AssetPulse RFID tags on pipelines.

AssetPulse RFID tags on pipelines.

More and more rental applications for RFID asset tagging technology are coming to light. Is it time that you considered the latest asset management technology? Murray Pollok reports.

Are you visionary or a pragmatist? Sujatha Bodapati, founder and CEO of AssetPulse, an RFID asset tracking company based in San Jose, California, is looking for more of the former, since it's those kinds of people who are prepared to invest in new technology like RFID (radio frequency identification).

Ms Bodapati, a 20 year veteran of the IT and asset tracking market, tells IRN that RFID is a classic illustration of the ‘Crossing the Chasm' thesis by marketing guru Geoffrey Moore.

This holds that there is a difficult ‘chasm' to cross between the innovators and early adaptors of new technology and its subsequent mainstream adoption by the ‘early majority'.

"RFID still has not quite crossed the chasm", she says, "We do see some companies looking ahead, it is whether they are willing to take the lead...upper management has to have the vision."

Some do. Aggreko was one of the first big names to adopt RFID tracking technology - in its case for quickly processing equipment returning to depots and for preparing orders - while offshore oil and gas rental specialists in both the US and the North Sea have also been quick to see the opportunities of RFID, which offers a more robust and versatile alternative to barcodes, able to withstand very harsh operating conditions and store a wide variety of asset and operational data.

In the equipment rental sector these early adaptors are leading the way in finding applications that make them more efficient, cost effective companies.

AssetPulse, for example, has been working for several years with Phoenix, Arizona-based tower crane rental company Stafford Tower Cranes on an RFID project that helps the company track its crane components - typically mast sections - on its cranes located around the US.

"It's a perfect example", says Ms Bodapati, "of how components move from one contract to another. They have cranes all over the country and can't easily keep track of the tower sections."

Stafford fixed RFID tags to each of the crane sections, and these are then read using a hand held mobile reader used on site by a visiting Stafford technician or salesman.

In addition to recording what sections are where, the system allows Stafford to "keep accurate account of how long [the equipment] has been used by the customer", says Ms Bodapati.

AssetPulse and Stafford are now engaged on a further phase of the project that will expand the usability of the RFID based system, and about which Ms Bodapati will not yet divulge details.

One feature of AssetPulse's work has been the development of very robust RFID tags that can be used in harsh offshore environments, and that are used for "closed loop" applications. That is, where the asset remains owned by a single organisation, unlike the RFID tags commonly used in the retail environment where they are tracking goods from the start to finish of a single journey.

In Europe, it has been rental companies with lots of ancillary items for rental that have been quick to look for the benefits of RFID. Power renters have lots of cabling and associated equipment that benefit from accurate tracking as they leave the depot and are returned.

If Aggreko has been one big name to invest in RFID, then other power companies - including Bredenoord in the Netherlands - are also looking at the technology.

Aggreko's RFID partner was Spartan Solutions, a specialist company based in Glasgow, UK. Jim Green, the company's managing director and co-founder, says Spartan's focus inevitably shifted to the offshore oil and gas rental sector when the construction equipment rental market started to falter and IT investment was put off.

That decision has been rewarded with several significant contracts to deliver paperless asset management on equipment destined for offshore rigs in the North Sea. The company has just opened a second office in Aberdeen, plans to open one in Stavanger, Norway next year, and numbers Swire Oilfield Services and Aker Solutions among its customers.

Spartan has continued to develop its software and now has iPad and iPhone versions of its Phalanx asset management software available.

Dr David Williams, technical director at Spartan, says: "The iPad and iPhone are instant-on devices which deliver a smooth, accurate user experience which executives and managers around the world have become very used to.

"Running our new Phalanx App on the iPad and iPhone, and other similar technologies, provides...seamless control and true visibility of all equipment-based operations, anywhere you go."

Another significant shift for the company is that the focus on RFID and now broadened to include barcodes as well. This is partly because there have been delays in the adoption of RFID in the offshore business because the industry wanted to ‘approve' the most appropriate tag for the sector.

Mr Green says, however, that the idea of having a single, approved tag was always problematic because different tags are suited to different tasks.

