A prominent manufacturer of surveying hardware and software in its own domestic market, Hi-Target is looking towards a broader future in the global geospatial sector.
A familiar story: a startup rose rapidly in the Asian infrastructure and development boom to capture top status for certain surveying and mapping products in their domestic market—a market larger than the total non-domestic global market. Next, an imitator becomes an innovator and makes modest inroads overseas in regions previously dominated by legacy industry leaders. Hi-Target has certainly charted that familiar path for growth, but it’s also eyeing a more prominent role in geospatial—and it’s doing so as geospatial becomes more widely recognized as a key element of modernization in sustainable tech and infrastructure.
You might not be familiar with Hi-Target (less so in the U.S., more so in Canada). But you know its subsidiary Geosolution Holding AB, a Swedish GNSS company acquired in 2015 that holds the proprietary brand “SatLab,” which is operated more as a complementary line of products.
Sea and Space
In 1999, Liao Dinghai founded Hi-Target with the goal of producing echo sounders and GNSS receivers. Further, he wanted to eventually develop a broader portfolio of domestic, high-quality surveying and mapping hardware and software. He had studied engineering at a naval institute, worked as a hydrographer, and participated in some of the first uses of high-precision GNSS in China.
The company’s first decade was dominated by its development and manufacture of GNSS items. Most of these instruments were built around OEM boards from some of the more established overseas producers; some still are.
In its second decade it expanded into optical instruments, mobile mapping, UAS, hydro gear, scanning, software, GNSS augmentation services, and everything that goes with being a “full boat” provider. Their foundation, though, required maturing beyond simply OEM and low-end gear; the whirlwind second decade of Hi-Target demonstrates that.
Build Many and Build Better
Stefan Wei, marketing director, was my guide during a visit to Hi-Target’s HQ in Guangzhou. He said, “From 2011, we grew five or six times, and we are now number one for [survey rovers] in China.” Numbers have a lot of nuance when it comes to GNSS units sold, as this would include handhelds and embedded systems.
But for survey-grade rovers, Wei said that totals would be slightly less than the 35K to 40K (though sometimes higher) for total stations they move annually. Wei said that Hi-Target was also the first such surveying and mapping company to be listed on the China stock exchange (2011).
Wei, who gained his geomatics foundation while studying land resources management at the China University of Geosciences and then joined Hi-Target, witnessed how rapidly the company has grown since. “We have digitalized our quality control and testing; we now do many more tests and simulations and record everything,” he said.
“When I first started, to do a radio test [for example], you put someone 6km or 10km away and try to connect; one ring [means]: good, two rings: not so good, no connection: bad. We now do it with high-quality test equipment; different cables can simulate signal loss over different distances. We invest a lot in test equipment. [For instance,] for one [GNSS test device] we spent more than one million Yuan [$145K USD].”
Financial news about Hi-Target (and peer companies globally) reveals substantial investments in manufacturing infrastructure, R&D, and (over 100) academic partnerships. More than $300M was invested in their main optical production (what they call their photoelectric business) facilities near Shanghai. (Time did not permit me visiting their total-station manufacturing lines while there, and Hi-Target is quite protective of the industrial facilities, especially with some serious competition.) I also found that Hi-Target has partnered with as many as 100 academic institutions as part of their education and R&D outreach.
Coyee Wu, marketing manager at Hi-Target who joined us on the tour, said that the company currently has more than 3,300 employees; this includes factory workers. Wu added that about 30% of the employees are engineers and that 10% of those are PhDs. While the numbers of engineers include production and industrial engineers, areas like R&D for total stations and one of the core business units for GNSS surveying, for example, has about 150 people, and the majority of those are engineers.
Manufacturing, said Wei, is far more efficient than even a decade ago; lines have been modernized and digitalized. I looked closely at some of Hi-Target’s total stations and GNSS units, and, based on their features, a few careful questions, and what I have seen at other factories (even at the big brands), it sure looks like the same care (or very close) is being exercised in producing these units. I can contrast this with Chinese units I tried a decade ago— a stark and positive contrast.
I asked Wei how they keep prices low, and he said that, for instance, one of the more costly elements of a GNSS rover is the housing, so volume is key. I am also finding that, when it comes to precision instruments, the labor costs are not as low as they might have been in the past—and not as low as for consumer products. For high precision, volume, a high degree of automation, and a large pool of technicians skilled in high precision instrumentation has made a big difference.
Perhaps the way to look at the new wave of gear made in China lies in a “proof is in the pudding” proposition: companies that continue to gain a substantial share of the single largest market, serving such a huge wave of infrastructure development, could not have done so with substandard hardware/software. Maybe it is time to say that—for the most part the days of cheesy survey gear might be past?
Wei and Wu showed me their full line, beginning with GNSS: a full dozen GNSS survey rovers—the kind of familiar ‘burger-on-a-pole” rover heads—to bases, CORS stations, choke ring antennas, radios, and more. Wei said that Hi-Target is producing their own GNSS boards now and will be integrating these into more products moving forward, but for now many of the rovers have OEM boards. But beyond the boards they are all Hi-Target, and they are proud of their own innovations.
Their newest rover, the iRTK5, has niceties, like a full-color touch screen, and is tracking (and using in RTK solutions) triple signals from multiple constellations. It also has an electronic bubble and no-calibration tilt compensation (a feature similar to what we see popping up all over the industry). It’s solid and IP67 rated, but these days it is hard to sell any rover that would not meet such standards—Hi-Target (and other companies) continue evolving.
