Rental starts working on the theft problem

By Dan Gilkes14 October 2008

Komatsu now supplies even its smaller machines with the Komtrax satellite tracking system.

Komatsu now supplies even its smaller machines with the Komtrax satellite tracking system.

In an age of efficient microprocessor control systems and sophisticated global positioning tracking, construction equipment theft remains a massive problem for rental businesses across the world. While it is now almost impossible to steal many cars, unless the thief has the vehicle's keys in their possession, it is still all too easy for a truck to pull up on a construction site and drive away with valuable plant machinery on board.

How big is this problem? In the US, the American Rental Association puts the figure at around $1 billion each year. In the UK the Construction Equipment Association claims that around £1 million of machinery is stolen every week.

However those figures only cover the actual equipment that is taken. The real cost to the industry is far higher, when you take into account repairing damaged machines, the purchase of replacement equipment, increased insurance premiums and lost earnings while the machines are not on rent.

There are a number of factors that make equipment theft such a big problem for the rental industry. First, the industry has such a wide variety of machines on offer, many of which have no form of road registration and little more than a plate with a serial number stamped on the side of the chassis.

Second, even in this age of sophisticated security systems, many machines can still be started using the same key. While this may be a boon to rental companies, as they don't have to track sets of keys around the country when machines are delivered and collected, it also provides the thief with easy access to your equipment.

In addition, much of the smaller construction equipment that is stolen can easily be stripped down for components - engines in particular - making the original machine virtually untraceable.

Construction is also a global business. A mini excavator in Europe is much the same as one in any other part of the world.

So how do you stop theft, and prevent your company from suffering when the equipment thieves strike?

"All of our equipment is catalogued by serial number and assigned a unit number by the company," says George Frazier, Florida district manager for US rental giant RSC Equipment Rental. "The unit number is either painted on or engraved into the unit. Then the equipment has decals placed on it, identifying it as an RSC unit for both theft and identification purposes.

"Some of our equipment has LoJack-type tracking equipment, but that depends on the area. Also the manufacturers are trying to help by using computer codes to start equipment and eliminating key start machines. The customer must get a code from us to start the machine."

Certainly key pad immobilisers are becoming an increasingly popular option for some manufacturers. However, prevention of this type is only half of the task. Even an immobilised machine can be lifted with a crane and taken away. Storing that machine's details with a national agency such as the National Equipment Register (NER) in the US provides an easy access system for the police and other authorities who may recover machines.

"All of our equipment is registered with NER," says Mr Frazier. "Local law enforcement only has knowledge once the equipment is reported as stolen. NER has access to the serial numbers of all of our equipment. If a piece is found without decals or a unit number, local authorities can call NER and trace the serial number to the proper owner."

Certainly in the US registering with the NER has become a popular anti-theft measure. The organisation works with a number of top rental firms, including RSC, Hertz, United Rentals and Sunbelt, but also works in partnership with the American Rental Association.

"We deal with seven of the top 10 rental fleets and many smaller operations, through the ARA," says the NER's Ryan Shepherd.

He reports continued growth in the number of firms registering their equipment with the NER, but says that for some smaller firms having effective anti-theft measures in place is just not an easy task to accomplish.

"I think that the cost is prohibitive for many rental yards, every month they are monitoring costs," says Mr Shepherd.

Despite the undoubted recovery success of serial number registration, it still does little to prevent the theft in the first place, or to trace the machine if it hasn't yet been found and handed over to the authorities.

A number of manufacturers are now offering electronic tracking systems on their machines, particularly on excavators. Komatsu's Komtrax satellite tracking system is a case in point, launched in 2006 on the firm's Dash 8 excavators and now available on a wide range of Komatsu machinery, including its compact models.

Komtrax is a wireless monitoring system that allows customers to monitor their machines through a website. Initially designed as a fleet management reporting tool, for maintenance, hours worked and other operating data, Komtrax also provides a real-time location of the machine.

It is possible to set geofences, or areas that the machine is allowed to operate in on the ground. If the machine moves out of the permitted area an alert is sent to the customer who can then automatically shut down the engine.

Komatsu is not alone in offering this type of technology, Hitachi also offers machine tracking and JCB this year unveiled LiveLink, a telematic plug-in that will eventually be available for many of its machines.

The system is being introduced in JCB's excavators later this year, with backhoe loaders, telehandlers, mini and midi excavators, wheeled loading shovels and articulated dump trucks coming on stream in January of 2009.

LiveLink is being provided in co-operation with North American telematics supplier Qualcomm. It requires a transmitter that is fitted onto the machine and this sends information through satellite and cellular networks from anywhere in the world. It allows customers to monitor their machines, whether they are running or not, providing real-time theft prevention and tracking.

Volvo's CareTrack machine management system can also monitor the equipment through GPS tracking. However at present the company is not offering remote immobilisation or geofencing, as it feels that it could be unsafe to turn off a machine remotely, when you don't know why it is being moved on site.

While all of these systems offer a solution for one brand of machine, they are not a complete fleet option. One of the UK's largest rental businesses, A-Plant, has therefore looked for its own anti-theft solution using its A-Trak system.

Based on hardware and software from supplier Enigma Vehicle Systems, A-Trak was jointly developed to both provide an anti-theft solution and to add value to customers. Its customers can access a wealth of information about the machine from A-Plant's extranet website, including information on how the machines are operating and that they are at the intended location.

