Manage Smarter with Machines That Report

Wireless communication makes it cost effective to monitor machines almost like putting an equipment manager in every cab

By LARRY STEWART, Executive Editor

Your pager buzzes. What NOW? It's the bulldozer working that big cut over in the next county. Says it's overheating. Apparently the warning buzzers haven't convinced the operator to stop.

This isn't science fiction, it's today's technology.

Several remote-monitoring systems available today monitor machine conditions such as operating hours, temperatures of coolant and various oils, oil pressures, shaft speeds and more with sensors like the ones installed at the factory on new heavy equipment. They use a global positioning system to fix the machine's location, then communicate detailed location and performance data over a wireless link to your computer, pager and cellular phone.

With prices for hardware at about $1,000 and monthly monitoring fees around $20, the price on these monitoring systems may seem a little high. But you can recoup all the hardware cost for a fleet of 20 machines, plus monitoring for three years, for less than the $40,000 it would cost to rebuild one overheated engine.

Of course there's more to be saved than an occasional engine failure. Owner/operators get so much performance and life from their machines because the person who has to pay for repairs is right there throwing the levers and watching the gauges. These machine monitoring systems can give the person responsible for repair costs more information than the operators of an entire fleet of machines. With that information, they should be able to manage more cost-effective component lives, more uptime, and more efficient maintenance.


We're no guinea pigs

Asset-monitoring technology has proved its durability and utility in trucking, facilities management, and the utility industry.

"We've had hardware installed for two and a half years on rail-maintenance equipment rugged applications on machines with vibration motors that vibrate gravel down over railroad ties-and it's still working," says Bill Purdie, president of the system provider, MobileNet Inc. Users of construction equipment have had monitoring and communications equipment in place for a year with no durability problems.

Monitoring systems have a reasonably long history in the trucking industry, which makes generous use of the vehicle-locating aspect of the systems. They use the Global Positioning System (GPS) to tell you precisely where vehicles are at any time of the day or night. Dispatch-intensive businesses like taxis and ambulance services also benefit from the feature. When a call for service comes in, a dispatcher can look at the map of his area on a computer screen and find the closest available unit.

GPS uses a network of satellites orbiting the earth, each continually broadcasting its identity and a time signal. A receiver in the locating device (installed on the vehicle, or carried by a surveyor or backpacker) interprets these transmissions and triangulates a position (latitude and longitude) based on the satellites' timing signals to within about 33 feet. Service providers plot that latitude and longitude on street maps so users can easily find their machines.

Some suppliers of location technology have developed surveying applications that interface with grade-control electronics on motor graders. These systems automatically position the grader blade in order to produce the desired grade for roads, including curve superelevations and transitions to ramps.

Providers of location technology developed the ability to monitor a machine's operating condition to broaden their products' appeal. They found they could use a simple voltage sensor, either in the ignition or alternator circuit, to determine when the machine is running. Because hour-meter readings reported by people in the field can be so inconsistent, this information has significant value. Initial product offerings in the heavy-equipment market have been systems that track location and hours of use.


As the cost to transmit data over wireless networks falls, machine-tracking vendors are monitoring more data about each machine. Using existing sensor technology for monitoring fluid temperatures and pressures, engine speed and voltages, the systems can monitor six or seven machine conditions. Actuation sensors count when and how many times a dump bed has been raised or the wash-down system is used on a ready-mix truck. Commercially available monitoring packages usually include location and hours of use, and users choose from coolant temperature, hydraulic temperature, engine or hydraulic oil pressure. On hard-driving machines like bulldozers and scrapers, they may choose to monitor transmission-oil temperature, and truck fleets are most likely to count unloading or wash-down events.

Monitoring systems can be wired directly to the sensors installed by the equipment manufacturers, or equipment can be retrofitted with additional sensors. The various computer controllers on highway trucks communicate using a standard protocol called a CAN bus, which some asset tracking systems tap into directly. They read the signals directly from the system installed by the truck manufacturer, so a wealth of performance information is available with very little additional wiring required.smart3

Machine monitors offered by Caterpillar and other equipment manufacturers are developing to the point where they interface directly with the machine's on-board computer. Monitors become a plug-and-play solution. Eventually, it seems likely wiring will be installed as part of the harness at the factory. Monitoring hardware will simply plug into the machine controller.

Today's most highly electronic machines already have a network of wiring and processors to manage fuel injection, hydraulic performance, transmission shifts and other functions. These systems provide plenty of machine-performance information to make smart component-management and operator-training decisions.

