Tracking Fleet Assets Through Technology

By G. C. Skipper | September 28, 2010

Asset-management software to track construction equipment and personnel “is about 10 years behind over-the-road fleets,” says Ken Calvert, IT support director for Komatsu America. Highway fleets quickly embraced asset-management software because of spiraling fuel costs, U.S. Department of Transportation regulations, and the fact that trucking companies tend to have more equipment dispersed to more locations, he says. Another factor, says Calvert, is the increasing number of states that are enforcing restrictions on idling.

As economic and regulatory developments start to push their way into the construction industry, the need for an asset-management solution that improves utilization and productivity climbs ever higher on the fleet professional's priority list.

“The main benefit of asset-management software,” says Daniel Wallace, business area manager for construction services at Trimble, “is that it converts what has previously been qualitative data to quantitative data. Our management solution, Trimble Construction Manager, gives contractors not just numbers, data and trends, but also exceptions. It can monitor bottlenecks in the movement of equipment and allow contractors to understand more clearly what's going on at any given project.”

Caterpillar also has its own system, says Brent Tilly, with NACD Product Link.

“The benefit of Caterpillar's basic solution, Asset Watch, which is powered by the Product Link hardware and the EquipmentManager software, is the ability of the customer to track the hours and location of their equipment,” says Tilly.

Although Cat does offer more detailed data, such as maintenance and repair scheduling, fault codes and diagnostic code information, and even troubleshooting capabilities, the “quick win” for the customer, he says, is the cost savings and machine uptime they can realize by effectively managing their assets and performing preventive maintenance on time.

“This is done by leveraging the hours and location information and is something the average customer can easily adopt into their business,” says Tilly. “By controlling the flow of information from the machine, backed by our dealer network, customers can realize the value of the technology.

“Asset Watch focuses on utilizing hours and location. Maintenance Watch builds on this by integrating planned maintenance and repair with the Asset Watch information. Health Watch goes a step further by focusing on condition monitoring information, such as fault codes and diagnostic information.”

Nina McCoy, president of CCG Systems says, “Our software, called Faster, can predict maintenance, so the equipment manager knows when to repair or replace the equipment. Equipment ownership is the most expensive part of managing a fleet. Asset management software helps fleet professionals understand where the real costs are and allows them to right size the number of equipment units they need to appropriately serve their customers.”

Murray Lodge, director of construction sales at Topcon Positioning Systems, says the Topcon system, SiteLink, gives contractors the ability to better control equipment. That “better control” translates into better utilization and efficiency.

“If fleet managers are utilizing their equipment to the fullest, they are getting the most out of the money they put into the equipment,” he says.

For example, a superintendent tells the fleet manager he has to have a certain piece of equipment. The unit is put on the jobsite and used only once a week.

“He doesn't really need it,” says Lodge. “He uses it only periodically, so a machine could be rented for a short term and the equipment that's owned could be used on a different job. “

Assset-management software can also monitor the health of the machine.

“You make sure maintenance is done at the appropriate time,” says Lodge. “The more equipment you have in a fleet, the harder it is to stay on top of the maintenance. If you have the ability to monitor the performance of that machine, you can even determine if maintenance is needed prior to the scheduled PM. That avoids more serious problems later.”

There's also the security factor, says Ken Poppe, product marketing manager for construction at John Deere Construction and Forestry. With JDLink, a system developed by Deere and Qualcomm, fleet professionals can protect their rolling stock from what Poppe calls “midnight acquisition.”

Using GPS-based technology, JDLink hardware is connected directly into the electrical system of a machine to monitor location, functions, hours, fuel information, alerts, and other critical data.

“It includes geo-fencing, which means any time a tractor moves outside a boundary, an alert is sent out and the tractor location is monitored until the tractor is recovered,” he says.

Another security product, Curfew, was recently introduced.

“Generally, contractors operate during set hours,” says Poppe. “With Curfew, if a tractor is started outside the normal working hours, an alert is sent out. This helps to stop a lot of 'mischief'.”

New software features on the Advanced JDLink package, include the ability to send e-mails or text messages, and low fuel warnings.

A third package, Ultimate, is also available.

“On Ultimate, utilization becomes a little bit better defined,” says Poppe. “For example, Standard utilization triggers off of whether the engine is running or not. But Ultimate actually looks at whether the engine is idling, working or not being used at all.”

A fourth package, called Direct, is designed for jobsites where all the equipment is kept geographically close and maintenance is done at the site.

“With Direct, we hook up directly to a laptop or PC on the machine and download the information,” says Poppe.

