Who’s Doing the Thinking?

Capabilities of fleet management software and expected ROI

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Credit: John Deere
Contractors make huge investments in their fleets. As fleets grow, job sites multiply, and technology evolves, keeping track of equipment has become a complex task. Incorporating a fleet management software program can facilitate that task, increasing productivity and efficiency along the way.

On the Job
Fleet management software (FMS) enables fleet managers and owners to view every unit for hour usage on each allocated job site, says Jason Wainwright, sales manager at Rob’s Hydraulics, a Hyundai dealer based in Grimesland, NC. Proper machine allocation can reduce the need for rentals and increase profits by lowering overhead. For example, he says, “Units not being used at one job can quickly be relocated to different sites to maximize machine usage.”

Company-wide reports allow the fleet manager to check for available equipment across the entire operation, adds Chris Ransom, head of solutions engineering at Verizon Connect. “An asset in one location can satisfy a need in another, saving dollars and hours of renting or buying additional equipment.”

Credit: Verizon
Keeping track of on-duty personnel with Verizon Connect

By identifying the location of equipment through GPS, fleet management software hastens the speed with which contractors can find and move equipment. Geofencing adds anti-theft protection through alerts if the equipment is moved out of a specified area. That can also sometimes reduce the cost of insurance premiums, which contributes to the overall return on investment in the system.

The needs of Ottawa Greenbelt Construction Company Ltd. include assessing utilization of equipment and obtaining reports to analyze idle time and weekly and monthly comparisons for maintenance and scheduling, says Jenna Mouland, project coordinator. “We have about 62 pieces of big equipment; it’s a lot to keep track of.” Ottawa Greenbelt owns a mixed fleet that uses Deere’s JD Link and Cat’s VisionLink. Equipment managers are not at the site every day. “This helps us see where and how our equipment is being used in real time.”

FMS gives contractors the power to optimize their operations and thereby maximize profits. Paul Garcia, product manager, WorkSight Solutions for John Deere and Hitachi, divides the capabilities of Hitachi’s ZXLink and Deere’s JD Link into three main categories: fleet management, machine health, and productivity.

“Fleet management data includes things like machine location, fuel consumption, and hours on a machine,” explains Garcia. “These are the very basics of any telematics software, but when combined with ZXLink and JDLink capabilities, it allows customers to easily manage machine maintenance. A contractor, for example, can enroll a machine into a factory-recommended scheduled maintenance plan. The plan integrates maintenance reminder notifications that alert contractors when maintenance is due.”

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Credit: Topcon
Topcon Tierra employs laptops and mobile devices.

Machine health information provides data about machine performance and health. In both the ZXLink and JDLink software, Garcia continues, machine health information can be accessed by contractors, dealers, and manufacturers.

Dealers play an important role in monitoring the health of customer machines because they can quickly identify an issue through alerts and machine data and then connect with the customer to resolve the issue before downtime occurs. Dealers also have the ability to connect directly with a machine to acquire additional information or update the software as needed, which contributes to reduced downtime.

Deere has a Machine Health Monitoring Center in Dubuque, IA, where specialists analyze aggregated machine data from across North America, identify trends that warrant a closer look, and then develop preventative maintenance and repair protocols.

Ottawa Greenbelt takes advantage of the JDLink’s utilization reports to discuss usage and other issues during internal scheduling meetings. Mouland likes the alerts that are triggered before a machine goes down. “Equipment costs a lot. Downtime is expensive.”

“Telematics has become the decisive factor for the future,” states Ron Ludchak, director of global sales, Topcon Tierra. He believes that fleet management software like the Topcon Tierra remote asset management system provides a return on investment that contractors will notice right away.

Tierra provides total visibility and control, including diagnostics and maintenance for reducing costs and improving performance. Through the Internet of Things platform, assets can be monitored from anywhere the contractor happens to be with mobile apps or desktop software.

Credit: John Deere
Data flow via John Deere’s JD Link

“Tierra makes managing all the data an easy task, allowing managers to make informed decisions without labor-intensive monitoring,” says Ludchak. The software sifts through the data and provides immediate alerts and useful reports so managers can focus on the things that are actionable, with minimal effort required to uncover important information. “The result is better-scheduled maintenance, more visibility of whether machines are being used, easily monitored fuel, and better security with multiple options to reduce theft such as curfew, geofencing, and motion detection.”

