How to Deal with On-Board Diagnostics

Sept. 28, 2010

When it comes to keeping equipment up and running, on-board diagnostics is an important weapon for any fleet professional's arsenal. Such technology can tell you the location of a machine, if it is being used or not, whether it needs servicing or repair, or if it is on the verge of a catastrophic breakdown.

Given all that data, however, sometimes the information is so overwhelming that it threatens to be too much of a good thing.

As one equipment professional puts it, "I'm data rich and analysis poor."

"I'll give you another saying," says Kenneth Poppe, product marketing manager of new technology for John Deere Construction and Forestry Division. "If data was dirt and information was water, we'd be buried alive and dying of thirst."

Such is the challenge of turning on-board diagnostic data into usable knowledge. "It's an interesting process," says Poppe. "The idea is to take raw data and transform it, generally, into a visual that can be readily understood, enabling immediate action."

For example, take a group of 20-ton excavators. You could plot average fuel consumption rate of each excavator versus number of times that the excavators swing for the entire group. Fuel is a large portion of the variable costs of an excavator. Every time an excavator swings from the trench, it has moved a bucket of material and so the number of cycles provide a good indication of the productivity. An operations manager could glance at this plot and readily differentiate projects that are showing a lower profit margin and take action to improve the efficiency of the excavation.

"In other words," Poppe says, "to turn data into information, we need to summarize the data and present simple visuals that are readily understandable."

From a fleet professional's viewpoint, however, there is an entirely different process when it comes to turning data into knowledge. Leigh Dennis, CEM, heavy equipment service manager for Fowler Construction in Raleigh, N.C., approaches the process this way: "First of all, you have the data. Second, you have the software and hardware to retrieve the data. Then enters training so your technicians can understand what they are looking at, because not all information points to the exact problem."

Data will indicate specific symptoms, he says, "but you may have a hurt somewhere that derives from something else. Training lets you know what to look for."

Dennis says his company attacks training from several vantage points. "We get the dealership in here to train us," he says. "We also receive training on all updates as they become available. We maintain an annual subscription, in our case, to Caterpillar ET. It's costly per laptop, but it has to be maintained. And we update hardware."

Dennis says that up until recently, fleet managers were required to have a "hard-wire system" for these updates, but now Cat offers a wireless connection system that lets the technician sit outside the machine and monitor the unit as it is working.

"He doesn't have to try and operate the machine himself or squeeze into a cab with an operator to see what's going on," Dennis says. "He can monitor the machine and get everything he needs in real time."

Dennis says a tremendous amount of information can be obtained from OEM on-board diagnostics. "Komatsu, with their new machine, has pretty much put all the diagnostics right there at your fingertips on the display monitor in the cab," Dennis says. "Caterpillar gives you a lot of service codes right there from the machine that even an operator can call in. John Deere now has on-board diagnostics that go far beyond what I've seen. On their construction equipment, say on loaders, all their systems are monitored electronically. There is a menu that actually allows you to go in and check each sensor and just about every contact, sensor and input info within the systems to see if there is a short or ground. It tells you what your actual operating voltages are. And you can do it right there without having to plug in anything."

Having the data is one thing, Dennis says, but retrieving it is another. And it's here that fleet managers run into their biggest challenge: There is no standardization of technology. "All the big-name manufacturers are making the data available, but whether you have the means to get the data and turn it into information is a different thing," he says.

For instance, he says, Caterpillar has the Cat Electronic Technician program with stand-alone software and hardware configurations that allow the fleet manager to pull data down from Cat machines, either directly or via satellite. "You have to multiply all those costs by the number of machines in your fleet that use it," he says. "There's no doubling up on anything. You can't just copy it."

Another challenge, says Dennis, are fleets (such as his) that use machines from different manufacturers. Each OEM, he says, has its own proprietary on-board diagnostic system.

"Cat has one, Deere has another, and Volvo has another — and they are all proprietary," he says. "If you have a number of different (brand) machines in your fleet, each one requires something different. Number one, you won't be able to load these different programs on one computer. Nine times out of 10 you have to sign an agreement that you won't put anyone else's information in the same computer."

The reason for that, he says, is to allow OEMs to protect their software. Since Dennis has Cat, Volvo, Deere and other manufacturer's units in his fleet, he solved the problem, "by going with the numbers," he says. "We generally have Caterpillar and we have several companies set up with Cat, so we went with Caterpillar Electronic Technician."

Deere's Poppe says, "we are very comfortable with a mixed-fleet situation. Most of our customers have mixed fleets. "We need to provide support and service for his entire fleet. Our telematic solution we are using is JDLink, which has just been introduced," he says. "There are four levels, and one of them is targeted for mixed fleets. We don't have access to our competitor's CAN buses to get the needed data, but we do have the ability to pull off four different sensor inputs and feed that into our Standard system. We'll have more features out there this summer."