A-Trak uses GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) devices that are fitted to A-Plant machinery. These provide the internet tracking and telematics information. Once linked to the A-Trak set-up the customer can request positioning information, can ring-fence machine operations and monitor hours used. Depending on the machine they can also monitor towing speeds, fuel levels, battery power, engine running and engine covers open information.

"We spotted one of our compressors being towed at 100mph recently and the customer was very grateful to have this information backed up by A-Trak," says A-Plant's IT director Andy Wortley. "We can also help customers to save money by showing that equipment they have hired is not being used and should be off-hired."

A-Trak has been used to locate and recover stolen plant. "It is proving to be a powerful deterrent to the theft of A-Plant equipment, with a 98% recovery rate, significantly reducing downtime and costs for both A-Plant and our customers," says Mr Wortley.

One of Europe's biggest rental companies, Ramirent, is thinking the same way, installing a GPS-based system on some equipment, a tracking system on other machines and a combination of both on some models.

"We have selected a Telematics partner group-wide," says fleet management director Jarmo Kosonen.

Manufacturers are installing different types of system, which are not standardised, making it difficult for a fleet manager to retrieve data. This is particularly important for Ramirent, as the company has equipment working in 13 countries.

"With our system we can monitor the fleet from one location, whatever country the machine is working in," says Mr Kosonen

Ramirent is installing the GPS system, which is primarily a fleet management tool, on all new equipment as it is added to the fleet. Existing machinery is equipped with the system as it comes in for service and maintenance.

Perhaps the most interesting anti-theft solution that has been introduced recently offers the facility to cover any machine, whatever size, value or brand for any fleet. CESAR (Construction Equipment Security and Registration Scheme) is a project in the UK that could well point a way forward against equipment theft in many countries.

The Plant Theft Action Group (PTAG) is an advisory group reporting to the UK Government on measures aimed at reducing theft in the construction sector. Working with the police, PTAG decided on a national register and marking scheme that would make identification of equipment easier for the police.

The scheme was put under the management of the UK's Construction Equipment Association (CEA), and then put out to tender to more than 20 private companies. The tender was won by Datatag and the scheme went live in April of last year.

Datatag has plenty of experience of tagging equipment, the company's antitheft solutions are fitted as standard equipment on many motorcycles across Europe. Indeed around 90 per cent of the motorcycles in the UK are now protected by Datatag security, along with all of the jet skis sold in the UK.

CESAR involves a number of technologies, combined in a multilayered approach. They include the fitting of two identification plates which carry a unique number given to each machine. This tamperproof plate carries a transponder that can confirm a machine's owner.

The machine is also equipped with a number of hidden glass tag transponders, which are about the size of a grain of rice. These are permanently hidden on the machine and can be read by a special scanner which is issued to every police force.

Each machine is also literally covered with hundreds of miniature Datadots, embedded with another unique number that identifies the machine. As they are permanently hidden on the machine they are almost impossible to remove. Finally the machine itself is covered with a unique forensic ‘DNA' solution that cannot be seen with the naked eye.

The CESAR scheme has already been a massive success. It now comes as standard on all machines sold in the UK by more than 30 manufacturers including JCB, Doosan, Bomag, Hanix, Takeuchi, Bobcat, Manitou, Merlo and others. Already more than 15000 machines in the UK are registered with CESAR and this is expected to double in the coming months.

"We're projecting 30000 machines by the end of this year," says Datatag director Kevin Howells.

What's more, it is possible to retrofit CESAR to older machines in a customer's fleet, providing that whole fleet approach to security. In addition all self-propelled machines can be registered with the UK's driver and vehicle licensing agency (DVLA) at no additional cost.

But does it work? "On average £1 million of equipment is stolen each week in the UK, that's around 1500 items a year going missing," says Mr Howells. "In the year that we've been running, we've had seven items stolen, and four of those have been recovered. What's more, we've never lost a case in court."

It's a powerful case, and one which is finding many interested parties in the UK and overseas. In the June issue of IRN we reported that CESAR had been presented at the June convention of the European Rental Association (ERA). Indeed, Rob Oliver, the CEA's chief executive, has been regularly promoting CESAR overseas this year, in a move to see the scheme expand in the future.

"I gave a presentation on CESAR to CECE (the European manufacturers' association) recently and it could certainly have an application in Europe," he says.

"It needs to be international so that people have the scanners in other countries," agrees Mr Howells.

Expanding the organisation of CESAR would be easy to accomplish, as Datatag already has operations in Italy, Belgium, Holland and several other countries within Europe.
"It's already being fitted in Europe to machines bound for the UK, so it wouldn't take a lot to expand," he says.

However interest has come from further afield too, prompting the possibility of a much larger, almost global security scheme.

"There has been an extraordinary amount of interest from the United States," says Mr Howells. "We do have plans for the USA in the future."

One of the big advantages of the CESAR scheme is that it turns the average policeman into an expert on construction equipment, as by scanning the machine they can tell instantly the make, model and serial number, along with the owner's details.

A secondary benefit to those customers who have adopted CESAR is that they have reportedly seen insurance premiums drop by up to 20%, providing additional savings in operating costs.

CESAR is not a single cure-all solution, but should be seen as an essential component in a multilayered fight again equipment theft. By using every tool at its disposal, a rental company can protect against theft, and ensure that any machinery that is stolen can soon be recovered.

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