Similarly, Takeuchi Fleet Management, available on most track loader and excavator models, is a remote monitoring tool that provides alerts and machine information such as location, utilization, performance, and maintenance. “Analytics allows you to run reports for machine information, including utilization, engine error codes, and fuel consumption,” notes Jonathan Martinez, manager.

Gaining insights into where and how equipment is being operated and getting alerts regarding machine performance and health reduces downtime and costs. Fleet managers and owners can track the current hours and maintenance schedule on each machine from the office while the units remain on the job site, Wainwright indicates, adding that on-time maintenance “increases the value of the equipment during the unit’s lifespan and enhances ROI.”

The Hyundai Hi MATE/GPS, a high-end remote management system, offers the customer all of that, plus the ability to get on-time updates on any maintenance issues with software designed to detect machine issues, Wainwright continues. It also alerts the dealer, who can then communicate with the customer regarding service and have parts on hand if necessary, further reducing downtime.

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The third category of data Garcia listed is productivity. It provides contractors with details about fuel consumption, machine utilization, and cycle counts—insights that will help them increase their fleet’s productivity.

One example he gives is the amount of time tracked machines spend traveling in reverse. “Dozers, for example, are more productive in forward than in reverse,” Garcia points out. Traveling in reverse also results in faster wear and tear on the machine’s undercarriage. Thus, being able to see how much time a dozer spends in reverse helps contractors optimize machine performance and helps operators become more efficient.

There are many ways to increase productivity. OEM Data Delivery provides the means to capture information such as hours, location, and working versus idle. According to Mick Lauer, director of business development, attaining information saves time. For example, knowing the fuel level in the tank might save the fuel truck a trip to refill a piece of equipment that wasn’t used and thus, didn’t consume any fuel. “It takes a long time to cross the job site. If the fuel truck doesn’t have to, it saves time and money. There is limited time for PMs and fills.” On highway road construction jobs, it saves time if the fuel truck knows where to start and stop a fuel run.

By monitoring remotely, Wainwright says managers can track fuel usage per hour. The ability to calculate each machine’s cost per hour benefits bidding on future jobs.

Not only does FMS help improve fuel efficiency and reduce expenses, but it also enables contractors to more easily manage maintenance and it boosts asset safety and security. “Increased fuel efficiency happens when the technology helps to identify and correct fuel-wasting habits, such as poor route planning, unnecessary idling, speeding, and aggressive driving,” says Verizon’s Ransom. Expenses are reduced even more because the software can help a fleet work smarter, not harder, by aiding managers in organizing drivers and operators, improving asset utilization, and eliminating paperwork.

Customers can see the difference when a construction company is using fleet management software because its advanced technologies help meet intense demands, personalize service, deliver more dependably, and respond more quickly to last-minute requests.

Like other FMS systems, Hyundai Hi MATE remote management system gives fleet managers the ability to protect and allocate their fleet from the office, reducing downtime, Wainwright reiterates. “I would say FMS is worth the cost and will provide owners with a higher ROI.”

Credit: Preco
Preco sensors detect hazards in blind spots.

It’s worth the cost, emphasizes Andrew Kahler, product marketing manager for John Deere WorkSite. The data provided by FMS is so valuable, ZXLink and JDLink have been included in the base package of all Hitachi and Deere construction equipment for the past five years. Hitachi and Deere have also worked closely with aftermarket providers including Verizon Connect to make it relatively straightforward for customers to plug machine data into the fleet management software of their choice.

However, the specific ROI depends on the type of machine and the application. “Many customers find that ZXLink and JDLink provide a quick return with only the basics like hours, location, trouble codes, and fuel consumption,” lists Kahler. “The addition of maintenance tracking, productivity insights, and machine health monitoring just add more value and drive the ROI higher.”

Telematics can help contractors estimate jobs and make decisions about when to buy and sell equipment. Mouland says the company she works for benefits from using JDLink to assist with managing costs as well as making decisions about when to move equipment to other locations. “It allows us to benchmark the machines; we get an alert if they work less than 50 hours a week.” Those advantages, along with boosts to maintenance scheduling, increase the ROI.

According to Ransom, Verizon Connect customers see the ROI with FMS “almost immediately” in a variety of ways. He says that DeSilva Gates, a construction company, is able to track the life expectancy of its oil with FMS, enabling it to extend oil change intervals on many of its vehicles to 8,000–10,000 miles (from the industry standard of 3,000).

