Austin Industries Mixes Basic Telematics with Innovation

Dec. 21, 2016

A recent article in Construction Equipment, “Telematics and Job-Site Safety,” included examples of how telematics technology contributes to the safety of all types of operations. We’d like to add another example that has definite safety implications.

Austin Bridge & Road (a 2010 Fleet Masters award winner) and Austin Commercial, among the nation’s largest, most-diversified construction companies, use the telematics systems on cranes to determine the optimum point at which to replace wire rope. Sensors installed on both load drums and the boom-hoist drum monitor drum rotation, allowing the telematics system to track actual hours of use on the rope. This data—combined with Austin’s long experience in maintaining cranes—allows the company to establish replacement thresholds, ensuring that wire rope is never pushed beyond its safe, serviceable limits.

Austin’s Equipment Division has worked closely with its telematics supplier, DPL Telematics, since 2009, says Michael Elliott, satellite technician/analyst for the Austin Equipment Division. That partnership, he says, and the capabilities of DPL systems, have allowed Austin to develop telematics solutions for particular operational and maintenance challenges.

One such innovation was integrating sensors into automatic-lubrication systems on larger units to solve the problems of grease reservoirs running dry and system malfunctions going undetected. When grease in the reservoir is nearing the replenishment level, a telematics alert is generated; the company went beyond this simple warning, however, and developed threshold values for the number of cycles the lubrication system should deliver on a particular machine in an hour’s time. If the threshold value is not met, the ensuing telematics alert tells the maintenance department that the system is not functioning properly.

Peter Menard, equipment service manager for the Equipment Division, mentions another “customization.” To determine the work activity on small equipment not having a digital input for engine speed nor using hydraulics (to indicate when the equipment is at work), the company uses telematics to measure the hertz output of the alternator.

“In an idle position,” says Menard, “the alternator produces fewer hertz, but as idle increases, the hertz count increases. We can establish thresholds by going out to the machine to determine the hertz-to-rpm correlation, which gives us an idea of when the machine is likely working, traveling, or idling. Then we can work with DPL to tweak the thresholds and fine-tune them to be most accurate.”

Menard says also that the capability of DPL systems used on the company’s haul trucks allows integrating tire-pressure and temperature data into the telematics system, which, he says, provides an added measure of safety.

According to Elliott, DPL systems installed on the company’s larger equipment can tap into most of the information available on a machine’s CAN bus system and, in addition, the systems provide four auxiliary data inputs and four outputs. The input/output capability, he says, allows specific information to be extracted from machine functions, such as tracking drum rotation or auto-lube cycles, and also allows issuing commands to the machine, such as disabling the engine outside of working hours, a feature the company considers of great value.

“We set everything up on geo-fences,” says Elliott, “and have the systems programmed to disable the starter during nonworking hours as a theft deterrent. Some OEM systems don’t allow disabling a machine.

“We’re always testing new ideas to leverage telematics technology,” says Elliott, “and with the DPL system’s added inputs and outputs, we have options for trying the unusual—such as having small-equipment shipping containers fitted with a solar panel on the top, a charger controller for the battery inside, and a telematics sensor that monitors when the door is opened. Basically, anything that has a battery—we can write a script for it and get most any type of information we want.”

Basics still fundamental

Innovative telematics use aside for the moment, at the heart of Austin’s telematics program are the fundaments—using basic data points that improve efficiencies in day-to-day operations.

“Excessive idling has been a focus in recent months,” says Rod Jablonsky, equipment manager for the Austin Equipment Division. “We’re really trying to hone in on the information to make sure it’s accurate. On occasion, Mike [Elliott] goes into the field with a stop watch to observe machine activity and records data, which we then compare to our DPL data. In most instances, we find the telematics data quite accurate. We have also used data from OEM telematics systems on certain of our machines in the same time frame and find a further high correlation among the three sources.

“We then use the data company-wide to focus attention on excessive idling and the waste it creates—whether burning up fuel, maintenance hours, or warranty hours.”

Again, Austin has set threshold values, sending an alert to the foreman on the project if idling exceeds 15 minutes, then to the superintendent after 30 minutes.

“If the superintendent gets an alarm,” says Jablonsky, “the situation is going to be addressed promptly.”

Also, the seemingly simplest data points remain fundamental in the company’s telematics program. “Among the most significant functions,” says Jablonsky, “are capturing accurate hours, which we upload to track preventive maintenance, and location, especially for equipment that is prone to theft—light plants, trailer-mounted welding machines, and compressors, for instance. We have a 100-percent theft-recovery rate and have recovered more than a million dollars in stolen equipment.”

Another fundamental is fault-code monitoring; the company has established a severity classification system for alerts, amber for “monitor the situation,” red for “immediate shutdown.” Fault codes provide specifics and are pushed out via text or e-mail to job-site superintendents and foremen, as well as to the shop superintendent. Alerts are given, too, if thresholds for truck speeds are exceeded, whether haul trucks, tri-axle dumps, equipment haulers, or on-road aggregate haulers.

Third-party telematics systems

“Austin Bridge & Road and Austin Commercial [two of Austin Industries’ operating companies, a third being Austin Industrial] started installing telematics in 2009,” says Elliott. “Although some OEMs at the time had the capability of providing information, it was cumbersome to have multiple sources with nonstandardized protocol, so we elected to use an aftermarket solution.”

Although the off-road telematics industry has made significant progress in reducing the complexity of gathering telematics data from multiple sources, Austin has elected to maintain its aftermarket solution. Today, the company has a DPL system installed on nearly 400 pieces of equipment—“on virtually everything that has a battery,” says Elliot.

“Even though a new machine might be equipped with an embedded OEM telematics system,” says Elliot, “we install our system on it as well. We might use the OEM system on occasion to pull specific data or to check agreement with our own data, but we maintain use of the third-party system.”

Elliott sums up the company’s telematics philosophy. “We find it difficult to get the OEMs’ information and the information from DPL into a concise format when we’re looking for a unified report of some sort. We find it easier when the information comes from a single source.”

The company, of course, has other reasons for its third-party approach to telematics, among them is the ability to control system installation, resulting in a consistency that allows in-house technicians to quickly resolve issues.

Another plus from the company’s point of view is the capability to use auxiliary inputs and outputs to retrieve data from older machines that predate CAN-bus technology—or from smaller equipment that is not so equipped.

Also is the cost of integrating telematics data into business-management systems. “We don’t necessarily pull the data directly into the accounting system,” says Elliott, “but we do have a third-party equipment-maintenance-management program that we update with telematics data for fleet-management functions.”

DPL Telematics’ Tony Nicoletti, vice president, sales and business development, explains further. “Austin Industries’ integration is dictated by their particular business software, which requires a specifically formatted file to be manually uploaded from within Austin, rather than an API data feed.”

Data integration aside, it would seem that Austin Industries is among an elite group of telematics users who have figured out how to use the technology to great advantage, and continue to do so.