Technology: Beyond asset management

How much more productivity could you gain from your equipment fleet if you knew where your machines were and what they were doing 24/7? Better yet, what if you could also pinpoint when it’s time for maintenance? Or, what if you could do all this and be notified as soon as a thief tried to steal a piece of your equipment?

Telematics – or the integrated use of telecommunication devices and information technology, including computers and GPS – aim to answer the above and more by culling machine metrics, such as engine run time and mileage, and then supplying critical data regularly through parameters that you set.

What makes telematics different from traditional asset management – or using a white erase board to detail projects and operator whereabouts – according to Andy Rogers, vice president of business development, Ayantra, is that it automates time consuming functions.

Although telematics made their debut in the over-the-road trucking industry, now technology companies and OEMs offer products with on-road, off-road or combined fleets in mind.

Idle no longer
You don’t have to be a “techie” to understand that telematics provide a way to put costs in perspective.

“We began looking at new technology not only to compete with other companies in our area, but also as a way to deal with high costs,” says Ted Bryant, vice president from Summers-Taylor, Elizabethton, Tennessee. Summers-Taylor adopted Trimble’s Construction Manager software and CrossCheck Global Locator to first monitor its truck fleet, including concrete mixers, asphalt and dump trucks.

Through Trimble’s Construction Manager software, the company’s equipment managers and superintendent kept track of use and idle times, and compiled reports to show operators how often they idled and how much fuel was being wasted. “We definitely saw our operators adjust to improve their idle times and driver performance,” Bryant says.

As a result, the company invested in additional telematics for its heavy-equipment fleet, and estimates fuel cost savings of approximately 20 percent within a year.

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At first telematics’ ability to monitor operator performance didn’t interest his employees, says J. Elder II, of J. Elder, in Des Moines, Iowa. But Elder, a Trimble Construction Manager and CrossCheck Global Locator subscriber since this past spring, says he needed machine and operator accountability for his heavy-highway construction business.

“My operators were concerned about the “big brother” aspect, but after the first month, I gave them reports detailing their miles per gallon and idling time. The next month, I saw significant improvement on idling – 25 percent less – which translated to much lower fuel costs,” Elder says.

How can telematics help you?
Telematics providers offer packages with either a software or web-based program to catalog information, and a hardware device for out-of-sight installation on equipment. Typically, companies that deliver server-based data use monthly subscription fees, which can cost from $15 to $90 per month, depending on coverage.

Through telematics, a machine or entire fleet can communicate via a cellular, WiFi or communications satellite network – or any combination – with your office computer. You can view as much or as little machine information needed at any given time.

“One of the greatest features of telematics is having a full set of records, so you and equipment buyers down the line can see if a machine’s had problems,” says Ken Calvert, director of IT support, Komatsu America. Komatsu’s Komtrax system provides not only daily records, but also archives them to the Komtrax website.

But don’t be overwhelmed by all the available data. Telematics providers realize users don’t want to pound through screen after screen of reports, says Mark Bittner, senior vice president and general manager, telematics, Topcon Positioning Systems.

Several products, including Topcon’s Tierra, now allow customers to set up scheduled times to receive information, rather than continuously. Another example is Qualcomm’s GlobalTracs or GlobalTracs Lite, which offer machine position information during “curfew,” or the user-determined machine shutdown period. Users can also select categories of interest and the provider will compile information into machine-specific reports.

“Most contractors want to know three things: where is my equipment and how do I use it best; how much is my equipment costing me; and when do I need to schedule maintenance?,” says Don Kafka, chief executive officer, ToolWatch. The ToolWatch system tracks small, medium or large assets through a cellular GPS device, which then communicates with ToolWatch desktop software. “Data streams through the Internet when you’re on-line and stores at the host service, but if you’re not on-line, data will store locally to the desktop,” Kafka says.

By tracking fleet location, run times and idle times, you can also monitor fuel costs, be alerted when it’s time for preventive maintenance (dependent on your set-up) and get a clear picture which machines and operators are costing you too much.

Here’s a classic example, according to Jeff Warner, vice president, mobile resource management, Preco Electronics, “A grader is at one jobsite for a couple of weeks, and now another site needs it. The equipment manager can look (to the telematics information) to see if the grader’s being consistently used, or if it could be more efficient elsewhere.”