Marc Desrosiers, vice president with MicroLogic, a company that focuses primarily on construction and rental construction equipment, points out that most companies using on-board diagnostics "are using it for what I call meat-and-potatoes situations: knowing where the equipment is, knowing its daily run hours, or knowing when equipment is moved from one location to another."

Although this has been the historical pattern, he says, fleet professionals want to know other things as well, such as when an engine overheats or when oil pressure goes down — anything, he says, "that forces an engine shut down. They want to understand what happens so they can minimize the abuse factor."

Faced with multiple proprietary technology and multiple brand fleets ("There are few purists," says Desrosiers), fleet managers still can overcome such challenges through what has been called the "equipment triangle," formed by well-established relationships between OEM, dealer and end-user.

"We recognize this triangle between manufacturer, dealer and customer," Poppe says. "We all have parts to play. At Deere, we'd like for the dealer to be a consultant to the customer, or end-user. By that I mean dealers should be very knowledgeable about the equipment and be able to recommend re-life or replacement and suggest best practices for maintenance and operation of the equipment."

From the OEM's standpoint, Poppe says, "We're designing and building the machines, so we know what is required of the different systems. It's our responsibility to provide that information to the dealer and the customer.

"If I may speak from [the fleet manager's] point of view, we want the customers to tell us what their needs are," he says. "It's our job to figure out how to provide the solutions. It's necessary to have a very open channel of feedback. We like to hear about what's working, of course; but to excel, we need to hear where the opportunities are, what's not working or what could work better."

Fowler's Dennis emphasizes the importance of a good dealer-fleet manager relationship. The closer the relationship, he says, the more information you will learn when it comes to things like sending someone out to service a machine. "If you don't have that relationship, the dealer will just say that he'll send someone out," says Dennis. "That could mean a couple of days before they get there. From my standpoint, dealers need to be up-front. The better relationship you have, the more information you're going to get."

Admittedly, Dennis says, with today's construction boom that's going on in many areas (including his own), it's hard enough for dealers to provide the machines at the rate that customers want them. Once they get the machines out there, many of the units don't have the bugs worked out, he says. "For a company of our size that buys 20 or 30 machines, there will be bugs here and there that need to be dealt with," he says.

Although a company may be the biggest customer the dealer has, says Dennis, the dealer is still under the gun from other customers. "The more forward the dealer is about information, the better the relationship," he says. "It's the whole triangle thing: fleet manager, manufacturer and dealer perpetuating itself."

There are so many machines and so many different models and so many changes that take place that it can swamp anyone, dealer or customer, Dennis says. In his particular case, he has tried to narrow his diagnostics to the units that affect his fleet.

"What we do is find out what serial numbers affect us," he says. "We catalog them, put them on a spreadsheet, and do a quick database-type search. We check on a particular serial number range and call out all the changes that have come up in the past few years." This approach, he says, is used to track such things as engine and transmission work.

As much as today's on-board diagnostic systems have reduced downtime and alerted fleet managers to trouble on the way, what lies ahead, says Poppe, is even more exciting.

"In not too many years, such systems will be able to recognize degradation," he says. "This is an area new to us. Like everyone else, we still have to do a lot of learning, but as we get smarter, we're going to be able to take information directly from the machine and determine the remaining useable life of that unit. This will allow fleet managers to plan and budget, either to re-life, or replace that machine.

"The outlook is very positive, like the Model T starting the automotive industry. That's where we are now. We don't even know what all this is going to do for us yet."

On-board diagnostic monitor from John Deere alerts the operator of a possible problem with the dozer's blade.
This hand-held device from John Deere shows an alternator alarm. It recommends three steps the technician can take to find the possible problem.
This diagnostic device, the CELogic6500 from MicroLogic, is an integrated monitoring tracking system designed specifically for construction equipment. The unit shown here is installed on a generator to keep track of location and run hours, among other functions.
Diagnostic Tips

Here are a few guidelines for fleet professionals who may be considering on-board diagnostics:

  • Do your homework. Take a look at what systems are coming out or at the diagnostics already on the market. Make sure the system has undergone sufficient testing and that it has ample support from the manufacturer.
  • Find out what the manufacturer's ISO manufacturing quality assurance certification is. Find out what they have available in terms of tools that you can use. Do they have diagnostic systems that you can purchase that go beyond what is shown on the monitor?
  • Consider the geography where you do business. Do you live in an area that dealers will find difficult to keep up with because of the region's rapid growth? Your dealership may be the largest and sell the most, but can they keep up with your needs?
  • Buy an extended warranty. Such an investment might not have been worth it in the days when it took years for equipment design to go from drawing board to field application, but that's no longer true. Machines and diagnostics can go from design to digging within six months. Extended warranties help you when the bugs have to be worked out.
  • Use the system you invest in. Buying is one thing, using is another. Make a conscious decision to use this kind of technology. Fleet managers often don't feel they have time to stay on top of diagnostics. You can't take a look at it every week or two.