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Ascending the vertical axis

Geospatial solutions providers are taking a vertical approach to their businesses. The lessons they have learned can benefit the industry as a whole. By Ron Bisio, Vice President and General Manager, Trimble Geospatial

Imagine you are in a room with a small group of people. The group includes an owner of a small farm in Chile, a railway operator from Germany, a seismic exploration specialist from Saudi Arabia, a heavy construction contractor from Australia, a forestry technician from Canada and the manager of a commercial soybean farm in the US. The people are discussing their businesses and how they go about their work. There is not much in common between them. They come from different physical environments and use radically different tools and processes to do their jobs. However, they do share one interesting characteristic — at some point in their job, each person needs spatial information.

This common need presents an opportunity — and a challenge — to companies that provide measurement and positioning technologies. The group uses spatial data, but their individual workflows and information requirements are so different that a single approach stands little chance of meeting their needs. For a geospatial solutions provider to successfully serve each person in the group, the provider must apply deep knowledge of six different industries.

Data from positioning and soil sensors is combined to produce a map of soil acidity. Farm operators use the information to manage applications of water, seed and additives. Trimble technologies for agriculture verticals include GNSS, fleet operations, on-vehicle sensors, communications, analytic software and machine control. Inset: A customized display provides information for operators of farm equipment.

This solution, known as a vertical marketing approach, combines efforts in product development, manufacturing, distribution, communications and support to focus on a defined application or a set of end users. Vertical marketing is taking hold throughout the geospatial industry. Manufacturers and solutions providers are moving from a one-size-fits-all approach to one that addresses a defined market or application by blending specialized products, both hardware and software, with dedicated teams for distribution and support.

A sprayer equipped with Trimble technology can automatically control the release of product. By integrating technologies for agricultural markets, Trimble helps farm operators to manage costs, increase yields and optimize the use of fuel, fertilizer and additives

The experience of going vertical

Trimble began to approach specialized markets two decades ago. Traditional customers such as the US Park Service or Bureau of Land Management (BLM) could use off-the-shelf solutions and get good results. But customer segments such as construction, mining and utilities often had more specific requirements associated with the assets they were managing. They operated in different environments (physical, financial and regulatory) and used distinct workflows and terminology. The existing solutions for GPS surveying and GIS simply did not meet their needs.

A laser scanner at work at construction site. In addition to gathering data for design the scanner can collect as-built information for project management, pay quantities and quality control.

Solving this challenge called for a hands-on approach to gain domain knowledge in the segments. It usually began by simply talking to customers to understand what they do and how it is done. Trimble’s marketing and development offices have a lot of people with dirty boots under their chairs; a big part of our success comes from going out into the field to see our where customers work and understand their workflows. It is an important first step: in order to go vertical, we visited hundreds of offices and jobsites to understand the work being done.

The knowledge gained leads to a decision on whether to develop a vertical market using internal resources or to work with businesses that focus on the vertical. As market knowledge grows, it often becomes apparent that partnering or acquisition offers the most efficient way to expand into new segments. But it can be surprising how quickly a vertical approach can change and expand.

For example, in the mid-1990s Trimble provided GIS-style products in the forestry industry but had limited domain expertise. In 2000, we acquired Tripod Data Systems, which had products and a strong market presence in timber cruising and inventory.

The opportunities in forestry continue to grow. We tapped fleet management to create systems that tracked the movement and status of logging trucks. As the result of a more recent acquisition, Cengea, our forestry solution now covers the entire forestry enterprise. In addition to monitoring forest health and status, timber companies can track harvests and manage transportation and delivery from the forest to the mill.

Geospatial solutions can be applied to vertical applications in energy, utilities and other industrial markets. Systems for positioning, scanning, visualization and 3D modeling produce information used for engineering, design, construction and lifecycle maintenance.

Bringing multiple solutions into play

A key part of the vertical approach is to own core technologies that provide the platforms for industry-specific solutions. The forestry example provides a good illustration of how vertical strategy can leverage core technologies. What began as a handheld mapping-grade solution grew to include wireless communications, GNSS-based vehicle tracking, onboard sensors and sophisticated software for operations and analysis. From these and other examples, we know that there are several aspects to providing solutions for a vertical market. These include:

Why geospatial service providers should pay close attention to industry verticals?
  • Possess, develop or acquire in-depth knowledge of customer practices and needs. There is simply no substitute for domain expertise. For example, by combining measurement and visualization technologies with expertise in police procedures and forensic standards, we provide solutions that transform the work of investigation and reconstruction. 3D scanners and total stations provide powerful tools that support forensics applications to obtain thorough documentation of accidents and crime scenes.
  • Leverage core technologies and use software to adapt to specific applications. Positioning solutions and software can be remarkably flexible. Nearly two decades ago, we adapted GPS receivers to provide guidance for construction machinery and farm equipment. Specialized onboard software converted GPS results into simple instructions for equipment operators. Subsequent solutions added the ability to interface directly with machine systems, thereby enabling autonomous operations.
  • Establish infrastructure for positioning. Today it is possible to achieve GNSS real-time sub-meter accuracy nearly anywhere. It did not happen by accident. Large regional GNSS networks use Real-Time Networks technology to support precise measurement for a variety of real-time and post-processed applications. In other locations, positioning services serve as an enabling technology across vertical applications with varied needs for precision and access to correction services.
  • Create tools for flexible software. Modern development models and architecture allow software to serve as a platform for multiple applications. Software development kits and applications programming interfaces can speed and simplify the work to build new applications. The tools enable internal or third-party partners to meet vertical requirements and terminologies while taking advantage of existing capabilities.
  • Provide platforms for efficient exchange of information. Organizations need to share information throughout the enterprise. Web-based solutions support remote access, analysis and visualization of key information.
  • Establish partners and distribution within a vertical. Vertically focused distributors and solutions providers deliver benefits to end users and manufacturers alike. Because of their frequent, direct interaction with customers, specialized distributors can anticipate needs and react quickly for support or repairs. They possess deep knowledge of market needs and ways of doing business, which aids the manufacturer in bringing better solutions.

Beyond all these aspects of vertical marketing, the most important facet of vertical marketing is to utilize the relationships that emerge as a result of a vertical approach. It is not possible to learn about customers’ domains from within your office. Only by standing alongside the customer and looking at their entire ecosystem — work processes, downstream users and the other stakeholders they work with — will you discover who your partners need to be. From there, the decision process examines options to develop, partner or acquire the domain expertise.