Highway Contractor

Don’t Let Your Trucks BOG YOU DOWN

Integrated fleet management tools are not just for your yellow iron anymore, say technology solutions providers.

By Mike Anderson

Want to see a construction contractor cringe? Ask him about trucks.

Whether he owns a fleet of haulers himself or relies on somebody else to transport the materials required to put his more comforting yellow iron to work, he’s rarely at ease with the trucks he needs: “Do we have enough? Do we have too many? Do the drivers know what they’re doing? And where the heck are they anyway?”

Historically, such frustration may very well have been the norm throughout the industry, but a shift is happening among enterprising contractors and agencies, say leading suppliers of fleet management solutions we tracked down for a state-of-the-industry perspective.

“Several years ago, people were thinking about their yellow iron and their construction assets separately from their vehicles,” says Jason Koch, president of the Telogis Fleet Division, “but if you really think about it, it’s all one fleet. Now, companies that are purchasing systems want to see everything in the same system. You don’t want to have a completely segregated fleet. You’re looking at productivity across the board, so being able to roll up the data from a diverse fleet is really important.”

And, correspondingly, systems suppliers are increasingly able to provide those integrated fleet optimization and fleet management solutions. “Especially corporations that are nationwide, they really need to look at a company that can provide a full suite of products that has a platform capability,” says Sean McCormick, Telogis product manager for the Fleet-branded products. This capability, he explains, includes not just fleet management tools, but also features such as route optimization and back-office systems integration.

“Beyond that, companies also need to look at how they manage a large amount of data or information,” says McCormick. “There’s a lot of companies that provide individual reports, but who has the time – if they 5,000 or 6,000 assets – to look at hundreds of reports? What we think is important is the ability to present all of that data in a nice, summarized fashion, where you can focus on areas of concern.”

In the words of Brad Mathews, vice president of marketing with fellow industry supplier Dexter + Chaney: “You’ve had these different islands of information that were being stored up, but because they weren’t integrated, there’s not a cross-check.” Information was compiled in various forms in various places and, if a construction organization was fortunate, it would come together “in one smart guy’s head,” he says. “That can work up to a point if you’ve got a really competent, experienced, on-top-of-it equipment manager, but what happens if he leaves? What happens if he gets sick, or what happens when your company gets a little too big for that?” Even the addition of a second base can send a company’s asset management spiraling off course, says Mathews. “Do you want a piece of equipment lost somewhere between these two guys?”

With a system such as Dexter + Chaney’s Spectrum construction management software, “we can still have that equipment manager doing the work that he should be doing, and his intimate knowledge of the fleet is going to be a terrific advantage,” says Mathews, “but now we’re able to arm that person with a tool they can use that gives them easy access to that data and combines it in a way that they would not have before.”

Many managers have long relied on “the white board,” he says, “and that’s good – you’ve got visibility to it and it’s easy to use – but it doesn’t tie into anything. Just because you change the assignment on a white board doesn’t mean that’s going to happen. It’s just words written on a white board. We have to actually make sure somebody gets notified.”

Spectrum and other products on the market will not only track the asset or even components of the asset, but “it turns into a real system. It’s not just on the white board in that one room,” says Mathews. “It’s actually available to more than one person in more than one location, but also it does something. It’s actually controlling where the equipment goes,” via such tools as e-mail alerts to operators and service personnel.

“And, of course, we are keeping that scheduling information. We’re not putting it on a white board and erasing it . . . and history’s lost.”

What about right now?

So, big picture, the ability to have detailed history on assets allows agencies and contractors to make informed equipment management decisions.

At this moment, though, that’s of little consolation, because the paving train is moving at as slow of a crawl as possible without actually stopping. “Where are those @#&<%! trucks?”

With the current edition of its flagship product, the recently launched Fleet 8, Telogis has incorporated dynamic weather and traffic data, allowing fleet managers to make routing and allocation decisions based on real-time field conditions. “In the event you have to be on multiple sites throughout the day and need to understand how to get there,” says McCormick, “you can visualize traffic and optimize your route based on traffic information. The third-party traffic data set is similar to what you’d see on a Google Map, where you have the red, yellow, green lines to represent different flows of traffic. On top of that, we have also enabled software to find the nearest vehicle or asset based on what the traffic information is stating. So, if there is a construction emergency somewhere and you need to get a truck out there, you can find the nearest based on the traffic information.