“Fleet management software helps get more done in less time by cutting down on inefficient overtime expenses with software designed to manage workers more effectively, predict upcoming workloads, and assign team members appropriately to avoid over- or understaffing,” says Ransom. It also improves driver routes with advanced time card reports that provide important details about driver deliveries and behavior. It can also monitor, measure, and analyze employee performance.

Kimball Construction credits Verizon Connect software training for facilitating more efficient and safer operation, Ransom reports. “Since installing GPS tracking on its 18 vehicles, Kimball has been able to run reporting on location and activity tracking 24/7, resulting in greater driver accountability as it relates to idle times, speed, mileage, and hours worked.”

Every fleet has its own unique “flavor,” with different machines and different data required, Takeuchi’s Martinez speculates. Identifying cost-saving opportunities will increase ROI, but differing priorities will affect that calculation. However, as the technology itself becomes more affordable and monthly activation costs for cellular and satellite come down, in general, an ROI can be achieved more quickly.

In-House or Outsource?
ROI is all about what you do with the data, believes Ronak Amin, business solutions manager for Komatsu—and what data you collect. Are you trying to increase asset utilization, reduce idle time, be more effective in bidding, or monitor maintenance fault and failure codes in an effort to reduce unexpected downtime through breakdown predictions?

Top-of-the-line systems analyze data and have dashboards specific to the user who will be reviewing the data. A fleet manager, for example, could have an overall view focusing on utilization and uptime, while an operator might be happy with just location and fuel level data.

Most FMS include email and text alerts, geofencing, and simple data reports, Amin surmises—and they make it easy to extract data. But, he adds, customers don’t want to do analysis; they want meaningful insights, not just numbers. They want to know how to fix issues. “Ten years ago, visibility was important. Idle time was big. Customers need the next step now—the next level. It’s less about location, hours, and maintenance and more about optimizing the machine to make it more productive.”

To do so, fleet managers need to collect information about the job site, such as the number of trucks on site, capacity, how the trucks are loaded, and how they’re supposed to be loaded. OEMs like to track hydraulic temperature trends, shift points, when DEF is put in, and excavator swing motion (how many cycles), but Amin believes most contractors still rely on fuel consumption, idle time, and engine run time to schedule maintenance. “So much data is captured, but it’s not being used. Fleet managers need to figure out what to do with it.”

That begs the question of whether to outsource maintenance software or do it in-house. “You can invest in software, personnel, and tooling to do it in-house,” begins Amin, “or you can outsource.” There is a third option—a sort of hybrid of the two—in which a third party does some of the data collection and management and some is done in-house. “Oil and filter changes and parts inventory are easy; ignition components are difficult.”

The benefit of outsourcing is that it allows the contractor to focus on work, but cost is often a big factor in the decision. “There is a barrier to entry with modern equipment,” acknowledges Amin, but it can be counter-balanced through use of the popular trend of locking in maintenance contracts, not to mention reduced downtime.

Data should work for the customer, Amin ultimately concludes. The IoT has solved the former hold-up of real-time information, and adding more sensors on the equipment enables fleet managers to build a “storyboard” to reveal the cause of idle time and other issues.

It also allows them to solve issues of operator training by benchmarking with other operators. “End-users want to coach operators for better efficiency to reduce wear and tear and time on the machine.”

Monitoring operators, machines, and job sites increases safety and security as well as productivity. With FMS, fleet managers are able to survey speeds across the fleet or monitor a single driver, customizing alerts to trigger at specific thresholds, including limits on private roads and hazardous areas. “Our software can detect speeding, aggressive driving, harsh braking, and quick starts,” details Ransom. Audible, in-cab alerts are issued to identify and correct these dangerous driving behaviors. “The system can also motivate drivers to be safer behind the wheel with a point-based scoring system and fleet-wide leaderboard, with rewards for top safety performers.”

A related way to augment safety is to use radar to alert the operator of impending hazards. Sensors are attached to the rear of the vehicle to detect hazards around the machine. “They go on the blind spots for heavy-duty equipment,” explains Sean Martell, North American sales manager for Preco Electronics, although they can be placed all around a haul truck or any off-road equipment, except where a tool such as a ripper bucket is located. “Radar is more heavy-duty than ultrasound,” he reveals. It’s also less susceptible to wind and dust, making it more dependable.

The sensors integrate with technology that provides feedback to the operator about their telematics. “We moved the technology to the inside cab to allow the operator to know people are out there,” says Martell.