For example, he highlights the difference between active and passive tags - active having their own battery and passive receiving their power from the reader - as well as a choice of frequency, from low frequency tags (needing to be read one at a time very close up) to high frequency tags (suitable for multiple readers by a ‘gate' reader) and even ultra-high frequency tags (which have ranges of up to 7 m).

Spartan Solutions itself now promotes itself as an RFID and barcoding specialist, recognising that some rental companies will be more comfortable with a well-established technology.

One RFID specialist now focusing firmly on the construction and rental sector is 4hSolutions, based in the UK. The company is promoting the use of barcodes and RFID tags to equipment owners as part of an integrated asset management system incorporating RFID tags to identify assets and store data, GPS positioning systems (for management and anti-theft purposes) and web-based applications to access data.

Among its customers to date have been contractor Byrne Group and Magnor Plant. The different uses for RFID and asset tracking by these two companies illustrates some of the wide-ranging applications for RFID.

In the case of Byrne, the company issued its staff with RFID enabled ID cards that would assign specific tools and equipment to each staff. The result was a considerable fall in the amount of ‘consumable' items used by staff (as wasteful ‘consumers' would be identified), and the number of stolen or lost tools (which are also fitted with RFID tags) was reduced by half because workers started to take more responsibility for their tools.

Magnor Plant, on the other hand (as we reported in the previous issue of IRN) used the RFID technology to manage pre-planned maintenance and inspection schedules. Using hand held scanners to record inspection results in the field has cut down the post-inspection paperwork from three or four days to just one day, with no paperwork.

4hSolutions is also linking RFID technology to asset tracking GPS systems to incorporate an anti-theft element, and the company is now launching the i-Tag, a battery powered GPS asset tracking device incorporating an RFID tag.

The i-tag is suitable for equipment that doesn't have its own power source, because it has its own battery, and the RFID tag can store information on the asset. The small (15 cm by 6 cm) box is easy to fix to equipment and, says 4hSolutions, is ideal for checking an item's location once a day, week or month.

The price for rental companies will be a £185, with an additional monthly £10/tag service and communication charge for a 36 month contract, or £12/tag contract free.

4hSolutions offers both RFID tags and barcodes as the automatic identification technology. The company's chief executive officer, Mr Hiten Kantelia, says that "as a well-used technology, barcodes may well be an attractive option and may actually work out cheaper unit for unit.

"However, for critical assets that require tracking, tracing, maintenance and user authentication, RFID tagging is a robust and reliable option. In addition to being more durable than barcodes, RFID tags are also reusable, making them a cost effective choice in the long run."

RFID tags offer themselves for other applications as well. To give just one example, A-Plant in the UK has launched an unmanned Auto Tool Hire Unit designed to be located at customers' sites to provide instant access to tools.

Equipment in the cabin is RFID tagged and automatically registers when it is taken out and then returned, with the customer charged only when it is away from the container.

"The unit stays on the site for as long as the customer wants", said Mark Pudney, managing director - sales, "There is no collection or delivery charges, and the equipment is available on site."

An asset management system linked to the hut lets customers check online what is being rented from the cabin, as well as charges being incurred.

So there are rental companies out there already exploiting RFID technology, it's just that they still fall into the ‘early adapters' category. When the ‘early majority' joins them is anyone's guess, but if you are looking again at your IT investment then RFID should be on the agenda.

Genset tracking

Wim Vossebelt, chief executive officer of v-tron, a Netherlands asset tracking and telematics company, says rental companies can do a lot more than simply track their equipment using GPS technology.

"By installing the systems the working hours can be registered. Maintenance intervals can be programmed to generate an alarm. For example, if every 100 working hours the oil needs to be changed, the rental company will receive an alert".

In the case of portable generators, Mr Vossebelt says that "By installing sensors like a fuel level or connecting the control panel of the genset it is possible to receive information about the use of the machine.

It generates management info, which can be used to inform the user about the best way to use the machine and maybe even advise them to change to a larger unit."

One V-tron customer is Roskam, a general equipment rental company with four locations in the Netherlands, which is tracking some of the 6000 rental items, particularly gensets used in remote locations. The company is also tracking genset usage.