“When you have to move assets from one site to another,” McCormick continues, “how do you get them there in the most efficient manner? Being able to take into account real-time traffic information is obviously going to be very important.”

The third-party weather feed provides real-time, radar-generated conditions, including wind data, as well as forecasts of rainfall and pending storms. Other components added with Fleet 8 include an International Fuel Tax Agreement/International Registration Plan data feed, a fuel card reconciliation module, multiple vehicle histories and streetside/bird’s-eye view imaging. The latter, provided by Bing, allows contractors to scope out sites in advance as well as monitor construction activities as they occur, says McCormick.

For California contractors, a CARB report monitors engine hours by jurisdiction, fulfilling a legislated mandate, points out Koch. “And once you put systems like ours into your fleet, you just turn the lights on and it can be transformational,” he says. “If you’re a thousand miles away from where your assets are performing the work, you otherwise really have no idea how they’re working or even if they’re complying with some of the processes that you put in place.”

The Telogis Enterprise Dashboard rolls up all individual pieces of data into one easy-to-view database, “where you can view by regions, equipment types and drill down to individual pieces,” says McCormick. “The ability to not only capture the raw point data, but how do you present and roll that data up so that it can be easily understood across your entire fleet, I think is a really important part of this.

“With our product specifically, you can actually pick and choose pieces of technology that you need. So, you may already have a solution that does routing for you. What you can do is build upon that routing solution by adding a fleet management software tool and also a mobility or field technician management tool. A company that can offer not only a platform, but the flexibility to work what you have is also very important,” McCormick says. “Telogis really likes to focus on the software side of things and not so much the hardware. We have the ability to work with a lot of different kinds of hardware, so that I think makes us a little more flexible in general. If a company has already made some investment in hardware, we have the ability to adapt our software to their hardware.”

This dovetails nicely with the evolution of the market, says his colleague Koch. “Lots of small- to midsize companies were adopting the technology earlier than the larger companies, at least in construction,” says Koch. “In transportation, it’s totally different – all the big guys were the first movers. In construction, it seemed like the small and mid guys were the leaders and the large guys are the laggards, but the large guys all have dabbled in stuff. What we found most is that they’ve all played a little bit with the OEM products.” Many of those users have had mixed experiences, and the resulting diversity of their equipment fleets makes it challenging “to have their machines talk to one another,” he says. “What we have seen recently is that some of the large guys are ready to really transform and put the technology in their entire fleet, and that’s really exciting for us,” due to the service, integration and support abilities of a platform solution.

“The technology by itself doesn’t solve the problem,” says Koch. “You’ve got to implement it, and you’ve got to put the business practices around it, and you’ve got to train people.”

In the eyes of Dexter + Chaney’s Mathews, it boils down to “more of a mindset” from a company’s senior management. “Our software doesn’t make them grow. We’re not going to land a new job for them. They’re going to have to run their business well,” he says. “But what we do is support that growth, and we will do it by keeping the overhead lower.

“Does senior management view software as a tool to grow their business and improve the financial results?” Mathews asks. “Or do they see it a necessary functionality that they just have to have,” such as a photo copier or fax machine. “Do you view it in that category, or do you really see it as a resource that can help you change the way your company works?”

Good questions to which the industry today has answers.v

Better Get to That Party

Construction companies adopting fleet management software solutions today are almost exclusively including their trucking assets, advises Telogis Fleet Division President Jason Koch.

“Whether the economy is down, flat or rising, technology like ours is important,” he says. “If it’s a down or flat economy, like it has been the past few years, you need to know where you can cut. You need to know your utilization to make sure that you can get the most out of what you have if you’re deciding to furlough some stuff or make some stuff idle. Then, as the economy turns back up, you’ve got to understand usage and capacity, so that if you add to your fleet or your assets, are you going to keep up with things as they grow?”

If you’re still in business today, there’s certainly no time left to wait to add a software solution, preferably a platform one, says Koch.

“If you’re late to the party,” he relates, “you’ve got to get on it, because all your competitors are getting it, and I know for instance that some of the construction RFPs coming out are requesting GPS as a mandatory compliance point. If you’re filling out a bid, it may require GPS, and if you don’t have it, your competitor’s going to be way ahead of you.

“It doesn’t matter – down economy, up economy – you’ve got to get this technology into your full fleet.”