Insights from an Industry Veteran

 

Paul F. HahnAfter graduating from the University of Kentucky with a degree in physical education, Andy Donovan’s career path took an abrupt turn. He made the “mistake” of taking a summer job at a surveying firm and never looked back.  According to Andy “what started as a summer job, became a career” - a certain loss to countless kids who would have called him “Coach Donovan”. Andy found that surveying intrigued him and came to him very naturally.

After the launch of his survey career in 1976 Andy advanced through the ranks to become a Party Chief with a LSIT and working towards his Professional Land Surveyor’s license.  When the recession of 1981 hit Kentucky, his company downsized and it was time for a change.  He accepted a job with Brunson Instrument Company in Denver, Colorado, selling surveying instruments.  “I had never really sold anything in my life” says Andy, but he knew the applications and the Denver economy was booming.  This new career became a real challenge and an adventure that would last decades.  Andy was quickly drawn to high-end systems, a curse and a blessing at the time as the technology, and its acceptance, were in its infancy.  Back then, data collectors only kind-of-worked and properly talked to computers, software sort-of-worked well with plotters and surveyors where hesitant to change procedures - so it was a tough sell (Andy also got his first exposure to GPS, selling a Magnavox system for static surveys).  But Andy persisted and learned and eventually caught the eye of Nikon’s Surveying Instruments Group and was hired away from Brunson in 1983 to become their Midwest Regional Sales Manager.

Andy says it was an exciting time in the surveying industry as all of the “field-to-finish” technologies were evolving at the same time. To make “system sales” one had to become adept at making the early computers, software, electronic total stations and data collection work together seamlessly for the customer-a big challenge and a steep learning curve that Andy embraced.  In 1989 Andy returned to Brunson who was expanding rapidly but needed someone who understood the systems approach and how to make it work. At that time, Brunson represented Sokkia, Trimble and Hewlett Packard products.   One of the reasons Andy returned to Brunson was their representation of Trimble’s GPS receivers that he saw as a critical development in the future of surveying instrumentation. A few years later, when Trimble introduced the first RTK GPS products, Andy immediately saw the vast applications for the technology. 

In 1992, Andy was approached by Geotronics of North America and accepted the position of Technical Support Manager, in Chicago.  Shortly thereafter he was promoted to Product Manager for both Geodimeter optical total stations and Geotracer GPS products. He was responsible to relay the needs of the North American market to Geotronics headquarters in Sweden.  He became the conduit between the customers and the product development groups at HQ, refining the products.  He worked with some of the major innovators of today’s cutting edge technology.  Some of the products they produced are well known today including the ATS optical total station for machine control, the VRS network, and various GPS-based machine control solutions. 

After Geotronics’ parent company acquired Spectra Physics, Andy transferred to the Machine Control group within the newly-formed Spectra Precision organization.  He continued to work with both optical and GPS-based machine control solutions. He was part of the team that introduced the first total station-controlled motor grader system called Blade Pro 3D.  Again, that required the integration of software, positioning sensors, machine control components and something new called “data modeling”- Bleeding-Edge stuff at the time. 

In April of 2001, Andy was lured away again (by one of his former colleagues on the Spectra Precision Machine Control team), to become a partner in a newly-formed company based in the Carolinas called “Spectra Integrated Systems” as vice president and GPS specialist.  The company decided early-on that their main focus would be on complete customer support, not sales.  This approach encompassed customer education, training, service and data preparation capabilities.  As an example of their customer support philosophy, they offer a 24 hour up-time guarantee that gets customers back up-and-running regardless of the problem.   Andy says "you have to have devotion to the customer because those stakes aren’t in the ground anymore.”  This approach paid off.   By 2003 (their second year in business) the company was the number three machine control dealer, worldwide, for Trimble and has remained in the Top Ten ever since.

*Of Note: I n 2005, Andy and Spectra Integrated Systems became involved in the first US military construction project to be built using 3D machine control technology.  Called the Joint Rapid Airfield Construction (JRAC) program, this group focused on the feasibility of constructing airfields, in various global theaters of operation, much faster than previously thought possible.  By implementing the newest technology, they hoped to drastically reduce construction time.  Andy’s involvement with the test project brought him further experience in the integration of technologies. (By the way, the airfield project was constructed in four days.)  If you are interested in learning more about the JRAC program missions and the proof-of-concept test project; you can read an article co-authored by Andy Donovan online at:  http://www.siteprepmag.com/Articles/Feature_Article/2005/01/01/Four-Days-to-TOUCHDOWN.

In late 2007, the business was sold to a group of Mid-Atlantic Caterpillar dealers and Andy continues in his position as vice-president and GPS guru, taking care of Trimble and Caterpillar machine control customers. The business continues to operate under the Spectra Integrated Systems, Inc. name, serving contractors in the Carolinas and Virginia.

All of this experience and technical knowledge has given Andy a unique vantage point from which to comment on the maturation of machine control systems and insight into how adaptation of the technology has changed for the contractor.  He is truly one of the best-rounded and experienced industry professionals who has “been there and done that”.  All of Andy’s past and current colleagues will attest to his high level of integrity and commitment to his customers.

In the years since the first machine control systems were introduced to the market, many changes have taken place.   Andy’s thoughts on the evolution of the systems: “GPS now works the way I have always wanted it to.  Thanks to technical advancements and new algorithms, GPS has become a tool that you can count on and depend on.  You can walk in the trees and get a fix.  You can work up next to a building and not lose lock.  You can use the equipment and not be hindered by obstructions and other issues that used to stop us from doing the job.”

“Today, the performance we are seeing is far superior to what we have had up until a year ago.  The technology is at a very high level. The weak link is still the data that is prepared to go into the machine.  Most users don’t realize that the quality of the data dictates how well the hardware will work.  One of my favorite quotes is: “Bad data makes this stuff look like a pile of wire”.  99% of the time, problems are caused by the data, not the machine control system.”  When I asked Andy about other improvements, from an operator’s perspective, he went on to say “The user interface has gotten a lot easier to learn and use, so it’s easier to train people.  People are more comfortable right from the get-go, now.  When you put it in front of operators and turn it on, it’s not intimidating anymore, it makes sense to them. 

When it comes to dealer training and support, Andy believes it is much improved over the early days.  “Almost every customer teaches me something about applications. The accumulation of that knowledge over time provides a greater ability to adapt the equipment to the customers’ needs.  The systems can now be adapted to what the customer wants; it’s become much more customizable.  But it takes a dedication to education, listening to what the customer wants and staying on top of what the technology can do.   All the systems work, but it’s the dealer’s ability to convey to the contractor how the systems works that determines their success." 

As to existing users:”They no longer need convincing.  Many are on their third generation of machine control systems and they just want to be kept updated on new releases and what they can do for them” Donovan said.   

For non-users: “The best thing they can do is spend a day, get on a machine and see what’s involved.  Go visit a company that’s already using the technology and ask lots of questions.  If they can’t find a local contractor who is willing to share this information because they deem it to be a competitive advantage, their dealer can arrange a visit to another machine control customer outside the immediate area” advises Andy.  If necessary, your local dealer can perform a “soft install”, temporarily placing components on your equipment and modeling a portion of your site for demonstration purposes.

As for market trends: Andy notes that 75% of the new systems sold are 3D, though some of the new, scalable, systems with a lower entry price-point are drawing additional interest.

To summarize: the skill, experience and capabilities of your local machine control dealers has been advancing, while the technology itself has been evolving and becoming more flexible, reliable and user-friendly.  Although the early-adopters have reaped the most benefits in terms of increased productivity and competitive advantage; now is a great time to investigate this technology.

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