One surprise is that Hi-Target has its own global real-time PPP service (delivered by L-Band satellites). You night be familiar with such services, like RTX and TerraStar, and Hi-Target rovers with OEM boards, from the companies that run those PPP services may able accommodation of those. Hi-Target has their own: Hi-RTP.
“We have over 200 stations globally,” said Wei, ”and we are working on [dense groups of stations] for the fast [convergence services.”
Hi-RTP is a global service, and with it you have the option to achieve survey-grade (at least in horizontal) after convergence, anywhere on the globe that can receive signals from the L-Band satellites. I have not had a chance to test this directly yet, but others I’ve spoken to who have indicate the results are promising.
I took a brief look at some GIS and asset mapping units and at their data collectors/controllers, some with Android OS, full-color screens, solid, fairly lightweight, and while typically on the small side, decent ergonomics and keypad layouts—these designs informed by their users. They have a full set of software, surveying field and office, roading, layout, geodetic, etc. But users also have the option of using Carlson and MicroSurvey field software with their gear.
Wei says that although they have developed their own robotic total station, mechanical total stations still dominate the domestic market. They make rotating construction and handheld lasers, auto levels, half a dozen manual total stations.
An example of a full-sized total station is the 2” HTS-420R with a 30x scope, a single prism range of 3000m, triple prism at 6000m, and reflectorless at 600m. What I found intriguing is their light and compact units, such as the ZTS-360R that has many of the features of the high-end units, like a 600m reflectorless range and compensators, but with a nifty take on a single-button shot trigger.
Wei said that a decade ago, perhaps the China market was 50/50 domestic/big overseas names, but now it is probably 90% domestic. He said it is no secret that the big names like Leica Geosystems, Trimble, and Topcon still lead in some specialty fields, like monitoring. China prides itself on their high-speed rail (traveling on it is an exercise in awe, admiration, and humility). To meet the standards of the “coin on the windowsill smooth ride test,” the market of digital levels, 1”-2”, and robotic instruments for such needs is still those big names—but R&D is fast catching up.
There have been, of course, instances when various manufacturers have copied from each other, all the way from getting ideas to downright knock-offs. I think those days are decades past. In the same way that way too many cars all seem to look alike, there are functional stylings and features or total stations that are representative of the current state-of-tech and familiarity that we might balk at if the instrument design strays too far from the norm. But I did have pictures of many current total stations on my phone to compare those I was shown: vaguely similar but in no way are these “knock-offs.”
Suffice to say that most second-tier brands partially, if not in whole, are made somewhere in China where the state of surveying-instrument manufacturing quality is now quite good. Though Singapore has recently gained some of the share of the new wave of instruments. These second tier and fourth wave units might represent different value propositions for different folks, but it means more choice for quality gear. There’s nothing like healthy competition to keep everyone striving to improve.
The Whole Boat
Hi-Target has small hydro boats, multi-beam systems, and, Wei says, they are starting in domestic mobile mapping systems. They have been working with Velodyne, Riegl, and Z&F, but Wei said they develop some of their own laser products and will soon release a new terrestrial scanner.
As indicated, Hi-Target is seeking to expand beyond the traditional surveying/mapping verticals and into broader geo, like with smart cities, machine control, 4D construction, precision agriculture, location services, and more, like an ultra-wideband indoor positioning system.
Their flagship VTOL UAS is larger than the usual pro-sumer ones a lot of us have been trying; it’s built to carry 5-7.5Kg payloads. I have noticed that the trend in China is for serious industrial drones for serious projects. It is not uncommon for enormous, even $B infrastructure projects there to rely heavily on UAS throughout the design-build-operate cycle. I asked about airborne lidar, and Wei said they should have something very interesting to show at Intergeo 2020.
To a Dealer Near You?
How soon might we see more of Hi-Target in North America? Wei says that a logical inroad could be through independent dealerships that are not selling exclusive lines of products. The competitive pricing and value proposition of the Hi-Target gear could be attractive.
Hi-Target recognizes that further entry in North America must be backed by solid support and service channels, a matter of operational scale to expand further. The China market is a little different; for one thing the country is very wired. So much is handled online and by digital means, whereas over here many surveyors are looking for brick-and-mortar dealerships with local assistance just a phone call or site visit away. Remote assistance is making inroads, but there would need to be more physical presence.
During the tour we were accompanied by several bright, young multi-lingual staff members from the marketing and product teams. One is Abril Wong, who is also fluent in Spanish and has just stepped into the role of sales director for the Americas. She indicated she would first need to familiarize herself with the South and Central American customers before exploring the U.S.
The entire team I met—and the company overall—seems young, educated, and eager to fulfill the original vision of the company founder: their own product lines. The founder is a relatively young man of 55 and is still engaged. He is a bit of a geospatial rock star, growing his company so rapidly and achieving many firsts.Liao, still Hi-Target’s chairman, is getting close to meeting his original goal, and is now embarking on a new one: to make the company a broader geospatial resource.
It may be that when we see more of Hi-Target here in North America (and other regions of the world), we’ll see it related to smart cities, digital twins, 4D construction, 5D, and AI more than just surveying instruments. But those, too, are pretty good.