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Telematics for Any Fleet

Technology

By Scott Parish, Construction Executive

Connected equipment helps businesses save money, work more efficiently and make jobsites safer by giving them the data and tools necessary to analyze the way equipment is used and located.

There are three paths to adding telematics capabilities to fleets of heavy equipment or on-road vehicles: buying new equipment with built-in internet of things (IoT) connectivity, building custom solutions or adding plug-and-play IoT terminals to existing equipment.

New equipment with built-in connectivity will collect useful data about equipment out-of-the-box but might be limited in its flexibility by manufacturer decisions on which data to capture or how to visualize it in analytics platforms. And while it’s a good path to reliable connectivity for one machine, buying new equipment with the goal of connecting whole fleets would make for an expensive upgrade.

Conversely, custom IoT solutions can be designed to a business’ specification and rolled out across fleets at a lower cost than replacing each machine, however custom solutions could take many months or even years to design and implement. Businesses that go the bespoke route will need radio frequency (RF) engineering experts to help design electronic components and tune wireless data transmissions. They’ll also need to have their designs prototyped and certified by industry groups and the Federal Communications Commission, a process that can itself be expensive.

For contractors with several dozen to a couple thousand machines and vehicles in their fleets, plug-and-play IoT terminals can strike the right balance between customization, cost and time to implementation. While terminals do require some software skill to set up, their price tags don’t include an entire machine on top of connectivity. IoT terminals on the market today are also pre-built and pre-certified, helping businesses avoid the additional time and expense required for fleet-wide connectivity through a custom solution requiring carrier certifications.

Businesses that don’t want to replace equipment or undertake custom IoT projects should consider the following while getting ready to connect their fleets.

CHOOSING CONNECTIVITY OPTIONS

Different terminals offer different levels of cellular connectivity from older 2G and 3G networking to new 4G and LTE designations (which should sound familiar to anyone with a smartphone). The level of connectivity needed for machines depends on the type of work the company does.

Contractors working in suburban or urban areas likely don’t need to worry about spotty connections, so terminals that connect to 4G and 3G networks will reliably send data all the time. Contractors in more remote locations that run “off the grid,” so to speak, might not be able to count on 4G and LTE availability. To keep machines connected even in remote areas, IoT terminals can fall back on older 3G and 2G networks so they can keep sending data without interruption.

GETTING SET UP

IoT terminals might be pre-designed and pre-certified, but there’s still some setup required. First, the terminal needs to be programmed to simply collect data from machine sensors and do something with it. This code is called firmware and sets the basis of telematics efforts. Firmware is present on most of the electronic devices used daily (even washing machines and TVs), and it’s rarely updated.

Collecting data is only half the journey. Software is needed to process that data and format it in a way that makes sense to humans, usually in an analytics dashboard that helps visualize data. For example, data about how long a machine is on, how much of that time it spends idling and how much time it spends working can be compiled in a pie chart to demonstrate efficiency and help businesses make targeted changes to the way they work. In the idle time example, having operators turn machines off if they’ve idled for 20 minutes can help save money on fuel.

Some businesses might have employees who can write firmware and software code to get IoT terminals up and running, but it’s more likely that extra help is needed. This outside help is definitely a cost to consider, but it shouldn’t be a major one – it’s often possible for an independent contractor to write the code needed to set up IoT terminals and analytics platforms in a relatively short period of time, usually a couple weeks or months.

TIME TO ROI

Often the first question for businesses thinking about connecting a fleet is “when will I see a return?” The answer, of course, is that it varies, but in the idle time example above, fuel savings could be realized almost as soon as IoT terminals are attached to machines and collecting data about downtime.

While that’s consistently an example of how the IoT can impact contractors’ bottom lines, it may not be the best example of the breadth of opportunities IoT connectivity creates.

Connected equipment can alert owners to preventative maintenance needs, saving them from costlier repair bills. Monitoring operator behaviors can help businesses further save on fuel by telling lead-footed operators to slow down, and can even help make jobsites safer, reducing the risks of injuries that can cost businesses money and time in addition to good workers. Data about safe operations might even help convince insurance companies to lower contractors’ premiums. Thinking longer-term, a better understanding of fleet costs might allow businesses to submit lower bids for work, helping secure steady revenues.

Telematics are becoming a powerful differentiator for contracting businesses not because all the ROI is up front, but because businesses can make targeted changes to the way equipment is used in order to save money, make work safer or reach another objective. Businesses that invest in IoT connectivity for their fleets will see a return so long as they start with a clear set of data they want to track and set concrete goals for change.

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