The Machine-Data Communications Challenge

Sept. 28, 2010

“What we have here is a failure to communicate.”

That often-recited line from the movie Cool Hand Luke perfectly describes the difficulty professional fleet managers have when trying to gather and interpret critical data about their mixed fleets.

“Virtually every fleet—whether private or public—is a mixed fleet,” says AEMP Executive Director Stan Orr, CAE. “And most OEMs have developed software for their specific machines. However, that software is usually proprietary and generally doesn't communicate with anything but the OEM's own equipment. An asset manager who is properly managing his mixed fleet might have to look at several screens to monitor the equipment.”

Complicating the issue further is the fact that end users have various fleet management enterprise systems and asset management software.

“These management programs don't usually communicate with the OEM software, which makes tracking a mixed fleet very difficult,” says Orr. “It's a Catch-22. There are really good systems out there for tracking location, hours, and fuel consumption. But to collect the data from a mixed fleet, an asset manager almost has to manually transfer the data to an Excel spreadsheet or purchase third-party software. It's very cumbersome.”

Will McFadyen, president of McFadyen and Associates, a software development company with emphasis on the construction industry describes it this way: “If an end user has one system that's implemented on 30 percent of the fleet and another system implemented on the remaining 70 percent of the fleet, the end user has to be able to unite the data because it's needed by multiple systems at the contractor level. The problem most end users face is that it's difficult to access all that information from the various systems as part of an automated process.”

Not only is the information difficult to acquire, it's difficult to use.

“Information derived from so many different sources is usually highly fragmented,” says Dick Brannigan, CEM, AEMP President and equipment operations manager at John R. Jurgensen Co. “And it requires a considerable amount of work to turn it into something we can use.”

As a result, the fleet manager is put at a disadvantage because the data is not in a usable format.

Information needs 

Even getting basic information can be difficult.

“Some manufacturers argue that to provide this type of information, they have to give you logarithms and the functions they use to calculate them,” says Chris Ryan, CEM, Boh Bros. Construction. “But at the end of the day, we just want to know how many gallons of fuel were used. We really don't care how the manufacturer calculates it. Just give us the information we need, whether it's run time hours, gallons of fuel used, or the location of the equipment.”

According to Ryan, Boh Bros. has tried four different manufacturers of fuel-distribution equipment to capture machine hours and gallons introduced into the machine.

“It's been a struggle to find something that's reliable and will do the job,” he says. “Right now, we capture the information manually.”

Although the construction industry is just now confronting the problem of a communications protocol, other industries—notably trucking—have been able to come to terms with the technical stumbling blocks.

“The trucking industry had a similar need, but took a different approach,” says Orr. “They were able to develop standards for a communications protocol because there aren't as many manufacturers in trucking as there are in the construction business. They were also under federal mandate to do so.”

Baby steps 

The trucking industry uses a common file format, which is a standardized format for data received from the bus, something that doesn't currently apply to construction equipment.

“The construction industry has just begun to wrestle with this problem, and we have to take baby steps,” says McFadyen. “At some point in the future, there might be an opportunity for a common file format for construction; but this early in development, I don't think it's a realistic goal. Right now, all the providers have a different technology road map they want to use and they're responding to different requests from their customers.”

The trucking industry's communications protocol doesn't work for construction.

“The off-road equipment industry really isn't a bus-type application,” says McFadyen. “In this industry, we're really talking about computer systems—not simply mining data directly from the machine via a cable. We're talking about the ability to access common data, whether it's hours, location or equipment health. It's important to note that while bus data can come from a system, it's provided by an application programming interface (API), not directly from the machine.”

However, while it's not now a perfect fit, the construction industry may be able to develop some of the protocols used by the trucking industry.

“From a systems perspective, the trucking side is using a lot of APIs at the telematics system level,” says McFadyen. “If we can utilize some sort of API structure similar to what the trucking industry has done, it bodes well for the end user.”

One of the first steps technology providers will have to take in developing a communications protocol for the construction industry is to establish new priorities.

“They need to concentrate on the things that are most important to us, such as how to harvest information from the different systems,” says McFadyen. “But the initial step is to provide the data in a programmable fashion, regardless of the format.”

Taking the lead 

Because of the rapid rate of change in technology and because fleet managers require different information—all of it critical—to make wise business decisions, AEMP has taken a leadership role in resolving this issue.

“AEMP's leadership believes it's their responsibility to be the vanguard of the industry and to address important issues such as this as they arise,” says Orr. “As an association, it's our responsibility to protect the interests of our members and advance the industry as a whole.”

According to Orr, this particular issue developed very quickly and gathered momentum last November when the association held its first asset management symposium. After 2½ days of discussing various topics, technology emerged as a critical issue for members.

