Jason Schneider

“There’s power in the ability to aggregate data and provide information that allows good decisions,” says Willy Schlacks, president of Equipment Share. “The utilization of an equipment fleet determines its profitability. Today, most contractors have no idea what the utilization is of their equipment. Only a telematics solution can tell you if you own too much equipment or too little or if you own something that you’re not using enough.”

Telematics is a combination of the words telecommunications and informatics. In a broad sense, telematics is any integrated use of information and communications technology. It is the technology of sending, receiving, and storing information related to remote moving objects, like vehicles and equipment. More than just a GPS system, telematics combines data on vehicle location with vehicle operations and integrates it into actionable information. And in today’s world, of course, all of this can be done on mobile devices from smartphones to tablets.

Telematics for fleets
Telematics is rapidly being adopted by over-the-road fleets. Geotab has 630,000 devices in use today, most on delivery fleets like Pepsi and Frito Lay. Managers can monitor every vehicle in a large fleet to see the vehicle’s engine diagnostics, optimize routes, and monitor driver behavior. Is the driver a lead-foot? Accelerometers can send an alarm indicating the rate of acceleration and speed related directly to the speed limit, since the software knows on which road the vehicle is traveling. When accidents happen, every detail of how the vehicle was being driven are available.

There’s even a feature to allow a manager to speak directly to the driver in real time with instructions or directions—sort of in-vehicle coaching. Using geo-fencing, which allows creation of virtual perimeters anywhere in the world simply by drawing them on a digital map, the home office knows when the vehicle arrives at a customer’s location and departs.

Ready-mix concrete producers, which are really as much trucking companies as concrete manufacturers, are rapidly adopting this technology and developers are customizing it to relate directly to the concrete business. Progressive producers can provide their contractor customers with software to allow them to know exactly when the next truck will arrive, details about the mix it is carrying, and how many loads have already been used and how many are expected in the future.

Joel Beal, managing partner for JBA Telematics, believes accountability, organization, and incentive programs are key. “The issue is not with employees not working hard enough; being unorganized is the issue here,” says Beal. “Drivers show up early or late to a jobsite because it wasn’t properly planned out. Telematics provides accurate arrival times, which ultimately leads to improved productivity.”

Construction companies too are adopting telematics to track their truck fleets. Kimball Construction, operating in a big geographic region of Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and northern Virginia, uses Fleetmatics telematics to track its 18 vehicles and provide data on its trucks and drivers. “The tracking is important, but the software is the magic behind the tracking,” says company vice president Steve Kimball. “The people who are driving our vehicles have the biggest amounts of responsibility. They control a lot of spending on labor and we need to have some control over that. You need communication and verification to provide some level of confidence. Most of it is a quick look and an overview, but you have the ability to drill down and be very precise and see where exactly the drivers are.”

Telematics can tell you how many hours each piece of equipment is in use each month.
Geotab Telematics can tell you how many hours each piece of equipment is in use each month.

The next advance in telematics is to track data on all of the off-road equipment on a jobsite. It’s starting to happen now with Geotab’s Go Rugged, EquipmentShare’s ES Track, and just announced Cat Connect. “Fleets with heavy equipment, yellow iron, farm equipment, and powered trailers and assets often face a unique set of challenges due to their exposure outdoors,” said Geotab CEO Neil Cawse. “With the GO RUGGED device, owners and operators can be assured that operations will continue to function at an optimal level, regardless of the harsh terrain their vehicles or equipment encounter.”

The potential of this data is huge—EquipmentShare just announced $25 million invested in their solution, which includes a platform to share equipment among contractors—sort of an Uber for construction. “ES Track enables contractors to make more informed decisions about their fleets through automated data collection,” says Schlacks. “Not only can contractors automate maintenance and job analytics, but they can also boost the ROI of their fleets by renting their underutilized assets on the EquipmentShare marketplace.”

Tracking tools
At a slightly different level, but still increasing contractors’ ability to control their assets, are tool tracking systems. Lost or stolen tools can be a huge expense. The key to solving that is personal accountability, says Webcor’s Chris Plue. “We recently converted to Tool Hound. Our top requirement was that it had to be able to handle multiple foremen on a single job site because we might have five to 10 foremen on a high-rise project. We needed something that could easily handle the transfer of tools from one foreman to another. If the tools are just assigned to the project in general, then there is no personal accountability. Now each foreman gets a monthly report that shows the tools assigned to them and they must say yes, no, or that they transferred the tool to another foreman. Now that we have this accountability there is much less shrinkage. When tools were just assigned to the job and no one was directly responsible, there was huge shrinkage.”

Most of these systems work on a bar code attached to each tool. RFID tags on tools are also available but aren’t standard on most tools. “We’re looking forward to the day when we can convert to RFID,” says Plue, “but today RFID is a special order. It’s not a cost issue but just that it takes a few weeks to get the tool whereas now we can get a new saw tomorrow.”

Tools are tracked and a foreman or worker is assigned responsibility.
Hilti Tools are tracked and a foreman or worker is assigned responsibility.

Another powerful way to track tools is Hilti’s ON!Track Asset Management system. This is not just for Hilti tools but for any asset a contractor owns. The tags for this have both a bar code and an RFID transmitter. This system allows tracking of everything related to a tool, including who is qualified to operate the tool and any maintenance scheduled.

“The big differentiator with On!Track,” says Hilti Senior Director Market Reach and Services Torsten Seifert, “is that we set up the system for each customer and train their people in how to get the most out of it. It’s customized for each customer.”

With the RFID tags and a bulk scanner, the Hilti system can instantly detect every tool in a tool box and indicate if it’s in the right place or if anything is missing and who’s reponsible. Consumables like drill bits and hardware are inventoried and minimum and maximum numbers set so orders can be placed automatically through a tablet or smart phone. The fee for On!Track is $280 per month for 500 assets, a price easily paid back with one lost hammer drill.

Caterpillar's Cat Connect lets managers connect to all of their assets, from the largest earthmover to the smallest generator.
Caterpillar Caterpillar's Cat Connect lets managers connect to all of their assets, from the largest earthmover to the smallest generator.

The future for tool tracking programs is to actually have telematics indicating the condition and location of each tool. “We’re looking at ways to do that,” says Seifert. “We have the capability now, so that’s coming soon.”

The next big wave in this will be integrating telematics with other critical software like BIM and construction management programs. At this pace that could happen soon.