Cutting Through the Noise of Telematics

April 28, 2011

Reprinted with permission from Equipment Manager magazine, the magazine of AEMP.

For many fleet professionals, telematics is like living under a waterfall. The enormous flow of information and data is overwhelming at times, leaving them awash in the very technology designed to make fleet life more efficient.

Reprinted with permission from Equipment Manager magazine, the magazine of AEMP.

For many fleet professionals, telematics is like living under a waterfall. The enormous flow of information and data is overwhelming at times, leaving them awash in the very technology designed to make fleet life more efficient.

The reason, according to Pat Crail, CEM and fleet information manager at John R. Jurgensen Companies, is their inability to cut through the noise.

“Way too often,” he says, “I see people take polar approaches to telematics. They hear about all the things a telematics system can provide and are so wowed by all this noise—and it is noise, not information—they run around trying to find a way to use all that data, which, in many cases, is meaningless.”

That’s not to say telematics doesn’t have the ability to expand the metrics you use, Crail says. The key is to consider telematics as another data delivery stream; certainly a much improved one but a data stream nevertheless. “In and of itself, telematics is not a panacea,” he says.

What makes the technology manageable is advanced planning and, in simplest terms, knowing what you need to know.

“If you have the foundation in place, such as the appropriate reports to let you know that you are meeting your performance metrics or falling short somewhere, and if you have all that well defined in advance, then you are in a much better position to choose an appropriate telematics strategy for your fleet,” Crail says.

Fleet managers, he says, should ask themselves what plan is going to provide them with the best data to give them timely and accurate reports to use in managing their fleets. Managers must start with a solid base of good business practices, plus the reports needed to support them, before they set out to find a telematics system that helps run a fleet more efficiently, more effectively and more profitably. “Then,” Crail says, “take advantage of it.”

As early as six years ago, Crail’s company tried telematics technology on a small scale, he says. Using a third-party supplier, they outfitted some on-road materials hauling equipment and some milling machines in an attempt to maximize their route productivity.

“It was a good concept, and it worked well—when it was working,” he recalls. “Back then, we had issues with the reliability of the device supplied by the third party. At times, the device would stop communicating. To get it going again, we would have to actually visit the machine and do a manual reset. The problem was that we were using the technology primarily for its GPS capability to pinpoint the location of the equipment. When we couldn’t find it, the supplier couldn’t tell us where the machine was either. We not only couldn’t find the off-road machine, but the device wasn’t durable or hardened enough to operate in a hostile environment.”

The device worked better with on-road vehicles, Crail says. If there were a problem, he could simply call the driver and ask where he was.

Daniel Samford, vice president of equipment for Herzog Contracting Corp., says telematics helps him manage an extensive fleet. The highly diversified company reaches into numerous transportation-related industries: construction; mass transit; maintenance and operation; railroad construction and maintenance; asphalt plants throughout the United States, the Caribbean and Brazil; and global sanitary landfills in such far-flung locations as Guam.

“Telematics ties into all this,” says Samford.” When people look at telematics initially, they hit only the high spots. They don’t really realize the return on investment until they actually get immersed in it and actually start using it.”

When that happens, asset managers begin to see telematic applications they never thought of before, Samford says. For example, Herzog uses the technology for equipment utilization, to work with fuel tax reporting and project management, to name a few.

“Telematics presents a true third-party look at things that help document a position,” Samford says. “It’s easy to say telematics is going to provide utilization reports, but it also lets you look at machine preference choices, for example. If you have a machine that is always preferred over another, why is that? If you have one Brand X and two Brand Ys, why is Brand Y always being used and Brand X is not?” With telematics, he says, it can help evaluate if there is a mechanical issue, a spec issue or if preference is due to the ergonomics of the machine.

Telematics also enhances communication with machine operators.

“Our operators call in when they see any engine light come on,” Samford says. “We are able to go online and tell them through our system why the engine light is on and whether or not it is something that needs immediate attention or something that can wait until it is convenient to bring the vehicle into the shop.

 “Telematics is an amazing tool,” he says. “We give our banks access to our telematics, for example. They rarely use it, but once a year when we submit our inventory to our financial institutions for our corporate line of credit, they feel comfortable knowing that it’s there.”