V-tron has developed small, easily attachable systems that monitor machine performance, including units with powered by batteries that will last for up to three years. Another device is integrated into a solar panel that continually charges the battery.

The V-tron Solar, incorporating GPS and GSM antenna, is used for container tracking. Over a thousand Solar units have been successfully deployed by V-tron customers, including DHL.

‘Round the clock security'

Masternaut Three X, the UK subsidiary of French asset tracking specialist Masternaut (which is owned by Hub telecom), has launched a satellite tracking service for valuable plant and construction equipment called Masternaut Asset Track.

The hidden device transmits the location of the asset and communicates this via the Internet. Using a web browser on a PC or hand held device, Asset Track users can see exactly where their equipment is situated and whether or not it is in use.

For rental companies, the system provides a record of equipment usage for ‘Pay-As-You-Use' contracts, with customers given accurate invoices backed up by the system's monitoring capability.

One customer is Flannery Hire, a Yorkshire-based construction rental company, which is using the system to protect high-value equipment such as excavators and telehandlers. The system has already helped to pinpoint and recover a stolen excavator within a few hours.

Pat Flannery, a director at the company, says; "The Masternaut Asset Track system provides round the clock security for us and for our clients. They are recognising the value that the system provides them and are requesting equipment that has Asset Track installed. It gives them peace of mind, knowing that we geofence and automatically monitor the equipment on site."

Managing forklifts

Sometimes it is providers of rental services who develop the most appropriate asset management systems for their markets.

For example, Briggs Equipment, the US based company that runs large rental fleets of forklifts in the US, Mexico and UK as well as a construction equipment rental businesses in Mexico and the US, has developed a fleet management tool, BE Fleet, that tracks cost of ownership information for forklift fleet managers.

The system, developed internally as early as 1996, is now marketed to its customers as a tool to track their own costs, identifying machines that are under-utilised, where tyre wear (for example) is too great.

"Being able to capture costs on a unit basis", says Mike Winemiller, president of Briggs, "means that before we go out to a customer we can pinpoint problem areas in their use of equipment."

"If the company's tyre costs are out of line, there is a good chance that there is a housekeeping issue. We'll try to capture costs and present areas of improvement. That's the number one reason that people look to us - they don't understand their costs."

The system, which is managed by BE Fleet and accessed by customers over the web, is already being used by 250 to 300 customers to track their fleets, which may comprise their own forklifts, units rented from Briggs or rented from other suppliers, totaling as many as 15000 units.

BE Fleet - launched in the UK last year - is being augmented by other features. Speedshield, for example, is a wireless, on-board reporting module that transmits vehicle usage over phone networks to the fleet management system. It can even be used to set speed limits on individual machines.

Also new is viaSonic, a low-cost ultrasound device that measures fuel levels inside the LPG tank and tells the fleet manager if it needs refueled or not.

TRACKING HIGHLIGHTS

Thieves tried twice to steal a JCB 3CX backhoe loader from a concrete and cement supplier CEMEX, but were twice foiled by Kosran ECV's Diesel Smart-Valve immobilisation system.

The JCB backhoe is the most stolen machine in the UK, according to police statistics. Kosran says its integrated security, safety and asset management ECV system "pays for itself in 40 days and then makes you money - we can assume CEMEX agree!"

UK/Irish GPS vehicle tracking and telematics specialist FleetMatics has acquired US tracking company SageQuest. The combined group will offer a global software-as-a-service (SaaS) GPS tracking solution for vehicle management.

SageQuest specialises in providing mobile tracking services to utility, cable and broadband companies in North America.

Enigma Vehicle Systems has launched a version of its established SK125 tracking unit designed specifically for trailers, or other unpowered assets, where theft recovery or location information are key requirements.

Enigma says the new SK125 TT tracking unit is already being used by UK companies including rental company A-Plant and Balfour Beatty Utility Solutions.

Ian Keam-George, CEO of Enigma, said; "We have been aware of the issues around trailers for some time and have been striving to provide an affordable, reliable and compact product.

"Trailers present unique problems as they are often targeted by thieves, have no driver and cannot easily be found at times of immediate need."

The tracking unit features a battery that will operate for 150 days.

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