The data gained through telematics helps you see immediately if it’s sitting unused – and can let you avoid an unneeded rental or a delay in a job, Warner says.

Installation and data storage
Most telematics hardware is about the size of a deck of cards and installs easily on machines, out of sight. “It’s really no harder than installing a radio in the cab,” says Bud Sims, director of OEM business development, Qualcomm.

Hardware installation takes about an hour per machine and requires basic wiring knowledge. If you’re unsure, ask the vendor to perform the installation. For OEM telematics solutions, you should initially work with your dealer.

Once the hardware has been installed, the device will report to the telematics program or provider website. Depending on the provider, machine data can be stored anywhere from a month, six months to a year or indefinitely. Some users may prefer to save the information into their own accounting system, or download it into spreadsheet programs.

Beyond basics
Telematics enables you to view a map of equipment locations and graphical use charts, so you never have to question the location of your fleet. Geo-fencing, or the set up of virtual boundaries, acts as another key feature to safeguard fleets from thieves and notify owners when equipment enters or exits an area.

“Geo-fencing allows users to minimize risk of loss due to unauthorized use and enforce restricted areas,” says Robert DeAngelis, senior director, LoJack, commercial division. For even more protection against theft, LoJack’s LoCate combines telematics with the company’s stolen vehicle recovery system, which notifies the user and law enforcement to track down stolen equipment. Telematics’ geo-fencing capability also pinpoints whether fuel is being used efficiently by showing which machines operate too long outside a geo-coded area or idle excessively, according to John Righini, chief marketing officer, GE Capital Solutions, Fleet Services.

Telematics can also go a step further by tying into a machine’s CANBUS (or controller-area network) for reporting and critical alerts, or through adding sensors to monitor specific machine components.

CANBUS – an internal communications network that connects a machine’s electronic and/or engine control units – should be thought of as “the brain stem of a machine,” according to Bittner. Topcon’s Tierra taps directly into a machine’s CANBUS network, as does John Deere’s JDLink product.

While some telematics pull trouble codes and diagnostic information from on-board computers, Warner says the depth and accessibility of the information varies based on the age, manufacturer and type of equipment. Products such as Preco’s PreCise offer a simplified approach by connecting directly to sensors. If you’re considering telematics, talk with a provider about critical alerts capabilities before you buy.

Having access to CANBUS and diagnostic information aids tremendously in diagnosing catastrophic equipment failures, but monitoring engine hours through general telematics determines when regular maintenance should occur. “You don’t want to delay preventive maintenance, but you also don’t want to perform it too early, because that could increase costs,” notes Steve McGough, chief operating officer, HCSS.

Telematics takes the guesswork out of service intervals, so you know when it’s time for an oil change, but are also aware of current problems, such as an engine overheating.

Making it count
According to those interviewed, active telematics users who educate their employees about better machine operation should begin to see a return on investment within a few months.

Since you receive real-time information on equipment location, accurate engine hour readings to target maintenance scheduling and usage results – which leads to more accurate customer billing – you can cut out the weeks or even months it would normally take to learn a project’s progression and instead make changes on the spot.

“Customers often begin using telematics thinking they’ll solve one problem, such as stopping theft or improving maintenance or fuel usage, but after about a year or less, they realize it improves all of these,” Kafka says.

Watchful companion
Because not all jobsites are in well-populated areas, telematics may rely on both cellular and satellite networks so machine information continues to be delivered, even when an operator works in a remote area.

The possibility does exist for information to be lost, at least momentarily. Some providers, however, offer features so the on-board device will store information if you enter a dead zone, and later forward it to the software or web-based program when it returns to a service area.

A universal approach
Companies with mixed fleets may subscribe to several telematics systems, which proves costly and doesn’t make machine comparisons exactly easy. In an effort to change this, the Association of Equipment Management Professionals asked heavy equipment manufacturers to pursue a universal telematics data format, so users could pull machine data directly from a third-party server for integration into the company’s own database. All major OEMs who produce telematics agreed to work with AEMP on its proposal, but it’s unclear when the new standardized format will go into effect.

“We’re going forward in support of this, but OEMs still want to compete aggressively on how we capture data and turn it around for customers,” says Clint Allaman, product marketing manager, machine information and machine control, John Deere Construction and Forestry. John Deere intends to do this through their own website by helping customers set up things like preventive maintenance schedules.