Herzog’s insurance companies have access to it as well, Samford says, and have waived the fleet’s $10,000 deductible. “If you take a few things like that and you get deductible waivers, it all pays for some units pretty quickly,” he says.

Herzog also archives its data for more than two years to give the company access if, for whatever reason, the information is needed.

Sam Simons, director of business development for OEM Controls, defines telematics as “machine data that is transmitted back to management.”

“Management needs the data to help them monitor their fleet and control costs, a common business process in all industries,” Simons says. “Construction companies today are implementing high-end software programs as well to help them run their businesses. They have a few more challenges when they implement this software to help them manage their biggest asset and cost category: equipment.”

Construction companies have projects throughout the the world and don’t have eyes on all their assets, Simons says, so one of the main benefits of telematics “is to give fleet managers an unbiased view of their equipment and see what’s going on with the process.”

Fleet managers implement software programs, yet they have people in the field collecting data by paper, Simons says. “They expect these people, who normally are mechanics, fuel technicians or operators, to focus now on clerical duties,” he says. “That’s not their expertise. And because they have to do clerical work, the productivity of the fleet suffers and the data that does come in is usually horrible. You can’t read the writing, wrong data is written down or the field crew is simply too busy to fill out the data.”

And when all that data hits the office, Simons says, the paper work gets lost in somebody’s in-box or office personnel can’t read the writing or numbers are transposed. “All these things cause poor data. Once you start getting poor data flowing into your accounting software, people don’t trust the system,” Simons says.

As a result, management must spend time confirming the data and re-entering the proper values. People have to go out to verify the hour meter readings and determine what’s really going on with the equipment.

“The checking and reworking data is pure waste,” Simons says. “Companies spend millions of dollars, and they can’t use their software programs because the data is so bad. Telematics eliminates all that.”

However, the data can overwhelm managers if they don’t know what to do with it. Simons splits managers into two categories. One is the fleet manager who wants to know when every alert goes off on the equipment and wants the equipment to tell him when it is feeling sick.

“When someone says that, alarms go off in my head,” Simons says. “For one thing, it tells me they don’t have a preventive maintenance (PM) program in place. They are waiting for a breakdown to manage their fleet. They are reactive rather than proactive. The second thing it tells me is they don’t realize what data they need. A fleet manager is very busy and doesn’t have time to look at many reports to manage their fleet. Often, they are understaffed and under-skilled at using the computer. What often happens is the manager’s in-box gets filled up with so many reports it becomes wallpaper. They don’t pay any attention to it or have time to.”

The second type of manager determines the key pieces of data needed to help manage the fleet.

“Everybody will tell you the three key pieces are hours, fuel and location,” Simons says. “If you get hours you should be able to manage your fleet proactively. They base their PM on hours, PM 1 service (changing the oil and filters) can be done at 250 hours. PM 2 service, which is more elaborate, can be done at 500 hours; and at 1,000 hours, even more intense PM can be done.

“If you do this consistently, you don’t need to know when the engine is overheating because you are monitoring the equipment to keep it from ever reaching the point where it overheats. You aren’t letting it go to a catastrophic failure.”

Because fleet managers are so busy, telematics systems such as OEM Controls’ tell them when maintenance services are due, feed hour meter readings into their management software to generate work orders and help them keep an eye on their equipment, Simons says.

Telematics can increase fleet availability. If a machine is in the field and hasn’t been talked to, or hasn’t called in, the fleet manager knows the unit is sitting idle.

“You need to identify where it is,” Simons says. “As you collect the hour meters wirelessly, you can see that the machine that should have been working 40 hours a week only worked 10 hours. Maybe that unit needs to be moved to another jobsite or maybe you need to get rid of it.”

OEMs and dealers can help determine the right amount and type of data that is beneficial to the customer and when that data needs to be delivered.

Nick Redd, program manager at Caterpillar, defines  telematics as the integration of information and communication technologies.

