Briefing: Mike Frecks, President, 3DS2

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This SparView is the second in a series of interviews with CEOs of leading service providers in existing-conditions capture. 3DS2, Inc., a surveying and laser scanning company based in Elkhorn, NE, has completed more than 50 laser scanning projects since it was founded in November 2002. Active in the civil, architectural and plant markets, the company counts BMW, Kansas DOT, Minnesota DOT and Anheuser-Busch among its clients. We interviewed president Mike Frecks, a 26-year veteran surveying professional, to learn what drew him into the world of laser scanning, whether it’s lived up to his expectations, and what he sees as critical to the industry’s success going forward.You had a long career in surveying before you got involved with laser scanning. How did it happen?

I got involved with laser scanning in June 2000. I’d been in the survey and field data collection world for 26 years. Back in February 2000 a gentleman called me who was going to disassemble a church in
southern Iowa, ship it to Texas and reassemble it. It had a geometrically challenging roof rafter system. He asked me to create a drawing of that, and number the pieces to help them put it back together. We had reflectorless total stations at the time, and I went looking for a better way to do it. That led me to laser scanning technology. With that, I saw a huge future in laser scanning.
  

Has it been all you expected?

Adoption has been a lot slower than I thought it would be. One thing that’s critical is a champion at the client. If the client is new, there’s got to be a reason for them to use laser scanning. Usually I find it’s a champion within the organization that drives its use. What they see, bottom line, is return on investment in the technology – the ease of design, speed of design, completeness of the data, and the quality that laser scanning brings to their organization. All else being equal, it gives them one more chip to play against competitors, in the right situation. If they can throw more value and pizazz at the client, and be equal in cost, it’s the way to go.

Those champions tend to be people who aren’t afraid to look into the future, and put some time into developing their own skills. You don’t just pick this stuff up and run with it. You have to invest in understanding it. And in some respects they have to be swashbucklers. They have to have an open spirit, a different attitude. They have to think outside the box. What they’re up against is people who say, “We’ve done it this way for 40 years and it’s always worked, so why should we change?”

But now these projects are beginning to show the benefits, as people start to track the savings. Projects have now gone all the way to the end using laser scanning, and people are beginning to be able to track the return on investment. Those champions need that kind of ammunition to take to their management.

People from all levels of the organization have emerged as champions – from the head of the piping department, to a company’s lead technicians. Their challenge is to get the people above them excited, to find those bullets they can take to their managers to show that scanning would provide value to their client.What were the challenges in going from land surveying to laser scanning?

The land surveying that I did for 26 years really prepared me well to add another tool to my toolbox. I’ve worked with architects, engineers, plant people doing all sorts of data collection and spatial measurement. We are not a scanning company per se – laser scanning is just a tool in our toolbox to accomplish the task that a particular client may have. To me, the service to the client is not about laser scanning, it’s about field data collection. There are lots of times when the client will tell us what they
want to do, and we’ll say, “That’s not a laser scanning project, it’s a reflectorless total station project.”

For clients, the professionalism of the people providing scanning services is key. Being a professional is a big part of it. Talking to the client – I do that with every project. That’s part of the RFP process. You
need to understand spatial relationships. First the client will tell you what he’s trying to accomplish, and that tells the service provider what level of accuracy is needed. To place a table in a dining room does not need high accuracy, but piping does. You need to interview the client to find all that out.

What technologies have you worked with?

We use many different scanners, from long-range to short-range all the way down to devices with micron-level accuracy. We’ve worked with just about everything – Cyra, iQvolution, RIEGL, Z+F, Minolta, Surphaser – and we’ve had Visi Image and MENSI scanners in the shop, though not on a project. And we use most of the software, especially CloudWorx, LASERGen and PolyWorks – the big three.

When I first started in the field, my challenge was to find software that could produce the product we needed for our clients. We were looking for a way to seamlessly give the client the same project he would have had if we had collected the data in a more traditional fashion. But in plant, that doesn’t work, because it loses all the reason you scanned in the first place. The software did not exist until people like Mark Klusza at BitWise and Eric Hoffman at Quantapoint began delivering these software products that could handle point clouds and have the designer work right in the point clouds. That was a huge breakthrough. There’s still a way to go, but that really opened it up. Those are the kinds of products that proved to the clients that this really is something that works.

We’ve come a long way in the last two years, and we still have about that much further to go yet. I’m one of the younger guys in scanning – I’ve been in it four years this spring. But when I came in, I had a new
perspective – I had to start from scratch – and that new perspective was that there was no software out there. Because of that, I got hung out to dry on a few projects. But with the tools I had, I did the work and got the projects out. But having that four-year view is just incredible. I’ve seen the industry go from hardly any software at all that was worth anything, to the software suites that today are really starting to come of age. Handling those huge data sets is the big problem that’s now starting to be solved.
How did you pick the industries you sell to – civil, architecture, plant?

Those are the people I knew from my professional career. Civil and architectural are where I grew up. And plant is an area I had worked in with some past machinery work, and doing things for plants around locally – lining up cranes and so on. Civil and architectural were naturals for me. I knew what they needed. For example, I knew what kind of data a civil engineer needs to design a road. I served those guys for 23 years. So there, I stuck with what I knew.

Plants – that’s a different world from the civil and architectural. That’s why we feel our knowledge of a wide range of scanners is one of our strengths. You have to look at what the client is trying to accomplish. We are involved in many different work processes using many different tools, so when we talk to a client, we understand which scanners can and can’t do a given work process. We have had some challenging situations that proved to us just how important the QA/QC process is. You can’t depend on someone else’s work flow without testing it for yourself.

Has laser scanning crossed from a market for the technologically curious, to one where customers are driven by the business benefits?

It’s towards the end of the technical curiosity phase, and just barely starting into the business benefits phase. It’s to where the people who have got off the bleeding edge are beginning to prove that this stuff really does work, and the pieces are beginning to be in place for this to be a viable work solution. What will move that forward is taking these past projects, and taking those to the next tier of clients. You’ve got 10% of the bleeding-edge adopters who like the technology. Then you’ve got 70% “What I’ve got works.” We’re just at the beginning of that mainstream 70% adopting it.

What’s your greatest frustration today?

Early on, with some clients we had to get past this view that point clouds are really cool. Projects got started because of “cool,” people paid $15,000 or $20,000 for a project, then the client got the point cloud and said, “Well, what do we do with this?” So there was a lot of frustration. That’s my frustration – finding clients that have a bad taste in their mouth because of experiences like that.

Then there’s another side of it: service providers should not be pushed into projects that are not scanner projects. Some scanner manufacturers pushed service providers into it by saying, “Here’s a $40,000 project, here’s a scanner, go to it,” when the project was not right for scanning. That was a frustration.

And not just at the beginning – inappropriate things are still going on. It’s such a small world – we know who can handle a project and who can’t. My frustration is service providers who don’t know their limitations, and don’t stay within them.

First and foremost, our goal is for our clients to be happy. One failure wipes out 100 successes. I’m not just talking about our organization, but the industry as a whole. We all have to live with each other’s mess-ups. Customers talk – we have heard statements such as “That laser THAT is what we are trying to avoid and we need to be damned sure our projects are successful.

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