Collecting data is the last leg of the monitoring trip. Data is recorded in the monitoring system's buffer, or short-term memory. That data must be delivered to a decision maker some distance from the machine on a regular schedule. Typically, it is communicated to a computer server using satellite transmissions, cellular phone systems, commercial radio or RF transmission at short distances. Data can even be downloaded to smart cards or portable computers and physically plugged into the server.

Wireless revolution

Wireless transfer of data in the monitoring system's buffer is most responsible for delivering convenience and cost that is attracting construction users. Early on, most hardware bounced data transmissions off satellites. But satellite air time can be expensive, so some vendors developed the capacity to transmit data using commercial radio frequencies and cellular phone systems. Using the packet-data frequencies that carry billing information for cell phones, the prices for transmitting data from a machine's on-board buffer have dropped to $15 per month in many cases. As the cellular infrastructure develops in the U.S., air-time charges will drop, even in areas with higher-priced analog service.

Many vendors of machine-tracking systems offer choices of methods to deliver data. Readymix dispatchers probably need location information updated constantly. They usually get information via cellular or commercial radio so their mapping screens are updated every few minutes at a cost they can afford.

Construction users will likely prefer cellular transmission, unless they work in areas with poor cellular coverage. Satellite transmissions can be sent and received to and from a machine virtually anywhere on Earth, as long as the machine is working with an unobstructed view of the sky. Transmissions won't connect if the machine's antenna doesn't have a direct line of sight to the satellite. Contractors working in remote locations can choose satellite communications and have the system programmed to transmit buffer data less frequently to limit costs.

Users set up a reporting schedule for each machine in their fleet. Most systems are also programmed to respond to an inquiry at any time. If you want to know the status of a machine or a group of machines between regular reporting intervals, you can poll it and get feedback in a few minutes.

Data is not transmitted directly to your system. Vendors have found they can deliver more features to customers if they house the servers where equipment data is collected. Their servers process the data and produce reports that are available to individual users on secure websites. Because the information is delivered on the Web, customers don't need to install and update any extra software on their personal computers. But users interested in an extra level of security can put the software on their in-house servers and receive raw data from the vendor. Historical information can often be downloaded directly into a user's software.

The vendors' computers can be programmed to send an emergency alert to your choice of communication devices if a machine they're monitoring wanders outside an acceptable performance range. If, for example, coolant temperature climbs above some preset maximum, the machine phones an alert to the central computer, and the central computer is programmed to page you automatically. Alerts can be sent to your computer, pager or cellular phone.


Show us the payoff

For Landmark Construction, a site-prep firm in Indianapolis, being able to locate machines offered major management improvements, but it was not the only payoff.

"When you have three lowboys running through four counties all day long with over 100 pieces of equipment, just knowing where to go to get the machines is tough," says Mike Lockhart, Landmark's equipment manager. "Machines are always being moved in the middle of the day from one site to another. We manually keep track of them with our maintenance program, which is not always accurate. But with this tracking system (NSR's Skybase on 21 units), I can tell you where every machine is right now."

Lockhart uses the mapping program extensively when developing routes for the people who drive his fuel trucks. Most monitoring systems allow you to view an entire fleet or selected elements on a map. You can zoom from nationwide down to street level, making it easy to find individual machines.

"Every time I send the fuel guys out, I throw a map in with the routing slips," Lockhart says. "The map shows where the jobsite is and which machines are on it. That way, I know the fuel guys aren't out driving around all night looking for one or two machines parked where they can't be seen."

Brant Ambrose, general manager at a Bakersfield, Calif., rental store called Downs Equipment, also uses NSR for machine location and hours reporting. He praises the accuracy of mapping software, saying it shows many forestry and oil-field roads.

"They show up on the NSR maps, and even though they don't have names, having the lines on the map helps our guys find the machines," Ambrose says.

Assuming that each heavy-duty PM service done in the field costs $350, if knowing exactly where the machines are allows a service person to complete one more service per week during the busiest 30 weeks of the season, then the savings would be $10,500.

But you don't need a big fleet with service people on the road to measure value from monitoring machines. Time and temperature information can help train operators.

"Every time an engine overheats, it's taking money or life out of the machine," Lockhart says. He's been able to change some operating quirks that were sapping Landmark's engine life.

"During the hottest part of the season, for example, we had a guy who was just shutting his tractor down and taking off for lunch. The system showed us that tractor was overheating during breaks, so we asked the guy to let it idle down a few minutes before jumping into his pickup.

