Industry Insights

100th anniversary: The story of Wild Heerbrugg and Leica Geosystems

In 2021, the Heerbrugg innovation factory in Switzerland celebrates its 100 year anniversary. It’s the home of WILD, Leitz, and Hexagon Geosystems.

Remco Takken July 1, 2021
100th anniversary: the story of Wild Heerbrugg/ Leica Geosystems

In 2021, the Heerbrugg innovation factory in Switzerland celebrates its 100 year anniversary. It’s the home of WILD, Leitz, and Hexagon Geosystems. In this article, Thomas Harring, the current President of Geosystems, takes us back in time.

A 1978 commercial photograph of the the Wild Heerbrugg TC1 total station

In 1921 the “Heinrich Wild, Werkstätte für Feinmechanik und Optik” was founded in Heerbrugg, Switzerland. This is what we later came to know as WILD, WILD-LEITZ and Leica Geosystems. Since 2005 the innovation factory is part of Hexagon and more powerful than ever. Thomas Harring, President of Hexagon’s Geosystems division says: “We’re proud to celebrate 100 years of innovation in Heerbrug this year and we honour the thousands of committed men and women who have driven innovations worldwide for a century. Our culture is steeped deeply in the tradition of innovation and social responsibility. We’ll continue to pioneer technology that’s easy to use, precise and enabling sustainable development. In the past innovation was important, today innovation is essential.“

From left to right: Heinrich Wild…
 … Jacob Schmidheiny …
… and Robert Helbling.

In this article, we are going back a bit and highlight some of the remarkable feats in the history of the company. Of course, over time a lot has changed in Heerbrugg. While the factory itself is positioned in the center of the industrialized “Alpine Rhine Valley,” we would rather say that it’s the other way around: first there was WILD, then the area started growing and evolving. In 2021, Hexagon proudly builds on the continuous change and persistence that brought the world a great number of innovative sensor and software technologies. Especially for this anniversary, Hexagon’s Geosystems division went back in time and produced a concise illustrated history of the company. During their search through the company’s archives, they unearthed lots of exciting finds from the past. In a 1930 letter from the archive Heinrich Wild describes the powerful urge to innovate: “The greatest incentive and at the same time the greatest encouragement is competition from oneself’.” That mindset has been a driver of technological advancement throughout the company’s history, says Harring: “Our chronicles summarised in the book ‘100 Years Innovation Heerbrugg’ trace this pursuit of new solutions for surveyors and related customer groups all over the world since the foundation of our company.”

Start up challenges

The T4 astronomical Theodolite (1941-1981) was designed by the talented constructor Edwin Berchtold. He began work in Heerbrugg in 1928 as the first ETH graduate engineer.

Wild had some of the same challenges that our industry faces today: the shortage of experienced workers. So in 1924, he created a dedicated apprentice-training school which created jobs and prosperity in the region. His focus on a highly trained workforce paid off: By 1930, WILD was already working with customers in 27 countries. Aerial photography started around the same time. Back then, no one could have predicted how important mapping would become to society.

Geodetic network

Already in the early fifties, a ballistic camera was developed that found its way to scientists who used it to assist the measurement of satellite orbits and the creation of a worldwide geodetic network. Some high-profile users were seen on widely distributed press photos: Sir Edmund Hillary, Sir William Appleton and surveyor J Holmes Miller – famous for their Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1955-1958) – were photographed holding a WILD T2 theodolite.

To measure a distance between 100 m and 50 km, a DI50 was set up at
each end-point and the distance calculated by measuring the transit time of
the microwave radiation. The picture shows a DI50 being used in Mexico.

In the sixties, electronics were introduced in Heerbrugg. Until then, the main focus had been on optics and precision mechanics. This led to the development of microwave and infrared/optoelectronic distance meters. The first infrared distance meter, the DISTOMAT DI10, was a joint development with the French company Sercel. Harring on why this innovation was significant: “This first close-range distance meter revolutionized surveying technology, and it marked the beginning of optoelectronics, which became one of the core competencies in Heerbrugg.”

Onward, upwards: GPS

While, from the end of the seventies onwards, GPS was limited to use by the United States military, WILD understood the potential of satellite surveying. Harring describes the company managers’ foresight: “The WILD management recognized very early the importance of the US NAVSTAR GPS Program for surveying. This resulted in the establishment of a joint venture with the American know-how carrier Magnavox in 1985.” In the same year, the new GPS surveying system WM101 was presented.

Leica Group

In 1990 the Leica Group was formed, after a merger between the Wild-Leitz Group and the Cambridge Instruments Company. In 1993, the DISTO was introduced. It became one of – the if not the – bestselling item in Leica’s roster. “The DISTO, the world’s first hand-held laser distance meter, set new standards,” Harring says. “When we presented it at the international construction fair BATIMAT in Paris, it created a real stir and received a prize for innovation.”

The original DISTO of 1993 – still weighing 900 g and rather expensive.