“Technology permeated all the sessions,” he says. “We realized this was a burning issue for our members.”

That symposium was AEMP's first step toward addressing the problem, and other steps are now being taken, such as issuing a communications protocol White Paper.

“We're going to ask the manufacturers to spend a day talking with us about the obstacles and opportunities in developing a protocol,” says Orr. ”AEMP is uniquely positioned to do this because we don't have a financial interest in it.”

In addition, AEMP has created a special task force headed by Brannigan to delve into the subject and work toward a solution.

“The goal of the Communications Protocol Task Force is to simply start a dialog with manufacturers to determine how we're going to proceed,” he says.

The task force is also charged with developing recommendations for the AEMP board and leadership on how the industry should pursue a solution to the issue.

According to Orr, AEMP will also use its Partnership for Growth through Construction Equipment as a vehicle to build a working relationship with OEMs and other technology providers.

“When we were at ConExpo-Con/Agg 2008 in March, we went to each manufacturer and talked with them about the issue,” he says. “We said, 'Here is the situation; what do you think?' Across the board, they recognized that this is a challenge that needs to be addressed, and they agreed to send representatives to our technology summit.”
Although it's too early for a call to action by AEMP members, Orr says members should stay on top of the issue.
“Hopefully, we can learn from the successes of the trucking side and come up with standards that address our problems,” says Brannigan. “AEMP needs to make it happen since it looks like nobody else is going to.”
“I think manufacturers want to do what end users want,” says Ryan. “Up until this point, I think the difficulty has been determining what the common goal is. Now we're starting to focus with a magnifying glass, and we're going to start burning some holes in the paper.”
Orr acknowledges that construction industry OEMs have invested millions of dollars to develop software.
“When manufacturers designed their systems, they wanted to improve their products,” he says. “Now they need to improve the profitability potential for construction companies, regardless of fleet size or makeup, by giving end users a better handle on their biggest asset—their equipment. That's the bottom line.

Looking for Solutions

Today's equipment managers, whether public or private, small or large, typically manage a mixed fleet involving dozens or even hundreds of makes and models. In doing so, we share a common problem: We are dealing with vast amounts of data that must be collected, analyzed and managed.

Looking for Solutions

Today's equipment managers, whether public or private, small or large, typically manage a mixed fleet involving dozens or even hundreds of makes and models. In doing so, we share a common problem: We are dealing with vast amounts of data that must be collected, analyzed and managed.

The success or failure of our fleet management programs depends on using this data to make timely decisions and take appropriate actions throughout the unit's life cycle. A lack of facts at any level in the information stream often leads to immediate and severe consequences, either in terms of availability or cost.

It's an absolute truth that “What we don't know can hurt us.” And AEMP's battle cry has long been: “If you can't measure it, you can't manage it.” Many of our association's conferences and magazine features—whether focused on key issues, such as fuel management, emissions standards, or new technologies—have contained a common thread: the struggle to keep up with all the data and systems.

Manufacturers, dealers, telematics providers, and vendors have done marvels for our industry in providing the data we need to keep our fleets running—from on-board diagnostics to parts and service information—while their websites allow us access to previously unimagined resources.

Our current problem lies not in the volume of data available or access to it, but rather in the collection and integration of the information. We've evolved from “I wish I knew this” to “How can I collect, store, organize and manage all the data?” And now we ask: “How can I possibly integrate all these different systems and information streams?”

AEMP is working hard to get answers to this key question and has formed the Communications Protocol Task Force to help determine what can be done to facilitate the integration of this abundance of data into our fleet management software systems. The task force's goal is to use an “Equipment Triangle” approach to discuss the possibilities and common needs of end users, manufacturers and dealers.

As with any journey of discovery, we're not sure what lies ahead, but we're hopeful that ease of integration becomes the norm and not the exception.

Dick Brannigan, CEM, is the equipment operations manager for John R. Jurgensen Co., headquartered in Cincinnati, Ohio. He is currently AEMP President and is Chairman of AEMP's new Communications Protocol Task Force.

AEMP President 
Dick Brannigan

Reality Check

As chairman of the new Communications Protocol Task Force, Dick Brannigan, CEM, and AEMP president, has developed a surprising list of data necessary for asset management:

  • Hours equipment has run
  • Equipment location
  • Run time vs. idle time
  • Production and cycle times
  • Fuel costs
  • Fuel consumption
  • Number of times equipment is down
  • Preventive maintenance history
  • Work orders and repair information
  • Oil sampling results
  • Parts management
  • Emissions database
  • Asset management history
  • Regulatory compliance, such as IFTA

And that, says Brannigan, “is by no means everything.”