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Mechanical vs. Robotic Layout: Is a Robotic Total Station Really Worth It?

If you’re currently using a mechanical total station, you may question if upgrading to a robotic total station is really necessary. You’re already performing layout more efficiently than you could with a tape measure, string line, plumb bobs, wooden stakes, and a Sharpie.

You may also worry about the learning curve that comes with adopting a new tool like a robotic total station. Getting others up to speed can take time and some convincing about the benefits.

While it’s natural to have doubts about whether a change is needed, the advantages of robotic layout are impossible to ignore. Yes, mechanical total stations were a huge improvement over traditional layout methods. But as the industry advances and technology increasingly becomes a competitive differentiator, the time is right for exploring how the latest in layout technology can give you the upper hand. 

Here’s a look at the key differences between mechanical and robotic total stations and how a robotic total station will help you come out on top.

Get up to speed in no time with an intuitive robotic total station. Get the buyer’s guide to learn more.


4 Important Differences Between Mechanical and Robotic Layout

1. Mechanical total stations require manual operation

Each of the functions of a mechanical total station still has to be manually operated, and any manual effort takes more time and introduces the potential for more mistakes. For example, when laying out each point, the instrument has to be manually turned, the prism has to be manually moved and sighted, and the electronic distance measurement (EDM) feature has to be manually engaged.

How a robotic total station is different: A robotic total station is an automated tool that can execute workflows faster and more accurately. The station continuously follows the prism and measures on its own without human intervention. The gains you can make in speed and precision far exceed what’s possible with a mechanical layout tool. 

2. Mechanical total stations require a team of two

Although a mechanical total station can offer big improvements over doing things the old-fashioned way, it still has to be operated by a team of two: one person to move the instrument and another person to move the prism. As labor shortages in construction continue to be an issue, you may not have enough skilled layout professionals to keep up with project demands. Even if you do, you’re still limited in how quickly layout can be completed. 

How a robotic total station is different: By pairing with a tablet, a robotic total station requires just one qualified technician. Layout can easily be performed twice as fast, saving significant labor costs. You can do more with the team you already have and even scale up with the productivity gains you make.

Know what to look for in a robotic total station. Read the buyer’s guide.

3. Mechanical total stations limit your ability to catch mistakes

A mechanical total station requires one operator to stay behind the instrument and another to move the prism. Because the team is so focused on manual tasks, they’re less likely to notice mistakes or question things that seem off. Undiscovered errors made at the layout stage often lead to rework and requests for information (RFIs) during construction.

How a robotic total station is different: With a robotic total station, the single operator can move freely around the space while the station does the work. Freed up from manual tasks, the operator gains a better view of the site and is able to quality check the layout. This makes it easier to catch and resolve any issues upfront that could impact construction, decreasing the likelihood of costly problems down the road. 

4. Mechanical total stations produce limited gains in productivity

If you’re like many construction contractors, finding ways to improve productivity is an ongoing priority. A mechanical total station is a step up from traditional layout tools and methods, but you’re literally leaving money on the table by continuing to rely on largely manual processes when there’s an automated solution available. 

How a robotic total station is different: You can lay out an average of 600 points per day and in some cases over 1,000 points per day using a robotic instrument and one person, as opposed to around 150 points per day with a mechanical instrument and two people. With a robotic total station, you can conservatively achieve a 90% cost-per-point savings over a mechanical layout station.

This table illustrates the reduction in total cost per layout point between the various forms of layout:




Mechanical Total  Station

Robotic Total Station

# of Workers Needed



Hours Worked per Week




Hourly Cost per Worker




# of Points Laid Out Per Day




Total Cost Per Point




Upgrade to a Robotic Total Station and Uplevel Your Entire Business

It’s natural to question if upgrading to a robotic total station is really worth it. Getting your team on board will be a challenge if the tool is too complicated or different from your usual way of doing things. Plus, you want to feel confident you’ll get a return on your investment (ROI). 

The gains you can make with a robotic total station are indisputable. Intuitive and easier to use than many realize, a robotic layout tool often takes only a few days to master. And once your people are using the tool, the increases in accuracy, productivity, and ultimately your profitability ensure you get a rapid ROI.  

To learn how to choose a robotic total station for your needs, get the buyer’s guide.

About the Author

Bryan Williams, Segment Manager, Field Technology Group, Trimble Buildings. Bryan has nearly 30 years of international experience working in the construction industry as a site engineer, construction surveyor, project supervisor and consultant. He has spent the last 15 years developing and marketing intelligent positioning solutions for the construction industry as part of Trimble’s Buildings.