In 1995, the Leica Group was split into three independent Leica Companies (Camera, Microsystems and Geosystems). Leica Geosystems went public in the year 2000. With the acquisition of the Californian company Cyra Technology – then the world’s leading vendor of 3D laser scanning – in the same year, the company set out to combine laser scanning with its existing portfolio of surveying products. Under the slogan “High Definition Surveying,” the next-generation laser scanner HDS3000 was presented alongside the new Cyclone 5.0 software. In 2006, both development and production of the scanners happened in Heerbrugg. Performance increases of surveying techniques expanded the possibilities for surveyors, says Harring: “Laser scanning sped up land surveying and reduced the time and human resources needed to complete surveys. It also opened up new fields for surveying technology. Digitization and ongoing digital transformations again unlocked opportunities for the industry, and still do.”  

One could argue that scan data is a true symbol of digitization. So is the data obtained through digital aerial image sensors like the ADS40, the world’s first digital airborne sensor, introduced in 2000. In 2009, the new ADS100 aerial camera promised even higher efficiency, higher image quality, shorter flight times and maximum processing speed. CityMapper, the world’s first “fused sensor” for aerial photography, with newly developed cameras and laser sensors, was introduced in 2016. Specially designed for challenging 3D city views, it is a part of the RealCity overall solution for 3D city model creation. According to Harring, that solution is in demand:“The demand for airborne data has increased over the years. Today, 3D digital twins based on such data enable city administrations and infrastructure providers to manage and monitor critical assets, assess and model risks, and support the visualisation of new infrastructure projects for public communication with the goal to create smarter, more sustainable cities.”

In 2001, Leica Geosystems took a decisive step by acquiring ERDAS, a remote sensing software firm. The combination of Leica’s hardware and ERDAS’ software was a unique proposition. The step was a logical consequence of the expanding applications of surveying technology: “Making technology more accessible for more industries also means integrating into new systems and platforms. ERDAS helped develop a comprehensive geospatial business system for managing, analysing and delivering data and information products with targeted, specialized, easy-to-use software.” With the acquisition of the American software company Intergraph by Hexagon in 2010, the geospatial software offering gained an additional boost.

Enter Hexagon

In 2005, the Swedish technology company Hexagon acquired Leica Geosystems. A new wind and another strong push for innovation was felt in the innovation factory Heerbrugg. In the established business areas, clout increased significantly and market shares have been gained globally. In addition, many new, high-growth business areas were established and expanded. Hexagon continued to buy companies with complementary expertise and has built a comprehensive portfolio of technologies and capabilities around sensors, software and autonomous solutions.

Introducing the Leica BLK family

The Leica BLK3D is a compact 3D handheld imager that enables immediate and precise 3D measurements from any image it captures.

In 2016, CTO Burkhard Boeckem presented the first scanner of the BLK portfolio, the BLK360, to the public at Autodesk University. The sleek, lightweight laser scanner won several design and innovation awards and is used in various industries. The Leica BLK3D – a compact 3D handheld imager that enables immediate and precise 3D measurements from any image it captures – followed in 2018. One year later, the company presented the handheld imaging laser scanner BLK2GO: Integrated SLAM technology (Simultaneous Localisation and Mapping) enables the precise tracing of the movement path as the device measures the space’s geometry.

In 2017, the first GNSS with true tilt compensation was introduced. The GS18 T was the world’s fastest and easiest-to-use GNSS RTK rover. Now, surveyors could measure points more quickly and more easily, as they no longer had to hold the pole vertically. The development of a robust tilt compensator had been an R&D target for decades. The solution was an IMU (Inertial Measurement Unit) integrated into the GNSS antenna. The IMU records acceleration and rotation values and offsets them against the GNSS position data. In 2020, the company launched the Leica GS18 I, a versatile GNSS RTK rover which uses innovative Visual Positioning technology based on seamless integration of GNSS, IMU and a camera, enabling users to reach previously inaccessible or obstructed points safely and efficiently.

The innovation factory

The drive for innovation that has existed since the beginning is alive. Today, Heerbrugg is undisputedly a very efficient innovation factory. The Heerbrugg location embodies what distinguishes Switzerland as a business location: innovation leadership and high manufacturing quality, ensured by a high level of personal responsibility of the well-trained employees and a well-established network of industrial companies and research institutions. “The result is an unparalleled cluster of high technology and a unique bundling of expertise,” Harring sums up. The company’s innovative strength – based on the competence of employees in precision mechanics, optics, electronics, software, artificial intelligence as well as edge and cloud computing – is key to the company’s success, says Harring: “This is how we live up to our claim to digitally capture the real world and experience the digital world for real. Our customer solutions are used in almost every country in the world and you can find our solutions even in the most remote places.” Just like Wild did in the early days of the company, Hexagon’s Geosystems division still acknowledges the importance of an experienced and highly skilled workforce. These days though the training has expanded globally, is available online and is also provided to customers and partners no matter where they are located. Hexagon’s Geosystems division is on site for customers with its own employees in 50 countries and serves the remaining countries together with long-standing and well-trained partners. “What we do brings sustainable added value for our customers,” says Harring. “We help you digitize your business processes or develop new business models with disruptive solutions.”

To celebrate 100 years of Innovation Heerbrugg, Hexagon’s Geosystems division has launched a series of events and publications. On 26 April 2021, the experience centre in Heerbrugg opened its doors to showcase company history through product innovations by WILD, Leica Geosystems and Hexagon.

Suggested Read

A Flip Book on 100 Years of Innovation Heerbrugg