Practically Applying Telematics Technology

April 24, 2015

Most equipment owners are aware by now that many of their machines have a factory-installed telematics system, which collects all manner of data from sensors placed throughout the machine and wirelessly transmits these facts—along with satellite-based location information—to the machine manufacturer’s telematics website. There, owners can view the data, run reports that detail their machines’ whereabouts, operating status, and health, plus set up “fences” that limit a machine’s operation to specific times and geographical areas.

A few fleet owners and equipment dealers—early adopters of the technology, mostly—have not only learned the value of telematics for monitoring machine health and status, but also have learned to integrate telematics data into their business systems and to use this information across various disciplines. But such users are in the minority.

Striving for higher adoption rates

Dealer training and integration

Training moves technology forward

A list of telematics suppliers

Although many equipment manufacturers provide long-term access to telematics data free of charge, the majority of machine owners makes limited use of the technology, even though easily accessed information—such as identifying machines that are idling excessively or avoiding a rental by spotting a machine that hasn’t run for weeks on a job—can pay immediate dividends. But that said, the industry does seem to be making progress in applying telematics in practical ways.

Tracking down undercarriage wear

Kevin Chastain, vice president of service for Linder Industrial Machinery, a multi-line distributor with locations in Florida and the Carolinas, relates a recent incident that illustrates how telematics can solve machine issues that run up operating costs.

“The track rails on a customer’s Komatsu PC490 excavator wore out about 1,000 hours earlier than those on an identical machine doing the same type of work—laying pipe in central Florida,” says Chastain. “The customer asked if we had any ideas about the cause of the uneven wear, and with Komatsu’s help in analyzing telematics data, we determined that the unit with the faster-wearing rails spent triple the time moving in its high-speed travel mode, compared with the other unit. The customer used the information as an operator-training opportunity.” 

Chastain says that as contracting companies have recovered from the economic downturn, a few larger firms have become more interested in the benefits of telematics—estimators now inquiring about fuel consumption and productivity data, for example.

“These people are in the minority,” says Chastain, “but they’ve come back more business savvy and paying attention to technology that can help them. Our experience is that large fleets are the ones taking note of telematics; among machine owners with fewer than 50 machines, the use of telematics is spotty.”

Linder routinely monitors machine health for customers, says Chastain, and has recently added two positions in this area “to push this type of information forward, reduce resolution time, and reduce the number of trips required to resolve an issue,” he says. Also, in the plan, says Chastain, is to use telematics more extensively to efficiently schedule the company’s lube trucks.

“PMs are usually low-margin items,” says Chastain, “so your technicians need to be as efficient as possible. Using telematics information, our goal is to schedule the lube trucks’ itineraries at least a week in advance for machines coming due for service. We can have everything the technician needs pulled together, so they’re not wasting a couple hours every day looking for parts.”

Bidding assistance, one-trip fixes

Jim Hoyle, service manager for Scott Equipment, with 24 locations in seven states, says the company worked with Volvo to install one of the manufacturer’s first telematics systems on a customer machine. The customer, a north-central Tennessee contractor, has grown up with telematics, says Hoyle, and is one of only a few Scott customers who  routinely uses the technology.

“This customer told us recently that more of the jobs they’re bidding ask for specifics about equipment that will be used on the project, including fuel burn,” says Hoyle. “That kind of information would be difficult to dig out without telematics. The customer also makes practical use of the CareTrack [Volvo telematics system] status report, which provides machine location and hours, as well as a very accurate fuel gauge. Every morning his fueling crew uses the report to see which machines need fuel and which don’t; it saves them a lot of time.”

For every machine Scott rents or sells, the staff shows the customer how to access the telematics system and what information is available: “We encourage customers to get engaged with the system and the information it provides,” says Hoyle, “but only a very few really do anything with it.”

Once a telematics-equipped machine is in service, Hoyle and an assistant monitor the machine (and another 150 or so in the branch’s territory) for critical fault codes. Company-wide, Scott has more than 1,000 units under surveillance.

