The Geotechnical Game of Thrones

Ned Stark holding an inclinometer

The business of Geotechnical Monitoring is carried by a couple of dozens of companies globally, who fight each other for the supremacy and survival, like Kingdoms for their Thrones.

The God in this little universe could be called Geo (the Earth), whose mischievous child Gravity is continually pulling the land inward, moving mountains, sliding slopes and cracking rocks to their collapse. The humble humans can only settle their constructions, tunnels, excavations, bridges and roads, playing carefully with Gravity. Geotechnical Monitoring is the art of understanding and forecasting the movements of the land, thanks to engineered sensors, dataloggers and software, mainly for civil constructions and mining.

In this microcosmos, the traditional Monitoring is like a medium to small continent. The vast land across the sea would be the sister sector of Geodesia (with children such as Topography), that copes the challenge to understand Gravity with other more superficial techniques, for instance, “looking” the land in an ordered way. Using lasers and now more advanced scanners, companies like Leica (Hexagon), Trimble or Topcon, have become gigantic empires. There are many other players, of course, but this would well deserve a different tale.

The more profound and subtle sector of Geotechnical Monitoring is still a traditional family-business, growing recently more as professionally managed. Nevertheless, there are still some remarkable individuals, well known in the industry, that can be compared with Heroes, Knights, Emperors or Queens, lords of their territories or specialties. One of them is definitely John Dunnicliff, with his famous red book.

They are all fighting for the treasure in form of winning a contract; the prize is, as always in fairy tales, buried into the soil: placing instruments below or over the floor to understand the movement of the structures.

Magic is neither unknown in this little universe; Vibration Monitoring can be compared with Shamans reading the rumors from the land to provide powerful insights. Companies like Instantel, Syscom or Semex are providers of the required tools.

Keeping the natural order of the things is always important, especially when we are talking about the chain value: Authority-> Contractor-> Instrumentation company -> Distributor-> Manufacturer (sensor manufacturer and datalogger manufacturer). Everyone must have his piece of this cake if margins and agreements are respected.

However, over the old respectable rules is where wars are formed: betrayals of Manufacturers going directly to Contractors, fights in prices, lobby and corruption, individuals who change gang, acquisitions, ruins, alliances, splits, et cetera…, fascinating stories for those that work on this sector.

The old Kingdoms

Like the good old mythologies, the origins of this science remain unclear. In modern history, they are maybe related to the birth and improvement of the most common technology in sensors, the Vibrating Wire instruments. The simplicity of these devices makes them ideal for long-term monitoring, being robust, low power and easy to read. The first uses of this technology are recorded in Italy in the XIX century, but the technology has been improved by some exceptional individuals in other regions such as USA, Russia or Europe. Along the history, many other technologies (electronics, hydraulic, etc) have been summed up to help engineers in these complex tasks.

Some of those pioneers in Vibrating Wire still exist as manufacturers companies. From the land of the Vikings, we can feature the Norwegian Geonor AS, an old spin-off from the respectable NGI (Norwegian Geotechnical Institute).

Another pioneer was Telemac, a French company now part of the big Alliance called Nova Metrix LLC. This group also includes the Swiss Smartec, pioneer in fiber-optics, the Canadian Roctest, the American DGSI (pioneer in inclinometers), the British Soil Instruments and some other more manufacturers. This Nova Metrix alliance, that allows every one of the kingdoms to remain under their name and brand, can probably be the biggest global company by revenue in this sector. (more than 20MEUR??, numbers not confirmed)

It is followed closely in revenue by the American Geokon (18MEUR??), one of the classic and global manufacturers, with a vast catalog and a long record in quality. Managed by four Kings (aka Directors); the most known is Tony Simmons, frequent flyer to the international trade shows. Geokon has an extensive network of distributors worldwide, and also some investment in the Canadian GKM Consultants, a very expert Instrumentation Company from Montreal.

Followed in revenue but probably bigger by the number of instruments sold would be the Indian Encardio-Rite (15MEUR??), a long standing Gujral family business. Leader in prices, they have been improving quality every year, to become one of the most used brands, especially in Asia.

One step behind, we can find the Canadian RST Instruments (12MEUR??), also a long-standing company with a very profuse catalog of instruments and dataloggers. RST, DGSI, Roctest and Geokon are the four Kingdoms that traditionally wrestle hard for the enormous North-American market. Nonetheless, new contenders from abroad are always avid to conquer their portion.

In a smaller league, we can find the Europeans, always struggled with more complicated markets, navigating between smaller territories with plenty of languages and cultures.

The Italian Sisgeo founded by Romano Lamperti is a quality manufacturer close to the 10MEUR of revenue yearly; or even more if we consider the handful of subsidiaries that run in Latam and Asia-Pacific, and their instrumentation company Field.

Very close in revenue should be Glötzl, a well-established German family business that started with the grandfather, whose last name gives the name to the company. If we can mock this industry as a Game of Thrones, that would make even more sense with this family. Part of them is also the instrumentation company called GGB.

From the Kingdom of Mercia (aka the UK), we can highlight Geosense (5MEUR??), an also long-standing establishment run by Martin Clegg and family, with presence mainly in the Islands, but also in several international contracts.