Working in zones, the sensors indicate anything that is a close call. Radar goes beyond smart backup alarms, emitting a different sound designed to attract attention and alert people that the radar detects them. While most areas are key-on all the time, sensors in the rear are reverse-only activiated. However, “a lot of off-road equipment spends half its life in reverse,” points out Martell. He says that customers report that their operators no longer backed into things after installing the sensors.

Mirrors are passive, he declares. Distractions and blind spots are hazards. Preco has received calls from companies that integrated camera technology and initially saw improvement in blind spot and backing accidents, but later experienced increases in operator distraction without alerts.

The technology is able to be integrated into software platforms that have telematics and works with all brands of equipment. Preco’s system costs $2,300 or less. “It pays for itself quickly,” believes Martell, although he says that calculating the payback period is a challenge. Instead, he considers it a safety expense.

“The cost of an accident is $10,000 minimum,” he estimates. “That’s if you just hit a pickup. If there’s an incident, the site shuts down for an investigation; the site is not productive.” He mentions a large company that had a death with a loader late last year. “We want to stop that.”

He says that indirect costs such as lawsuits, management time, investigations, and insurance can be four to 10 times the direct cost of an incident, which includes damage, equipment loss, and downtime. When all those costs are considered, he says, “the ROI is obvious.”

The ROI becomes even more obvious when considering that the J1939 can message protocols to improve cycle times.

Credit: John Deere
John Deere fleet equipped with JD Link

Sensing Changes
Just as there are new uses for FMS, there are new ways to implement telematics always being discovered. OEM Data Delivery moved from capturing data and sending it to the cloud to using Bluetooth-capable, battery-powered sensors to capture information to make fuel trucks and operators more productive.

The sky is the limit when it comes to exactly what the sensors can capture: hours, GPS location, the amount of fuel on board, cycles, dump loads (who is the #1 operator), and more. “OEM is not an out-of-the-box company,” says Lauer. “Companies come to us with what they want to measure and we create a custom solution.”

It may be a custom solution, but Lauer says a cheaper rate sets the company apart. “Evolving technology has been bringing down costs in the last year.” Instead of using beacons and cell devices with a monthly fee, they now work off Wi-Fi or the ethernet. Since most job sites now have a blanket Wi-Fi, there’s no additional cell bill. “The ROI is better because of Bluetooth,” says Lauer. A sensor and the Bluetooth costs about $80–90, he estimates, compared with the old costs of $300–$350.

The sensors, which range in size from as small as a quarter to as big as a cell phone, are rugged—built to live outside. “Some have been in the field for seven to eight years. Placed on equipment, they make locating much faster and easier. If you have a tracker, you can use Wi-Fi or a drone to pull up a map and see the location of any machine,” says Lauer. Previously, he says, it could take up to a day to find a piece of equipment or an attachment. “It’s not easy to find a bucket on a 100-acre site.” R&D is underway to attach a Bluetooth receiver on a drone; in one experiment, it was used to map 1,400 pieces of steel on a job site.

In the future, he imagines that sensors in the oil system will be able to measure how dirty the oil is and indicate when it’s time to change oil, eliminating the current habit of scheduling based on a calendar or hourly usage.

Top of the Line
Most of the new equipment features telematics. Contractors can track more if they subscribe, but some just need hours, location, and fuel to get a return on their investment. Nevertheless, a good system will offer a complete mobile solution with mobile apps, data plans, deployment support, and hardware advice to help boost productivity, efficiency, and safety, insists Ransom.

These systems also help reduce the overhead costs of owning, managing, and maintaining surplus equipment because fleet managers can use accurate work history reports to plan jobs. “They can even distinguish good idling from bad, identifying and correcting fuel-wasting habits with reports that distinguish between an engine that’s running for no reason and the idling that’s required to do a job, such as when running a PTO unit or using a lift gate,” says Ransom.

Top-of-the-line systems fit every specific need, with options for built-in hardware and aftermarket installations, as well as mobile devices (company-issued or BYOD) for total flexibility, Ransom continues. An online dashboard should allow companies to view the entire workforce in near-real time, and help improve mobile strategy through fast, automated reporting that saves time and provides faster access to data.

While Mouland recognizes that telematics continues to evolve, she believes the current iterations improve efficiency and reduce downtime for Ottawa Greenbelt. “It’s valuable for our company. We use it to gauge utilization and for geofencing, job site tracking, and payload scales.” GX_bug_web

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