Steve McGough, COO at HCSS, points out another benefit of asset-management software.

“It allows you to check how you are doing based on production, the bid and the estimate,” he says. “You get real-time feedback as opposed to waiting two or three weeks or even a month for the accounting department to get back to you with a cost report.”

During numerous visits to construction sites, McGough says he's found a lot of people still keep track of machines and manpower on a magnet board.

“If you pick up a magnet that represents a piece of equipment and move it half a dozen times, you don't know the true history of where that unit has been” he says.

In 2004 when HCSS took its product, The Dispatcher, mainstream, one of its features was deliberately designed to mimic the magnet board. The difference, however, is that the HCSS system automatically keeps a log of the machines, which allows the fleet manager to go back and get a history of where the unit has been and how long it was there. The system monitors the health of the machine as well.

“From a GPS standpoint, our system is different in that we interface with other suppliers, in addition to selling our own units, says McGough. “For example, if a fleet professional is responsible for 200 pieces of equipment, more than likely there will be a wide range of age among the units. The new equipment that comes from Caterpillar will come with a Cat GPS unit already installed. As an equipment manager, you'd have to go to Cat's website to look at your reports. The equipment manager can now look at his equipment with Cat GPS and HCSS GPS using our software.”

HCSS integrates with Trimble, TCM and Qualcomm units.

“We can pull data into The Dispatcher once a day for Caterpillar customers,” he says.

The second part of the system, because it is integrated with Microsoft Map Point, allows fleet managers to see where equipment and employees are geographically.

“This allows you to schedule moves and dispatch moves within the system for machines that need lowboys,” says McGough.

The software also has a planner view that allows you to plan out in advance where you'll need the equipment.

According to Topcon, the company's software also works with multiple equipment brands.

“All OEMs have some type of system,” says Lodge. “Caterpillar has one, Komatsu has one, John Deere has one: But the equipment is set up just for their new machines. Our system will work with any manufacturer and with both new and older machines. Before now, there was no software on the market that would work with any brand of machine.”

Although Topcon competitors are working toward the same goal, Lodge says, what's unique about Topcon's system is the way it networks the machines, jobsite and main office to allow communication and information sharing. The information can be accessed from anywhere in the world using the Internet.

“Not only can an operator, a job superintendent or the home office asset-management staff access instantaneous data on rolling stock at every jobsite, it also provides real-time theft protection for valuable equipment,” he says.

Another feature of the system, says Lodge, is that it has the ability to link working machines.

“Operators can actually 'talk' to one another to maximize productivity at every step of the operation,” he says.

At Komatsu, Ken Calvert views the benefits of asset-management software in various levels of sophistication. At a very basic level, the advantages are knowing where the machine is and knowing how many hours it's working so maintenance can be planned.

The next level, he says, is to know if the machine has any problems and to be proactive in fixing small problems while they are small.

The third level adds information about the machine and the operator, such as load factors, how hard the machine is working, when it started and stopped work, how long it was shut off between work periods, etc.

“Today, fleet managers can know if the machine was going forward or backward, and whether or not loads were light or heavy,” says Calvert. “A progressive thinker who is provided with this information can get important insights into his operation.”

Forcing the issue

External factors are playing a major part in development and adoption of today's software technology, says Trimble's Daniel Wallace. A good example of this is the increase in fuel prices.

“Fuel prices obviously have an impact on fleet operations, so recently we announced a fuel monitoring solution to keep track of fuel consumption either by individual equipment or for the entire fleet, all presented in a graphic view,” says Wallace.

Another external factor is emissions control, especially proposals pushed by the California Air Resources Board.

“We can help contractors be in compliance,” says Wallace, “and provide the documentation that shows they are in compliance.”

As fleet managers begin to use asset-management software on a much wider scale, software technology will continue to be tweaked and improved to meet off-road industry needs.

Among the coming trends, says Nina McCoy at CCG Systems, is more “dashboarding,” using more visuals in management reports.

“People want to be able to see things now,” she says. “They want real-time information and graphics so they can better respond if something comes up unexpectedly. Dashboard-type visuals in real time can reflect 12-month trends. We will introduce that capability in January.”

Komatsu's Calvert foresees all manufacturers providing more information, so much so, that technology is running ahead of the customer's ability to assimilate and use the information. The challenge is to keep it simple and usable.”

Looking ahead, McGough at HCSS says, “During the next few years, you'll see more and more GPS technology. You'll also see some of the smaller GPS providers being rolled up. Eventually, I think we're going to see some dominant players throughout the industry. There are a whole lot of providers out there now; the key will be who shakes out from the OEM standpoint.”