I am sure that there should be some other manufacturers from the Far East, mainly Chinese, but they still remain within their frontiers. Nevertheless, the Korean ACE Instruments (8MEUR??) deserves to be mentioned, with a growing base in Asia and Africa, they are more and more present every year in the West.

All of those are mainly manufacturers of geotechnical instruments, but they need to be read with what is called “datalogger”. Despite some of the aforementioned also provide some tools, the undisputed King in dataloggers is the American Campbell Scientific (>30MEUR??), who brought to the world the innovation of automatizing the readings of the instruments. Another family business, they have shipped millions of units from the land of Utah.

That draws the big picture at the level of instruments manufacturers, but all of them share a common client, the Instrumentation Company. These are the specialist in installing the instruments, sometimes even providing consulting about the whims of Gravity and Geo.

Nevertheless, the market of instrumentation companies is very fragmented. In every region, there are usually a couple of leading specialists and some more followers. There are just a few of companies that operate on a global scale.

The global leader in this segment is Sixense-Soldata, the instrumentation branch of the French giant Vinci, likely the only instrumentation company who operates at global scale, with offices in many countries. The influential Martin Beth (CTO) is the King for technology of the group.

Another interesting battle was the rise and fall of the British company ITMSoil, an instrumentation and manufacturing company founded by John Scott. One of the formers global leaders, their fall triggered the split in ITM Monitoring, recently acquired by Socotec, and Soil Instruments, the manufacturer acquired by Nova Metrix. Some of the former subsidiaries are still leaders under different names such as Geomotion (formerly ITMSoil Australia), run by Kim Malcolm, the American Specto Technology (founded by Hai-Tien Yu), or the French ITMSol. Geomotion is clearly a big player of Asia-Pacific with offices in various places.

There is a long list of specialists that usually remain within their borders or expanding slowly to closest regions, since the nature of their services requires a local presence. Despite there are many, we could highlight the Spanish Eptisa, Ofiteco or Applus, the French Fondasol or Cementys, the Austrian Geodata, the Swiss Terra or the Chilean Geosinergia, a great leader in mining. In the US, we can stand out Geocomp (founded by Allen Marr), or Geo-Instruments (Pierre Gouvin), acquired by Getec (part of Keller).

Nevertheless, in the more general geotechnical services (that sometimes includes instrumentation) there are big players such as the Dutch Fugro or the British Keller. Many big engineering firms have (more or less relevant) departments that offer these services like Golder, Cowi, Ramboll, Arup, Aecom, Jacobs, Coffey, AF Consult and some more.

The new incumbents

In this geography of Kingdoms, new Paladins have emerged to challenge the Old Order. I am happy to have contributed to one of this new Champions. Worldsensing is a ten years old Spanish company that has become the leader in wireless datalogging. They were the pioneers in using IoT protocols for communication the data that the sensors produce, bringing instrumentation into modernity. I would like to add the also innovative approach that we follow in the commercial side, since we have been able to enter in this intimate market very fast, reaching more than a hundred of clients in 60 countries, just in a couple of years; with the grace of the Old Kingdoms.

With similar technology the British Senceive is looking for his space, departing from a solid base in the UK and expanding internationally. Another Briton, Utterberry is also claiming to bring originality to this sector. Recently, the Californian Sensemetrics is providing some innovation to this world, excelling the link between the sensors and the Software.

In the sensors part, the Canadian Measurand is making an impact with their SAA, a more modern envision of the traditional in-place inclinometers. From the same country, and some years before, the sensor called extensometer was improved by companies like Mine Design Technologies and Yieldpoint, another fierce competitors with a cursed history behind.

In the niche of Software, where every Instrumentation Company uses to have their own proprietary solution, now there are also new contenders to the traditional King that is the Icelander Vista Data Vision. Now there are more competitors such as Maxwell Geosystems, or the mentioned Sensemetrics.

Winter is coming

Like tectonic plaques colliding between them, nowadays big changes are happening in the market that relentlessly are challenging this delicate balance of power. The Old Kingdoms are in warning and constant vigilance, as the House Stark about their Northern neighbors.

Now is the time of the data, the Software, the IA, the Cloud, the Internet of Things, the Connectivity, the Low Power. It is constantly getting cheaper and feasible to have more and more information from additional sensors, lasers and InSAR. Instrumentation is farther needed since construction projects are getting more complex and liability more severe.

New times are coming, IoT and data management, new magics, new sensors…The Software will be likely the One Ring where all this data will converge and be understood.

The big companies are positioning themselves with acquisitions, developments, and a lot of R&D. The small ones advance fast fueled by tons of money from venture capitalists. New wars are expected on the horizon. Winter is coming.

_Dedicated to all good friends that I have made sharing trips, tradeshows and beers in this inner but welcoming industry. _

_Disclaimer: This article reflects personal ideas and opinions, it does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Worldsensing. For good and bad, I am the only responsible.

Something incorrect? Please send me a PM or comment below if you want to provide feedback or been removed. I will be happy to learn more and be corrected._