Mapping applications for dispatching, like those from Grid Data or IDA, not only provide a lot of good training and accountability information, but they also can protect you from liability and soothe agitated customers. These systems report location information in such detail that you can tell how fast vehicles are going, how much time the driver spent on a break, how much time they spent on the road from the plant to the project site, and more.

"If someone says one of our trucks hit their car at a certain intersection at three o'clock, I can look at the records and prove to them that we had no trucks at that intersection at three o'clock," says Scott Bossey, dispatcher with aggregate hauler Fiesta Trucking, in Phoenix. "Or, if a contractor calls to complain about trucks speeding on his project site, I can tell how fast they're driving more accurately than the speedometer in the truck."

Location information can be used to help detect equipment thefts, too. The vendor's computer is programmed with a boundary around the area in which the machine will normally work. If a location report ever indicates that the machine has been moved outside this electronic fence, the system notifies the equipment manager.

smart5More to come

Equipment managers at Zachry Construction installed their first DeereTrax systems on backhoe loaders about six months ago because of problems with theft. The San Antonio-based giant now has more than 40 units installed and is looking forward to the time when more detailed information will be available.

"We eventually hope to be able to track fuel consumption, which will really help us determine when to overhaul engines," says Benny Crawford, equipment coordinator with Zachry. "It tells you how hard the engine ran because the engine burns more fuel when it's working harder. It's a better measurement of wear and tear on engines than operating hours, but we're not scheduling engine work by fuel consumption now because that information is so hard to get."

Deere is currently working on adding fuel monitoring to DeereTrax. "We're absolutely committed to bringing the ability to track fuel consumption to market-probably before year's end," says Dennis Schares, senior marketing manager with Deere's special technologies group.

Another technology with potential for the equipment industry is use of onboard oil analysis. Sensors are being used by the railroads, and the major construction-equipment manufacturers are working to adapt it to off-road equipment. The goal is to generate information that predicts component condition even more accurately than fuel consumption.

A few of the asset-tracking systems available today offer some elements of remote control, too. You can change the setting of acceptable operating parameters from a remote location, for example. Several systems offer remote actuation.

MobileNet's system, for example, can start machines or shut them down. Some systems can lock out the starter. These features have some utility for stopping thieves. There are some liability limitations to be worked out in the use of these features, though.

Early users cash in

Some rental companies started buying monitoring systems first. "If the guy disconnects one of our machines' hour meters and tells us he's down, we've lost a lot of revenue," says Brant Ambrose, general manager with Downs Equipment in Bakersfield, Calif. "We have some equipment that rents for $600 or $700 per day. The customer doesn't have to clip us for too many days to pay for the monitoring unit." Downs has NSR units installed on 12 of its 200 machines. If an equipment user tampers with the hour meter, the tracking system will continue to record working hours. If the tracking system doesn't report data for any reason, Ambrose immediately dispatches a mechanic.

Knowing how many hours machines work has also refined Downs' ability to service machines properly.

"We didn't used to know exactly how many hours machines work when they're out on rent, so we would service every machine every time it came back in the yard, just to be sure we were covered," says Ambrose. "With the tracking system, we can schedule maintenance only when it's needed. And its easier for us to catch the machine when our service truck is out where it is working."

Interfaces are written so that information about location, hours and component condition automatically updates equipment-management software. And for firms that have no equipment-management system, monitoring software will produce reports that tell when a machine is due for preventive maintenance.

Equipment dealers that write a lot of service contracts are finding the monitoring systems offer practical advantages. In a way, this is where condition-monitoring got its start. Big mine customers have extracted cost-per-hour guarantees from their equipment vendors for many years. Mines pay a discounted up-front cost for machine, plus the guaranteed hourly rate. The vendor has to cover any costs above that guaranteed rate. It motivates the vendor to monitor machines and prevent component failures.

"Engine cost often represents 30 percent of a cost-per-hour contract on a mining truck," says David Spear, mining marketing director at Cummins. "Our QuickServe ProAct Monitoring Service will typically save 10 percent of this cost by significantly reducing the number of unplanned failures."

The Cummins monitoring system for mining equipment has been transmitting data collected by the manufacturers' Quantum electronics system to Cummins engineers for about three years. Quantum electronics provide such detail that the technicians in Columbus, Ind., can monitor exhaust temperatures from each cylinder of an eight-cylinder engine working in mining trucks in Indonesia.

"We can see the exhaust getting colder on one cylinder before there are any fault codes," Spear says. "If we see a clear trend, we can get a technician out there at the next normal maintenance stop to change that injector."

