Machine-Monitoring Technology: Tools, Not Gadgets

By Ken Calvert | September 28, 2010
Komatsu Komtrax
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Operators must be trained so that they can understand the information provided by the machine's monitor panel. This enables them to be more efficient and to be able to protect the machine from failure.

Telematics and The Equipment Triangle

We've been discussing why end-users should use telematics, but the data can also help OEMs and equipment distributors serve customer needs and improve customer satisfaction.

Distributors are becoming more and more proactive because of telematics. Telematic-active distributors have staff assigned to administer Web site access, issue passwords, provide internal and customer training and monitor machines. Equipment monitoring is a very customer-focused activity. Aggressive distributors filter data for those conditions that, left unattended, could cause downtime. This data is then relayed to the customer. If you're being served by one of these distributors, then you may have received a phone call informing you of an overheating machine or maybe a low oil pressure issue. Think of these distributors as a second set of eyes. And, of course, forward-thinking distributors are using telematics to improve internal efficiencies such as inventory planning or dispatching field technicians nearest to the service call to reduce travel time and mileage charges.

Speaking for only my own company, proactively using telematic data is a key continuous improvement activity. With more than 140,000 machines reporting operational and product health data worldwide, we believe that properly mined, this database will help us build superior products and strategically position product support assets, be it engineers, technicians, tools or spare parts.

And for us, it's attention to the details that often make the difference between good and poor customer satisfaction. For instance, filters need to last the whole service interval. In the past, engineers performed laboratory and field testing prior to new product release. Now with telematics, the engineers can follow up the pre-release testing with actual field data. To illustrate, see the 12-month chart below of mean time between air-filter clogging for the entire KOMTRAX equipped North American fleet. With the minimum MTBF greater than 6,000 hours, engineers can be confident that air-filter capacities are sufficient.

We've asked dozens of equipment managers, "What do you do to control your machine-related costs?" The majority responded by saying we focus on maintenance to eliminate expenses and downtime from unplanned failures. But the same group when asked, "What are your biggest operating costs?" respond by saying, "fuel and depreciation."

From these informal surveys, we concluded that equipment managers focused on costs related to maintenance and repair because they believed them to be more controllable than those expenses related to fuel and depreciation.

But times changed: fuel prices went up, the economy slowed, local governments started legislating anti-idle regulations, and OEM telematics provided managers a way to measure idle time. (Also, many were surprised by fleet idle times approaching 50 percent.)

The combination of these events led managers to understand the key to controlling fuel and depreciation costs was reducing idle time. Armed with new beliefs about cost control, managers started taking action by initiating idle-reduction programs at their companies by elevating the issue through educational events and regular reporting of progress against goals. To amp up the motivation, some programs included competition between peer groups and recognition. The effective programs are enjoying big rewards: for every idle hour eliminated a gallon of fuel is saved, the next scheduled maintenance is postponed an hour, and the machine is one hour newer than it would have been.

From studying the KOMTRAX fleet, we believe the idle-reduction management is working as average idle times between May of 2007 and May of 2009 are reduced by 17 percent.

Clearly this is a call to your action. If you aren't already one, become a user of your OEM provided telematics. Let us know what's helpful and what could be more helpful. Putting information at your fingertips is a concept that is hard to argue with, but if you're not reaching out to use it, then having it at your fingertips isn't close enough.

Ken Calvert is director, machine support systems, Komatsu America Corp

For the past few years, the OEM community has been rolling out monitoring (remote and on-board) technology that remains under-utilized by many equipment managers. If you are one of the under-users, chances are your reasons for non-use could be summarized by one or more of the following: lack of education, lack of critical mass, or integration.

If lack of education is your issue, solving it starts with the right people at your company understanding that modern construction equipment communicates information via monitor panels and telematics, and that that information is accessible.

Operators need to be reminded that they are the first line of defense against unnecessary downtime and inefficient operating habits. They need to know that the information the machine's monitor panel provides is designed to help them be more efficient and protect the machine from failure. Without training, many operators will not know how to interface with the information nor will they have the same intuitiveness to take action when something is wrong that they have with analog gauges.