“Some codes you make an immediate call about,” says Hoyle, “others you might wait to see if a pattern develops. By using telematics to sort out a machine’s issues before dispatching a service truck, we have significantly increased our percentage of one-trip fixes. That’s a huge advantage for customers.”

When machines speak, listen

Chris Gaylor, president of Power Equipment Co., a multi-line distributor with branches in Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Virginia, says the company’s telematics history dates back some 15 years when it installed third-party systems on some 600 rental machines.

“I was skeptical that there would be much value in just knowing a machine’s location and its hour-meter reading,” says Gaylor, “but I was wrong. That information proved invaluable for keeping up with the fleet and making sure machines were properly maintained.”

Today, says Gaylor, the health-monitoring aspects of telematics are critical for keeping machines running properly, especially with Tier 4 emissions controls. A few, more technically savvy customers realize this, he says, and expect help.

“They don’t want to know every time their machine flips a caution,” says Gaylor, “but they do expect—and ‘expect’ is probably the right word—that we inform them when a critical fault code has occurred. That gives them the opportunity to fix problems while they’re still small. We have a telematics administrator who is the first line of defense for codes as they come through, filtering out the non-essential and getting the rest to people who need to see them. But that said, you’d be surprised at the number of customers who don’t want to be informed.”

He tells about a fleet of articulated trucks that began reporting overheated brakes, and when contacted about the situation, the customer said the overheating was unavoidable, because the loaded trucks had to negotiate an extremely long downhill run. After a few final-drive seal failures, however, the customer asked for help, says Gaylor, and investigating the problem revealed that operators were not using retarders on the downhill run. Operator training saved the customer significant repair expense going forward, he says.

“In retrospect, maybe we didn’t fully understand the implications of not immediately addressing the situation,” says Gaylor, “but we learned. We now ask our product-support reps to know their customers’ fleets better than customers themselves by using telematics to provide regular reports on machine performance and condition. Most customers see this as a value added service, and they’re willing to give us more parts and service business for providing that value.”

In a similar approach, Highway Equipment & Supply, with four branches in central Pennsylvania, prepares monthly machine-status reports for its sales people, says Chad Herron, warranty manager and CareTrack administrator/trainer. “It’s a service for the customer,” says Herron, “and keeps sales people from being blind-sided if they show up and there’s an issue with the machine.”

Herron and an assistant monitor fault codes for 150-plus CareTrack-equipped machines and receive e-mails about serious issues, information that is invaluable for assisting service technicians in diagnosing machine issues before leaving the shop, he says. Telematics data also help track machines under service agreements.

“Prior to telematics,” says Herron, “we had to rely either on the customer calling to schedule routine maintenance or on our field people constantly monitoring and recording hours. Now we get an e-mail when service is coming due, and that allows us to get everything ready. It’s a much more efficient approach.”

The right contact is essential

“The manufacturer’s distributor that monitors my machines adds value, and it’s that company’s ‘shade of yellow’ that I buy,” says Daniel Samford, CEM, vice president, corporate equipment, Herzog Contracting Corp. “My view regarding manufacturer and distributor involvement with telematics is that—some get it, but most don’t.

“We have three good OEM [original equipment manufacturer] distributors that ‘get it,’ and we use them as a springboard when moving into a new territory to assess whether the distributor there has the ambition and the committed personnel to make sure our machines are monitored. If not, we use the trusted distributor, who has already made that investment and has machine-monitoring specialists who can dissect false alarms—the ‘crying wolf,’ if you will—from the real issues that need attention. They’re not bothering us every time they see a burned-out turn signal; they would coat-tail that sort of non-urgent maintenance information when there’s a legitimate need to contact us.”