Equipment dealers are beginning to apply similar approaches to monitoring operating conditions on leased equipment with service contracts. Performance information will be used to anticipate and prevent failures. It would be pretty bad public relations for components to fail under the dealer's watch, and a well-maintained machine gives them the best possible residual value at the end of the lease term. At this early stage of adoption, though, many dealers are still assimilating location and hours information-and registering significant cost advantages.

"The old way, we have to call the customer to find out how many hours a machine has worked," says Kent Field, PM supervisor with MacAllister Machinery. "Then, after we look up the records, we have to call the customer back to let him know if service is due, and to find out where the machine is."

Monitoring systems allow service providers to track machines on their own. Service people who work at night and on weekends can schedule their after-hours stops, knowing where to find the machines. Field and the Indianapolis-based Caterpillar dealer hold service contracts on all of Landmark Construction's machines with the NSR system.

"Those 20 machines get serviced on time, every time," he says. Data transmitted from Landmark's monitored machines interfaces with Caterpillar's Maintenance Control System software. The maintenance program notifies Field when a machine is approaching a service interval.

smart6So much data! so little time

The piles of data can quickly become overwhelming with a computer recording six or seven operating conditions on several machines. One of the primary features that distinguishes vendors of monitoring systems from one another is how well they present data. The best of them provide new opportunities to outsource the tedious data-management functions of equipment management.

New companies like FleetEdge and EMI (for Equipment Maintenance Innovators) are working to carve niches for themselves as equipment management consultants. These are companies that don't bother to compete in the hardware and communications part of the monitoring business. They focus instead on developing software that analyzes vast streams of equipment data.

FleetEdge has figured out ways to use the data to produce meaningful reports about machine condition and cost. Part of the company's service includes plucking critical equipment-cost data out of your accounting system and blending it with performance data so they can analyze not only machine condition, but also cost. The company claims its core competency is understanding the kind of equipment data needed by equipment owners and managers, gathering it, interpreting it and sending it to clients in a form that makes it easy to pursue rational asset-management goals.

Cummins' mining engineers probably have the longest experience managing the volume of data available from onboard monitoring systems. But because they've worked with a limited number of machines, their system still includes engineers looking at all the data coming from their mining system. Spear recognizes the system needs automation to meet its potential.

"Our value is in our ability to look at a whole lot of information and make some sense out of it, but we have to get away from people watching all of the numbers," he says. "Right now, we get data back every day-readings from each sensor on the machine from every second of the day. It all goes into a database.

"We're building an expert system that uses software to analyze the raw data and refer the exceptions to engineers," Spear says. "We build rules into the software-the same deductions that every service engineer uses to determine what's wrong with a machine."

Spear expects that by the middle of the year the software will be taking the first look at data coming in. Because of the nature of statistical evaluation, the software will become more intuitive as it analyzes more data.

Putting all the data-analysis in a central location, as monitoring systems do, raises an interesting prospect for future equipment technology. Equipment manufacturers have developed increasingly complex computer systems to install on their machines-networks of sensors and computers that can tell a technician what the exhaust temperatures are on each cylinder of an engine, the hydraulic pressure on each clutch pack. These computers can refine the operating characteristics of fuel injection and hydraulic response, but they also increase the machine's complexity and cost.

As wireless communication improves, it's possible that the sensors installed on a machine will be able to report directly to a remote computer.

"I think we're moving away from having all the diagnostic systems, with their expensive programming and hardware, installed on the machine," Spear says. "I see us moving to something like an office computer system with its dumb terminals networked to a smart server. We could have a dumb machine, with the full complement of sensors, and wireless transfer of data to a smart network."

Wireless communication needs significant development, particularly in remote areas, to deliver data to a central computer in what the technology people call "real time." The standard today is for most performance data to be stored temporarily on the machine and downloaded regularly, usually daily. Selections of data can be downloaded more frequently. Dispatch systems, for example, update the location of vehicles as frequently as every few seconds. But the cost of opening a wireless link that allows a stream of continuous data to flow from all the sensors on the machine to a remote computer is monumental.

There's no reason to wait until the communications pipeline has developed real-time capacity, though. Systems available today are robust and the information they offer can help manage substantial cost savings. The only reason Caterpillar and other major equipment manufacturers have been quiet about their product offerings is that Orbcomm, the company that owns and maintains the satellite network providing GPS for most systems, filed for Chapter 11 protection last fall. The refinanced rocket men were expected to emerge at about press time, though. With new assurance of a well-maintained satellite network, expect a lot of success stories as this technology dramatically changes equipment costs.