“That’s really the core of telematics,” he says. “In heavy equipment and related industries, it is an enabler to fleet-management processes that improve efficiency, productivity and reduce overall owning and operating cost. Telematics gathers the data from the machine and takes advantage of communication technology to transmit it to fleet-management systems that turn the data into information.”

Key benefits for the fleet manager, Redd says, include monitoring the health of the machine; quick identification of a machine’s performance; and providing clues for other service issues, such as identifying a small problem before it becomes a catastrophic failure.

“Even if you have a well maintained, well oiled machine it can still develop problems due to harsh operations,” Redd says. For example, telematics can let a fleet manager know if an operator is abusing shifts on a machine and thus needs additional training. The same thing is true for identifying site issues.

“If you have data coming in that tells you events are occurring in a particular area of the jobsite, it may indicate that you have a grade that is too steep, causing the engine to over-speed. The operator may be speeding that engine every time he goes down a grade.  That lets you get back in and grade that to a proper level.”

Another big advantage is increasing overall operator efficiency by monitoring how much time the unit is idling or working based on its fuel consumption.

 “If a large number of units are idling more than they should be, you may see an opportunity to move those machines to another work site or maybe it’s a production problem.” Redd says. “For example, if an excavator is loading haul trucks and you notice the trucks have too much idle time, it could be that the trucks are waiting too long to be loaded due to too many haul trucks or not enough excavators.”

On the maintenance planning side, telematics cuts down dramatically the lag time between the point when operator hours are reported at the end of a week and are transmitted to the back office where a manual process is used to determine service intervals.

“Telematics goes through those processes automatically on a daily basis in real time, so you know how far you are from the next service interval,” Redd says. If a manager knows a PM is coming due, he can schedule it around the  production schedule.

“You have to filter it down in a way that suits your operation,” he says. “You have to identify the information that’s most important and get it to the right people. That’s how you get the most out of this technology.”

In some cases, the right person may be the dealer. That allows the fleet manager to focus on his day-to-day responsibilities and the dealer to monitor the machines.

“We’ve had cases where a dealer received an alert and called his customer. The customer shut down the machine and saved a pretty significant repair bill,” Redd says.

Managers can also use telematics to track rental equipment, especially if the machines have telematics installed. The renter can use that information to assure the equipment is being operated under the conditions of the contract terms while the customer can show the machine was used as intended.

Simons says that the responsibility for telematics on rented machines depends on how the rental contract is negotiated.

“With long-term agreements, the rental company may say the renter has the responsibility and that if the equipment comes back all beat up, the renter is responsible,” he says. “The challenge for the renter comes if he rents many pieces of equipment from different vendors. That equipment must be taken under the renter’s control in order to manage it.”

Crail notes other variables. “It depends on the rental company, the contract, the terms of the rental,” he says. “In one case, we rented an excavator for two months. We rented it through a local dealer for that brand. By having a quick conversation with the dealer, we were able to get them to add that machine to our fleet; that is, give us access to the data coming from that machine by adding it to our fleet of registered vehicles. We had 20 machines of that brand, so they moved the machine over to our fleet temporarily.”

Generally speaking, Crail says, it’s probably not practical for short-term rentals.

Although telematics can be a tremendous management tool, Crail warns against automated alerts, suggesting that many fleet managers fail to realize that when the technology sends out an alert, it simply means the computer on the machine saw something it didn’t like.

“Certainly it doesn’t indicate that any repair is needed,” he says. “That fault code comes to the customer instantly, the customers thinks there must be a problem because he received the message, they call their dealer and try to get something done about it, or they invest their time in researching it or by sending a mechanic out there only to learn it wasn’t anything that serious.”

Crail says at one point, he had 2,700 fault messages over three years from a population of about 25 like-branded machines. He wound up talking to the dealer and learned that none of the 2,700 alerts was a problem.

Crail admits fleet managers can’t ignore all alerts and if something does catch their attention, it warrants a phone call out to the jobsite if nothing else.

“Chances are all sorts of bells and lights are going off in the cab, and the operator has already shut the machine down because he knew about the problem before you did.”

When it comes to telematics, Crail says, many fleet managers “trip and fall down. That’s why they have to learn to cut through the noise.”