Survey Perspectives: The Beginning of the Battle

January 6, 2009  - By 0 Comments

I try to stay current on all the business happenings, product introductions, etc. throughout the year and occasionally report on them.

Back in my November 2008 column, I discussed the huge price disparity between various real-time kinematic (RTK) systems on the market. One of the products I featured was the Spectra Precision Epoch 25. I featured it because it was being offered at a very low price (comparatively speaking) at approximately U.S. $19,000, including UHF radios for a base/rover configuration. Granted, the Epoch 25 doesn’t offer GLONASS support or support for GPS L2C or L5, but for the price, you couldn’t really argue.

Spectra Precision is owned by Trimble. Trimble uses the Spectra brand to address the low-price market so they can hold the prices on the Trimble branded systems like the R8 GNSS. One of the ways to create a differentiation between products is to not offer as many features on the low-end product (eg. Epoch 25 vs. R8 GNSS).

Just last week, Spectra introduced the Epoch 35 GNSS system. It adds a few features like GLONASS, Bluetooth, internal radio, and all-around better packaging. What makes this interesting is the addition of GLONASS to their low-end RTK system. It significantly narrows the feature gap between Trimble’s high-end and Spectra/Trimble low-end RTK systems. Something’s going to give at some point if they keep adding features to the low-end RTK systems. The Epoch 35 GNSS system price is “only” U.S. $32,900, compared to a Trimble R8 GNSS for US$56,000.

I think what it’s showing us is the trend of high-precision RTK system pricing. The trend is heading downward, and it’s not just due to the economy. The reduction of pricing for RTK systems is going to happen no matter what the economy does (granted the economy may accelerate the trend).

High-precision RTK systems are going to follow the path of notebook computers with respect to price and features. With notebook computers, each year they are faster, brighter, and packed with new features. Last year’s model is still offered, but at a lower selling price. As RTK system manufacturers attempt to hold the pricing on high-end systems, I think you’ll see more and more features packed into those premium systems, while the low-end systems also become more powerful.

Sokkia/Topcon

We haven’t seen the fallout of the Sokkia/Topcon merger yet.

At this point, Sokkia products are still using Novatel (now owned by Leica) GNSS technology via their joint venture called Point Inc. In 2009, I think you’ll see that starting to change. First of all, you’ll see Sokkia products starting to ship with Topcon GNSS technology. Actually, maybe you won’t see it. Maybe they’ll make the transition transparent … imagine what the local Topcon dealer would do if, all of the sudden, the local Sokkia dealer was selling “Topcon Inside” products with a Sokkia label? I’m sure the Topcon/Sokkia marketing bobble-heads have put some thought into that transition already.

Also, I’ve written this before and I still believe it. Topcon/Sokkia will be the new Trimble/Spectra Precision. Topcon will address the premium, high-end market while Sokkia will address the entry-level, low-end market. It makes a lot of sense since they are already positioned in the market that way. I could see Sokkia being the entry-level RTK brand that addresses basic RTK functionality while Topcon would provide leading-edge GNSS technology plus other sensor integration such as laser, gyro, inertial navigation, etc.

On the subject of Sokkia, their GNSSS products appear to offer a very good value. GLONASS is standard in the GSR2700 ISX and it supports modernized GPS signals (L2C and L5), so it’s not affected by the impending (albeit twelve years from now) Civil P/Y phase-out. When compared side-by-side with the Spectra Epoch 35 GNSS, the Sokkia system looks pretty favorable. I haven’t used either one so don’t take that as a stamp of approval. I was just comparing the system specifications.

The challenge for Sokkia is not one of technical specifications, but one of product distribution and reputation. They just never got any momentum going in the GNSS business. It will be interesting to see how the Topcon/Sokkia merger addresses that.

So this year will be the beginning of the battle between Trimble/Spectra and Topcon/Sokkia. You have to give Topcon some credit. They’ve really pulled it together this decade and put together a formidable GNSS product line-up. This isn’t to say that Trimble hasn’t been on its game. They’ve been scooping companies right and left to fortify their position.

Where Does That Leave The Rest?

Trimble, Topcon and Leica own 75 percent of the world’s high precision GNSS business. Leica doesn’t currently have a dual-brand strategy like Trimble/Spectra and Topcon/Sokkia. One could say that Novatel is their other brand, but Novatel is strictly an OEM manufacturer that doesn’t have a retail presence in the survey/construction market.

The other 25 percent of the market share is held by Magellan, Javad, Septentrio, Hemisphere, Navcom, and Novariant. They all have commercially viable GNSS technology, but struggle to develop a solid distribution channel to push their products into the survey/construction market. Whereas 10 years ago there were some companies available to partner with that had a strong market presence in the survey/construction market, in 2009 there are virtually none. All of the significant players are paired up and spoken for. It will take some very creative thinking to establish alternative methods of distributing their products into this increasingly competitive high-precision GNSS market.

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