Telematics data enable fleets to monitor machine location, engine performance and more.
A frequently repeated opinion in the off-road industry is that technology, such as telematics, lags on highway applications by four years. Some say longer.
Bill Sauber, manager of remote technologies for Volvo Construction Equipment, isn’t buying it. “I wouldn’t say we’re lagging when it comes to telematics. We’re just doing different things with it.”
On-road vehicles, he says, are big on navigation—such as mapping out the best route to the beach—and entertainment—like accessing satellite radio.
“But that’s not critical,” Sauber says. “It’s not even applicable, for instance, to a machine running in a quarry. I would say the construction industry is further along than either automotive or over-the-road trucks in monitoring the machine itself.”
Certainly, some high-end automobiles might tell you when tire pressure is low, but fleets invest much more in construction assets. An excavator might cost $500,000 compared to a $50,000 car. Also, a machine can be responsible for uptime of four or five other assets, Sauber says.
“In construction, such data is critical,” he says. “The construction industry is, and will be, way beyond what automotive is doing because our needs are different. We don’t need to be entertained. We need to improve the uptime of the machine without adding to environmental problems. We need early warning alarms and error codes, and we need to monitor operator behavior.”
For the construction industry, telematics is much more than the buzz word de jour. It may turn out to be the most important tool fleet managers have, not only for tracking machine health and safety, but also simultaneously staying in compliance with an increasing number of emissions regulations.
True, the instability of the economy has caused some environmental enforcement agencies, such as the California Air Resources Board (CARB), to back off a bit as it tries to reposition itself as “business friendly,” but the compliance issue will not go away. It simply means fleet managers have shifted the emissions issue, “rightfully so, from the front burner to the back burner,” says Tom Remy, director of sales-construction for Navman Wireless.
Remy, who is located in San Diego, is well versed in California diesel emissions regulations, a state with the reputation of being flag bearer to the nation when it comes to controlling emissions. California’s complexities of compliance stems from the state’s 35 separate air districts, he says, “these districts are not aligned by zip code.”
“Visualize the air above those districts as part of the compliance zone,” Remy says. “The regulations can change from zone to zone. These air districts are self-funded, which means they stay alive by writing tickets for violations.”
To enforce the emissions regulations, for instance, California relies on what Remy calls “smoke police” to monitor job site equipment and ticket machines that are not in compliance.
“The smoke police sit up on a hill, for example, and use binoculars to watch construction sites below,” he says. “They’re looking for visible signs of smoke. If there isn’t any smoke and it’s 11:30 a.m., and lunch time, they focus in on the equipment parked in a line. If an operator has left a machine running, the smoke police can see the little ring caps going up and down on the smokestack. If that’s the case, they swoop down, possibly getting 20 machine [idle] violations all at once.”
With equipment moving from job site to job site in different locations, it becomes difficult—but necessary—for fleet managers to know what air district they are in, what the rules and regulations are in each district, and to comply with that particular district’s regulations, he says.
“There is no better way of doing that than by telematics,” Remy says. He uses the word in a generic sense to explain systems like Navman’s that is made up of a combination of GPS and cell phones to automatically provide fleet managers with hours and location information. For construction fleets, the system also uses sensors that monitor engine rpm and a calibrated oil pressure switch to determine whether the machine is working or not.
In a situation where machines are moving in and out of air districts, telematics enables geo-fencing to be set up around the various worksites or even around the machine itself. That tells the fleet manager if a unit is operating where it is suppose to operate, Remy says.
“If you don’t have telematics, you may not even know a piece of equipment has moved 10 miles and has entered a different air district.”
Ken Calvert, director-product support systems for Komatsu America, says the real value of the technology is that it delivers the data most important to fleet managers.
“They want to know where the machine is and how many hours it worked,” Calvert says. “That’s typically what you get in a manual report, but as the fleet manager gets more data he becomes interested in more data: hours on the machine and the job site it was working on, information that isn’t just for maintenance scheduling, but also for a company’s internal accounting and how to bill time and costs to certain jobs.”
As asset managers learned to trust the basic data they received from an automated system, they moved to another level. As fuel prices carved out greater chunks of budget allocations, they became more interested in fuel economy, Calvert says. They began to ask themselves, does it make more sense to buy new technology just from the fuel savings aspect?
“They began to incorporate fuel burn—not just for costing or accounting costs—but also to determine if the fuel they were buying was ending up in the machines they bought it for,” Calvert says. “The low-hanging fruit there, is simply to teach the operators not to run unnecessary idle time. I think this is still in its infancy, a paradigm shift. With the old machines, you just left them running because they were hard to start. Modern machines prefer to work rather than idle, but you still have some carry-over today of the old attitude. It all gets down to four data points—location, hours, fuel burn and some measure of productivity, such as working versus idling.
“To get your arms around all that is hard, but the basic stuff comes first. Realizing the full benefit of telematics is a progression,” he says.
Another example of how telematics can help off-highway fleets stay within local and federal regulations is in noise control.