If training operators on how to use the monitor panel seems too basic; let me share another's experience. A vice president of mobile equipment at a prominent aggregate company relates the story of one of his quarry managers investigating what he believed to be a preventable engine failure. When he asked the operator why the machine wasn't shut off when it overheated, the operator told him, "I didn't know that '!' was a warning; I thought it was a baseball bat." The story is funny to almost everyone who hears it, but it was not funny to the manger who paid the engine repair bill.

Maintenance staffs must also be trained to read monitoring panels, and then taken one step further and taught how to access the hidden menus that contain error code histories and system diagnostics.

Moving to remote monitoring, make sure people in your organization know which machines have telematics systems and which do not. It's true and understandable when you think of all the ways communications can break down during personnel changes, machines transfers between operations, or separated purchasing and delivery events. If you know you have systems, but the right people at your company don't know how to log in, then getting them access is vital. Access typically only takes a phone call to the dealer who sold you the machine. The dealer should also be able to provide training and other assistance as needed. If you choose a formal training event to introduce telematics, get your staff web access prior to the training. This way they can put their training to use immediately.

And, of course, the Internet is always a safe source for information as all the OEMs have published extensive information about their telematics systems on their corporate Web sites.

The critical mass issue lives for those managers who believe too few of their fleet is equipped with telematics to make using the systems worthwhile. In the words of one equipment manager, "I've got 2,000 pieces of mobile equipment and seven of them have telematics; I know someday the technology is going to be valuable, but today it isn't." Here are some deciding factors to help you decide to start today.

The fleet's newest, most productive and valuable mobile assets may be the same machines that are equipped with telematics. So even though these machines may be few in unit count, they represent a disproportionate percentage of fleet valuation.

By remote monitoring your telematic machines, you can make inferences regarding your whole fleet. It's safe to assume how the newer machines are cared for is a best case. If you're not maintaining the newer machines, then what's happening to the aged units?

Telematics is still a new enough concept that your staff needs some time to get acquainted. OEM telematic systems offer a large menu of information that at first can confuse new users. But with use, your staff may discover that machine locations and current service meter readings available on the Web site may be more convenient than current methods to obtain this information, and driving directions to the machine's exact current locations may save someone hours of lost time searching.

The last big reason, data integration, is often voiced as, "I have a mixed fleet and each OEM has their own telematic system. I just don't have time to visit several different Web sites to monitor equipment."

As a representative of the OEM community, I can assure you that we are aware of the legitimacy of this argument. A group of us are working with AEMP's technology group to standardize a file-transfer protocol that will enable integration of key data elements into end-user back office systems. The purpose for this cooperation is to minimize the need for visiting multiple OEM Web sites to manually extract data.

As important as the standardization of data is, it will not completely replace the OEM's proprietary telematic information. Most OEMs have taken additional steps by making proprietary data more available through e-mail alerts and periodic fleet summary reports.

Regardless of OEM efforts to make the data available at your preferred point of use, OEM Web sites remain the tool for setting up customizable features such as geo-fences and engine locks. And for those instances when a deeper dive into the data is necessary, OEM Web sites contain the most complete machine histories. So even though each OEM has a proprietary Web application, they serve real purpose and have genuine value. To add clarity as to why OEM Web sites will not be replaced, I offer the following two examples.

A mining company with a property adjacent to some protected wetlands was approached by a local activist group concerned that the mining equipment could accidentally operate inside the environmentally restricted areas. As a response, the mining company used the OEM's telematic feature to put geo-fences around the restricted area and then committed to report violations to the appropriate authorities. The mine has operated with the geo-fences for more than three years without any violations, and the concerned activists' fears have been allayed.

An equipment manager with several hundred machines equipped with telematics summarizes the machine's telematic history and includes it as part of the machine sale package. The data confirm the accuracy of the service meter and also gives the potential owner insight into the machine's use and care. This manager believes the telematic documentation successfully differentiates his machines. This use serves as a reminder that good maintenance positively affects residual values, which further contribute to lower owning and operating costs.

owning and operating costs
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