getsmart1Get Smart

Discover an intelligent way to track equipment and increase ROI.


Technology - it hits us from every direction. One type, called geographic information system (GIS), is a relatively new concept for lifting business applications, especially in North America. When applied, though, equipment owners and fleet managers can speed light years ahead of the competition.

According to Spatial News, a geospatial news and educational resource, GIS can be defined as a computer technology used to store, display, query, and analyze location-based data and information. It has evolved across a wide variety of computer platforms and is used to improve making decisions in business, telecommunications, transportation, govemment, and utilities.

But don't confuse GIS with global positioning system (GPS) technology. GPS actually is a component of GIS technology. GIS was born about 30 years ago when a number of geographers dreamed up a system to organize and store spatial data in a computer. Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI), a prolific supplier of GIS software, once said that GIS "promises to be one of the largest computer applications ever to emerge."

Mobilizing GIS

While geographers and heavy equipment fleet owners have little in common on the surface, GIS technology has linked them together. For example, in the heavy equipment world, a slew of questions about fleet management arises. Where is a unit located? What is the boom length? Does it need an oil change? Does the wire rope need to be inspected? Do the batteries need charging? What did it cost to operate in the past six months? What parts were replaced? What is the monthly rental rate? This is precisely where GIS comes in handy.

In working areas where end-users apply GIS, especially in the electric utility sector, Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) technology tracks operating characteristics of plant operations. SCADA also is used in the chemical, environmental, food, manufacturing, metal, petroleum, pharmaceutical, and refining industries. Sensors strategically placed on equipment are used to record operating parameters of that piece of equipment. Typically, the information is collected in real-time, giving operators the ability to make split-second decisions and adjust them accordingly.

For lifting equipment, the emergence of automated data-collecting devices is similar to SCADA. One company in particular, OSI Software, Bellevue, Wash., has developed its Plant Information (PYM) System to fully automate the collection, keep archives, and disseminate production information. According to Lee Margaret Ayers, a transmission and distribution architect for OSI Software, utilization of these tools in other industries has "improved preventive maintenance programs, increasing equipment life," which, in tum, "results in increased production and lower operating costs."

How did it all begin? Let's travel back to late 1988 in the over-the-road trucking industry, when Schneider National, Green Bay, Wis., installed more than 13,000 Qualcomm® data terminals on its tractor fleet. With this data link, Schneider National was able to track location, speed, and idle performance.

At the same time, engine suppliers were making technology investments to track operating characteristics of their products. Today, Caterpillar, Cummins, Detroit Diesel, International, and Volvo have proprietary systems installed on their engines that track operating data. In the lift equipment sector, most, but not all, manufacturers have invested big bucks to electronically track operating data on late-model equipment. For equipment dealers and owners, this technology can help streamline the maintenance troubleshooting process, as well as feed information back to the shop for better inventory control and work-order closure.

What happens if your fleet isn't comprised of all late-model equipment, and you still want to cut paperwork in your equipment maintenance or rental operation? The most cost-effective method is to use generic data recorders. Today, there are several different vendors that offer ways to automate the data collection process, including equipment operating characteristics, for as little as $300 per machine.

The following automated data collection methods are available to the lifting industry:

• Mating a hand-held device to a chip embedded on a data collector;

• Attaching a cable to an RS232 port and uploading data to a laptop or handheld device;

• Using radio frequency identification (RF/ID) technology to pass data from a tag on the machine through an RF/ID reader;

• Connecting data through cellular networks; and

• Connecting data through satellite systems.

Vendors such as Gates Are Everywhere, based in Coral Springs, Fla., offer the PM Minder system, a three-channel data-recording system that can collect travel distance. It is RF/ID-capable and uses the unique Transcore Smartpass™ system, which is a proven, extremely cost-effective system for asset management. The Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., Anchorage, Alaska, is currently testing this system within its diverse equipment fleet, which includes cranes, trucks, and other off-road equipment.