“We have customers who work in an urban environment where regulations prevent you from starting a machine before 7 a.m. If you do, you can be fined,” says Nick Redd, industry support manager for Caterpillar’s commercial work site group.
If a machine starts before 7 a.m., therefore violating the noise ban, telematics sends an alert to the back office, to cell phones and e-mail addresses of the production or equipment manager, “so he can either get the machine shut down or coach the operator to prevent it from happening again.”
That same telematics data also can be used as historical information. “You may have a neighbor file a complaint that you are starting the machines prior to a specific time,” Redd says. “Potentially, you can use that data to prove whether or not the machine violated the noise regulations.”
Machines also have diagnostic devices that sense when components are not working properly, which can be a signal that emissions may be affected.
“When you think about emissions, there is no way on a machine to know the exact emissions coming out of it,” says Joe Mastanduno, account manager, rental marketing for John Deere Construction and Forestry. “That is all tested in laboratories. All the data generated by sensors can be accessed remotely. That’s one of the benefits of telematics—tracking machines,” he says.
“The word telematics encompasses a lot of areas,” says Chris Juliano, sales director, OEM Controls. “Our system focuses on fuel consumption, fuel distribution, and machine utilization.”
Most construction fleets “are aware of telematics, and most use something,” he says. “But I think the penetration rates [of telematics use] are low. OEMs have shipped a lot of systems to fleets that typically have only 5 or 10 percent of their units equipped with telematics. If a mixed fleet has 500 machines and 22 of them have telematics, it’s not changing the way they do things,” he says.
“Our customers often have several systems from the OEMs, but our devices are simpler and suitable for widespread application. Ours simply tell you where the machine is, how many hours it is running and whether it is idling or working. The other half of the equation is fuel distribution and consumption. That’s where we fit in.”
Barth Burgett, vice president, equipment support operations, Kokosing Construction, says they stick to the basics.
“Maybe somebody smarter than us has figured out how to automate all the information, but at this point and time we use various reports to closely monitor who the operator is,” he says. “If there is a variation beyond what we set as our guidelines, we talk to the operator’s supervisor, who addresses that behavior.”
Burgett says a grade card can be produced for operators who use several different machines. Excessive idle time breaks emissions regulations, and it also costs the company money. “I have the ability to look at that data every day,” he says.
Keeping an eye on emissions compliance is important to Kokosing, Burgett says, “because a lot of municipalities open their bidding process only to contractors who manage their equipment in a manner that provides a healthier and safer work place.”
In the process of upgrading and managing equipment, Tier ratings become important, says Burgett.
“You have to look at that,” he says. “We are not heavily regulated in the areas where we work, so we don’t have the situations many contractors are faced with. But when we buy an asset, we consider buy versus rebuild. We continually work to improve our Tier rating, which is everybody’s responsibility.”
Waste Management is strongly focused on how telematics plays into emissions control, according to John Meese, senior director of heavy equipment. Although a number of units in the mixed fleet are aging, a strong rebuild program helps older machines adapt to the technology.
“Any time we do a rebuild,” Meese says, “we build in the highest level of telematics that the machine will adapt to. Some of the units can’t report very much, but we upgrade those machines that are capable of using the technology.”
Not only can telematics help on the environmental front, but it also identifies safety violations due to operator behavior.
“In one recent incident, an operator at a transfer station was consistently doing high speed backward and forward shifting—at 13 miles an hour,” Meese says. “We like to see vehicles at transfer stations not exceed 5 miles an hour. Telematics is an invaluable technology from a safety standpoint and from a maintenance standpoint.”
Bill Ashworth, a Komatsu dealer whose customers include construction and mining companies as well as municipalities throughout Alabama, Georgia and the Florida Panhandle, says the use of telematics is destined to become huge as the economy turns around and companies start replacing older machines. As fleet managers become more aware of what telematics can do, he says, even smaller fleets are beginning to use some form of telematics.
One reason is that equipment dealers now can provide more useful information to their customers. “We can communicate the advantages of that technology, for instance, in reducing fuel consumption,” he says. “That’s critical as fuel prices go up.”
With awareness climbing, and with associations such as AEMP and its Telematics Standard spearheading efforts to make it easier for mixed fleets to interface with the various OEM telematics systems, where does the technology go from here? It is shifting its emphasis.
Redd says OEMs initially concentrated on the equipment side: how to use the machine and how to service it at the right time. Now focus is beginning to move to the production side: how productive the fleet is, how much material is being moved, how much is it costing to move that material, and how much fuel is burned to move it.
“OEMs are becoming more and more interested in providing that kind of value to our customers,” he says. “As we add more value to the production side, I think we will see telematics really take off in the next two or three years.”
That shift in emphasis could well be the turning point when it comes to convincing upper management to commit to such a major investment.
“Now both sides of the fence—equipment and production—are looking for the same thing,” he says. “When that happens we will see adoption obstacles to telematics disappear.”
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