Monitoring equipment for critical fault codes is essential as complex Tier 4 emissions systems become more prevalent in Herzog’s fleet, says Samford: “I think [emissions technology] is a primary reason OEMs are encouraging their distributors to monitor machines, because if machines are not monitored, the end-user can potentially see excessive downtime and bring a negative attitude toward the OEM’s product.”

Herzog receives monthly reports from several of its OEM suppliers detailing idle time and listing fault codes sent to assigned field personnel. Because the company’s fleet migrates from job to job, says Samford, keeping the field-contact list current is essential to ensure that critical items are addressed in a timely manner. But updating the contact list through the dealer is difficult, he says, and he has suggested that machine owners be allowed to access a contacts page on the manufacturer’s telematics website, based on location, where owners can update the list. The proposal, he says, is receiving mixed reviews from manufacturers.

Herzog strives to have telematics on every piece of major equipment, preferring to use OEM systems, provided they are compatible with the AEMP (Association of Equipment Management Professionals) standard. Exceptions to that practice are when the OEM’s optional system is considered over-priced or if high monthly subscription fees are required. In those instances, says Samford, Herzog installs or “piggy backs” an AEMP-compatible third-party system and chooses not to enroll in the OEM system.

“Third-party systems are becoming a more viable option as they gain capability in the data points once considered to be only an OEM option,” says Samford.

Experience counts

At Thompson Machinery, a Caterpillar dealer with 11 locations in Tennessee and Mississippi, condition-monitoring analyst, Rusty McAmis, tracks telematics-equipped machines under the purview of the company’s LaVergne, Tenn., branch. McAmis has nearly 30 years with Thompson and previously worked for a contractor.

“Thompson has capitalized on Rusty’s long experience,” says Chris Rowan, the company’s product support training manager. “We need someone like him, with his level of expertise, to help customers correctly interpret the [telematics] data they’re receiving.”

McAmis explains that the Caterpillar Product Link telematics system provides three levels of fault-code or event-code alerts, with level-three addressing situations that could require immediate intervention.

“Most of the machines are set up so that we receive an e-mail about level-three codes,” says McAmis, “then we can go to VisionLink [the Caterpillar web interface] to investigate the details—for example, to check how many times the code has appeared and whether it might be a temporary operator-induced event. We have to watch what’s going on for a while to make sure we’re not calling the customer with false alarms.”

Recent telematics success stories from Thompson include the recovery of three stolen skid steer loaders using the location capability of the telematics system, saving an engine that was nearly out of oil, because faulty injectors were pulling oil back to the fuel tank, and catching up with an operator who was continuously overriding transmission-overheating warnings.

Within Thomson, says Ronnie Jackson, Cat EMSolutions (telematics-based services) supervisor, telematics information is invaluable for tracking machines under maintenance agreements, with the system set up to advise 50 hours before a machine is due for service.

Thompson and Caterpillar offer online telematics training each month, says Jackson, with each 60- to 90-minute session focusing on Vision Link functionality, machine-health alerts, utililization, and geofencing.

Mining the data

Rich Hoffmeyer, product support manager at McCann Industries, a Case dealer with locations in northern Illinois and Indiana, tries to have one-on-one training sessions with machine buyers unfamiliar with telematics.

“Some don’t want you to bother them about it,” says Hoffmeyer, “and others are neck-deep into the subject and have it figured out before you show up.”

In the latter category, says Hoffmeyer, is a customer who routinely uses idling reports and became curious about how the system defined “idling.” Hoffmeyer investigated and learned that an idling condition is assumed when engine speed and machine-travel speed are below the manufacturer’s default settings.

“But we also learned that those parameters are programmable,” says Hoffmeyer, “and that we could adjust the system to thresholds we thought made the most sense in the customer’s operation.”

Like many of us, Hoffmeyer continues to be impressed with the technology: “The reporting available from telematics is awesome. We’ve had customers ask, for instance, what kind of fuel consumption they could expect from a certain machine model. We can go into our system and report what other customers in the area are experiencing on very similar machines—right up to the minute if we’re sitting in the customer’s office.”