Although little has been written about RF/ID technology in the lifting industry, it already has proven itself in the trucking industry for toll-road applications and parking or gated facilities.

getsmart2Old World achievements

Implementing GIS technology on lifting equipment doesn't require a huge shift in thinking. Just ask any European who has owned aerial work platforms since the mid-1980s. Europeans hire equipment similarly to how we rent a car (hour, day, week, month). Keeping accurate logs of how equipment was used is important, so a device to track detailed operating information seemed necessary. According to Klaus-Dieter Rosler, president of Rosier GmbH, Weyhe, Germany, the European aerial rental industry was the first to accept generic operating data recorder (ODR) to track usage hours.

Likewise, European OEMs in the 1990s began providing their own data recorders to track usage and streamline the maintenance process. Regrettably, a two-fold problem copped up from this approach: Service technicians could see only what happened after a failure, and there was a general lack of technical standards. Consequently,
the rental dealer had to invest in a variety of support tools for different OEMs. As expected, those with mixed fleets were very unhappy.

In 1994, Rosler's company designed its first ODR for Litra, a former JLG dealer in Germany. According to Rosier, the reqirements included a small display screen with six recorded functions and 180 days of memory. Data was retrievable through an RS232 port to a portable hand-held device or directly to a laptop computer.

Next, Rosler developed a simple yet effective software program that shows data and preset alarms. This was introduced with data recorders at the Bauma show in 1995, where approximately 500 units were sold.

Evidently, Rosler was onto something - more than 8,000 units have been sold to the German aerial market, which has a population of approximately 20,000 units.

Why the big interest? According to Rosler, return on investment (ROI) pays off to customers within a few weeks. He said cost (approximately $290), ease of installation (approximately one hour per machine), tracking shift usage, weekend usage, and rain-day usage are all factors pointing to a quick ROI for German rental operators.

Rosler added that fleet owners can track battery-charging times, eliminating the question of whether or not a machine is ready for a job. Plus, they can eliminate the chance of fraudulent use. For example, a company requested a rented machine for Friday delivery in time for Monday-morning work, only to see the machine returned to the rental house because the job did not materialize. Sound familiar?

The European rental market today is no different than the U.S. market. Rates are down, and rental companies are afraid to lose customers over billing disputes. However, Rosler said the strongest operators in the market no longer give away equipment for free. They may offer 24-hour customer service but will "bill whenever they can."

New ideas, new obstacles

A new business application Rosier sees is the acceptance of a key system that not only tracks operating data but also monitors operator use as well. One idea is to use the key to restrict equipment to authorized operators. Used on forklifts in industrial warehouses, the device also can track damage on machinery as well as structures. Rosler said industrial property owners are interested in reducing the cost of repair to equipment, buildings, injured staff, and damaged goods. Such devices make it possible to track damaging equipment operations.

As in the past, Rosler said European lift truck makers, such as Linde, Still, and Jugheinrich, are offering similar systems on their equipment. Regrettably, a familiar problem has resurfaced: mismatched proprietary systems on OEM equipment. All these improvements are steadily coming about but not without resistance.For example, Rosler mentioned that wireless GIS devices are growing slowly in Europe. While the benefits, such as immediate access to data with no human interaction and the ability for remote diagnostics, are clear, most buyers consider the investment far too expensive. On the other hand, Ruthman and Bison-Stematec, both German truckmounted aerial lift manufacturers, are testing wireless devices that Rosler has designed. Rosler said these devices have five channels of data collection: GPS tracking, anti-theft deterrence, geofencing (electronic fence), speed control, and vibration sensing.

Resistance to technology is not new in North America. In a recent conversation with Dennis Schares of John Deere Special Technologies, he said, "One of the reasons the DeereTrax program was dropped was that John Deere did not see the volumes to make money utilizing current cellular technology to pull data." So far, Deere & Co., Moline, Ill., is not the only company to pull out of the data-recorder market after considerable investment. Such companies as Vistar Datacom, a Herndon, Va.-based satellite service provider, eliminated its construction equipment marketing initiatives in mid-2001.

National Systems Research (NSR) of Colorado Springs, Colo., also has seen a soft market for technology in North America. According to Anthony Archuleta, vice president of NSR's GPS technologies division, "NSR has shifted its marketing efforts to Central and South America - where demand is strong for technology in the construction equipment industry - until the domestic market picks back up."

When these applications mature, early implementers gain the upper hand by learning how to use new tools with success. By studying how others have solved operational issues within their businesses, equipment owners can make a smart investment in the future of their businesses.