickly share access to project data, check the current status of ongoing work, take advantage of inter-company chat communication, and manage the projects over vast distances. Topcon developed the system to follow its vision of providing customers with a necessary business collaboration system to streamline workflow between management, office applications and the mobile workforce.

The result is a highly centralized, robust, accessible group of software solutions. The "system" of software products is designed to be a quantum leap beyond the "shattered" systems that have been commonly used in the past. The latter has consisted of individual software packages with low-priced, disparate software programs from competing vendors that are not ideally compatible.

Moreover, Magnet is a turnkey system that does not require IT and network staff to design, implement and maintain. The only major adjustment that work groups might have with cloud computing is trusting that the data is "in the cloud" because storage devices to which they have grown accustomed–like a hard drive or flash drive–is not being used.

Four Elements
Magnet Enterprise.
The key element in the new system is Magnet Enterprise, which provides the centralizing feature for management. Topcon previously offered software solutions for office and field personnel. Magnet Enterprise fuses these functions together with those of management and allows real-time collaboration with the other work groups. Managers can use Magnet Enterprise to track assets, access vast quantities of stored data to manage their projects, exchange data and share these data within their companies, visualize all field work currently completed, and communicate instantaneously with office and field personnel while projects are underway.

Enterprise is a Web-based subscription-only component of Magnet–in contrast to Magnet Field, Tools and Office, which can be purchased outright or activated on a subscription basis.

Magnet Field. Crews that previously stored project data in multiple self-contained instruments and systems such as total stations, automated grade control systems and field controllers can transfer data from their field devices to Magnet Enteprise so that they can access the data in one central location: the cloud-based company account.

For example, a project foreman can collect data on a project all morning and then upload the data to the cloud during the lunch hour from anywhere in the world. The foreman’s manager can then access the up-to-the-minute data and get an accurate idea of the project’s progress.

In addition, a manager can set out on the cloud all of the files that a crew will likely need at the start of a shift on a given day so that workers can access them and communicate work instructions via the Chat feature.

Magnet Office. Enterprise cloud computing allows project support work groups–e.g., drafting technicians and DTM modelers–to make file revisions and generate custom quality reports of field work that currently has been done. If needed, office staff can also initiate a "Real-Time Session." Through a Real-Time Session, measurements made by crew members in the field are also instantly sent and recorded within Magnet Office software.

Beyond visualizing all points being measured instantly with a satellite image background, office staffs then have the option of exporting this real-time work as three-dimensional data in a variety of file formats. Once this is done, office staff can exchange quick and helpful chat messages with any company user.

Magnet’s Asset Manager feature allows office staff to determine, remotely, where instruments are and have been. They can also play back the footsteps taken while data was collected and visualize job points, lines and areas and even display TopNET live network Global Navigation Satellite System coverage using Magnet’s built-in Google Maps functionality.

A natural question is what prevents office staff from just using a free Google Docs or Drive account–or some other free product that is available to the general public–for collaboration with other work groups. Surveying, construction and civil engineering companies that use such a cloud computing platform still have not solved the problems inherent in utilizing programs not developed by the cloud vendor for data storage. Magnet, in contrast, is a private, secure network that works seamlessly with Topcon programs.

Magnet Tools. This product, also used by office staff, installs on individual computer hard drives. This software primarily allows office staff to download data collected in the field, process it, generate custom reports, and even view projects with Google Earth as a background. Magnet Tools software can also convert third-party file formats. As is the case with Magnet Field and Magnet Enterprise, Magnet Tools software allows office staff to communicate instantaneously with management and field staff using inter-company chats.

Paying Dividends
Time savings. Enterprise cloud computing can save surveying, construction and civil engineering professionals a great deal of time. For example:

No longer is it necessary for a project foreman to drive to the office and save a needed file to a flash drive and drive back to the jobsite.

A surveying company that is starting a new project across the street from a previously completed project can continue using control monuments that have already been set.

By importing their existing CAD drawing files or raw files from previously used third-party products, a company can systematically build a geospatial information system in the cloud to allow viewing and management of all field work it has ever done.

A project foreman or machine operator who is used to being alerted via text or a cell phone call by the civil engineer that files with design changes have been sent–and must turn on a laptop to access the files–can now receive the alert on a tablet device and access the files quickly.

No additional IT maintenance requirements. Smaller companies, in particular, benefit from reduced IT staffing an
d maintenance requirements. The user merely visits the Magnet Enterprise website and creates a company account. No additional IT staff is needed to maintain a network.

Low subscription investment. Rather than purchase or finance a large software suite at the start of a large project, the user can subscribe to Magnet, allowing a quicker attainment of financial breakeven. This cost-effective approach is particularly beneficial for smaller companies that are not yet cash flow-positive.

Geographic barrier lowering. Large multinational construction and civil engineering companies particularly benefit from collaboration across time zones via the cloud. Managers in one time zone can utilize the Enterprise product to provide field and office personnel located halfway around the world with the resources needed to get off to a productive start on the next shift–wherever and whenever that might be.

Self-sufficiency. Perhaps the most obvious capability of cloud computing is that it can make work groups and individual workers more self-sufficient than they have ever been. The individual worker can start a shift and keep a project moving without waiting on others as often as in the past. Cloud computing can break down the traditional project "critical path" to a large extent. Rather than tell a field worker to drive to a job trailer on one jobsite to pick up a thumb drive containing a design change file and proceed on to another jobsite to start shooting layout points at another jobsite, a manager can upload the file to Magnet via the Enterprise product.

Increasing information transparency and availability increases self-sufficiency. Say, for example, a survey crew is starting a new project in which points for curved interior walls will be located. Only one worker is familiar with that type of design and he is working on a different jobsite on this particular day. Rather than requiring that worker to explain how to complete the task, the crew can refer to CAD files for all similar projects. The learning curve is reduced and the project gets off to a faster start.

Don Talend, Write Results Inc., West Dundee, IL, is a print and e-communications content developer specializing in covering technology and innovation.

A 1.172Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE