The rise of telematics: How high-tech equipment tracking is taking over job sites
Forget about Uber. When it comes to innovative vehicle start-ups, the darling of investors is Uptake, a Chicago-based construction equipment telematics firm. Launched by Groupon co-founder Brad Keywell, Uptake was valuated at a unicorn-qualifying $1.1 billion last year. The company claimed $45 million in 2015 investments from backers including Caterpillar who see incredible promise in the tracking and analysis of data from equipment on construction job sites.
While machine and equipment telematics is not new to construction, the standardization and centralized collection of data for predictive analysis is just now coming to fruition. Originally developed by OEMs like CAT, Case, John Deere, Komatsu and others, telematics to track fuel consumption, run times and maintenance status has, until recently, remained brand-specific, requiring contractors to use proprietary software systems provided by each of the OEMs to access data for operational decision-making.
In 2013, the Association of Equipment Manufacturers and Association of Equipment Management Professionals moved to standardize telematics data across all makes, and in July 2016 a mixed-fleet telematics protocol already widely adopted by AEM and AEMP members was approved by the International Standards Organization as a global standard. As a result, platforms including Uptake, EquipmentShare, SAMCRO Technologies and ServiceMax will, ostensibly, have full access to telematics across mixed fleets, providing contractors with their first holistic view of machinery in motion.
“The broad purpose of construction telematics is to increase asset utilization,” said EquipmentShare President Willy Schlacks. “The key to that effort is the aggregation of data even among segmented systems from OEMs and third-party telematics firms. If you’re attempting to optimize fleet operations and are only collecting or evaluating data on portions of the fleet at a time, that data is almost worthless.”
What began with simple GPS systems to identify equipment location and prevent theft, machine telematics has evolved into one of the deepest applications of the Internet of Things in the construction industry. Leveraging Controlled Area Network (CAN bus) microcontrollers, operators can access a nearly endless suite of machine data, including: geolocation, run and idle times, engine stress and strain, fuel and fluid consumption and efficiency, operating hours and temperatures and pressures.
“The future is everything connected on the job site in real time, and if that’s the future, you need a portal and a platform to put all of those pieces together."
The data upshot, when the numbers are crunched across an entire fleet, allows AEC professionals to optimize maintenance schedules, increase service life, become more fuel efficient, control job site work flow, and otherwise maximize how equipment and machinery is used to improve safety and efficiency. For OEMs, access to the data provides insight to guide product research and development and target customers with field services and maintenance. As data collection becomes more standardized, telematics experts see a necessary consolidation of IoT-enabled systems down to a single so-called “god platform” for contractors to access data in real time.
Ownership of data
Determining which system will eventually become a platform of platforms for aggregating equipment telematics and other IoT-fed job site analytics has so far been a process of wrestling data away from proprietary, OEM-owned systems. While that provides data access to the end contractors, it hasn’t yet answered the question of where consolidated data will be stored, or how it will be analyzed to provide decision-making capabilities to the job site in real time.
“In the world we are heading into, ownership of data is king, and we still have the problem that telematics is not fully tied into enterprise resource planning systems,” said Christian Burger, president and founder of construction IT consultancy Burger Consulting Group. “We're on the cusp of that migration becoming mainstream.”
According to Schlacks, industry consensus is that the customer owns the data, and any remaining OEMs pushing back on that trend are fighting a losing battle with their customer. “AEMP and AEM have mediated that standardization effort, and even OEMs who have competing telematics platforms realize there ultimately has to be a universal platform,” he said.
Not that the process has been easy, or even universally adopted. With CAN bus technology advancements to the J1939 standard, telematics can include details down to shift points in transmission and proprietary drive train mechanics that OEMs still closely guard as competitive intellectual property.
Trevor Mecham, the vice president of construction and agriculture at Uptake, likened the AEC standardization to similar technology struggles that have been overcome in the mining and agriculture sectors. “It’s been a big crux for the industry to face AMP and AEMP standardization even as they participated in the process,” Mecham said, adding that farming and mining are decades ahead and have had full-systems connectivity for some time. “Telematics is table steaks to them, and as most of the major OEMs also operate in those sectors, the need for open source data aggregation in construction is becoming all the more apparent.”
Harvesting value from the fully connected job site
Like most things related to big data in construction, realizing the cost benefits of telematics involves data access, storage and management that gives job site operations and safety supervisors real-time strategic information bereft of having to analyze the data themselves. Enter systems like Uptake, EquipmentShare and others that provide actionable insights without having to perform a data deep-dive.
“The contractor doesn’t want to mess with technology,” Schlacks said. “They need the data to work in the background to suggest powerful decisions.”
For most telematics adopters, those decisions center around equipment and fleet performance optimization. By monitoring machine status, telematics improves profitability by eliminating unplanned downtime for corrective maintenance, identifying excessive runtime and engine stress leading to fuel waste and otherwise keeping equipment fine-tuned and ready to roll.
“Optimized preventive maintenance is a huge impact from telematics,” Burger said. “Over-maintenance can be as expensive as under-maintenance, and telematics helps to solve the bigger problem of tracking performance to make the best repair and replace decisions.”
Telematics has also provided site supervisors data to identify unused equipment that can be reallocated to other job sites, rented to other projects or sold outright to improve the bottom line via capital-expenditure recovery. In addition to tracking telematics data, EquipmentShare provides a trading platform where contractors can make resting iron available for rent, and both the renter and the owner of the equipment can access performance data for optimizing operations and equipment conditions.
Tracking run and idle performance and optimizing fuel consumption provides information on telematics' return on investment to Burger's heavy civil clients that have adopted the technology to help optimize annual fuel spends in excess of $1 million.
Advanced operator and product performance
Next up for major telematics platforms is the integration of operator and accessory data into performance analytics to help power safety and training efforts alongside workflow efficiency. “Driver RFID keyfobs can be integrated via IoT to track time of operation and correlate individual operators with gear operation, RPM levels and excessive fuel burn,” Mecham said. “People have been thinking of telematics as simply use hours and geolocation, but operator performance is coming more to the forefront to identify best practices and training opportunities as a compounding effort to control things for ROI and operational management.”
Likewise, CAN bus telemetry devices are integrating with Bluetooth to identify when equipment has been modified for site-specific uses. One example of such an application would be registering a three-yard bucket being added to an excavator arm and helping to optimize overall mechanics based on that use-case.
“Over-maintenance can be as expensive as under-maintenance, and telematics helps to solve the bigger problem of tracking performance to make the best repair and replace decisions.”
President, Burger Consulting Group
OEMs still have a stake in the telematics game, as the data provides a global analysis of deployed products by make, model, user and application type.
“You can imagine why CAT would want to see every D-8 in use out there as an entire test bed of their equipment all over the world,” Burger said. By analyzing the aggregate data, OEMs can see who had the best maintenance intervals and target the bottom 20% for field service repairs, product replacement and value-added consulting services on maintenance improvements. They can also track behavioral data that helps with R&D, product design and marketing.
As job sites expand in size and complexity, telematics will be necessary for identifying equipment, location and status for optimized scheduling and performance. With the standardization of telematics data now a reality in the construction vertical, the next generation of systems will seek to consolidate and display data in ways that are actionable and profitable to workers and supervisors on the job site. And developers are eager to compete to provide the platform of platform telematics in AEC.
“The future is everything connected on the job site in real time, and if that’s the future, you need a portal and a platform to put all of those pieces together, because smart data isn’t very useful if you cannot aggregate and connect it to other sets of smart data,” Schlacks said. “It’s definitely where we’re headed.”