Track stars: How rental companies are using telematics systems

By Murray Pollok05 October 2012

How are rental companies making the most of tracking technology, and what new telematics systems are on offer from the OEMs? Murray Pollok reports.

Technology brings enormous benefits, and with it a multiplicity of choices. That is certainly true of asset tracking systems, which promise enormous gains for rental companies in areas of fleet management and theft prevention.

The question for rental companies is how best to exploit a technology? We asked five major rental companies – United Rentals, Hewden, Cramo, A-Plant and Ramirent - to highlight their own priorities. While it is clear that all are fully engaged in using the technology - the results are summarised in Table 1 – their approaches do differ.

One key issue is what rental companies are using asset tracking systems for. Is it anti-theft, tracking of delivery trucks, or tracking of the equipment itself? In most cases it is a mix of all three. For United Rentals, its recent focus has been on its FAST (Field Automation Strategy and Technology) initiative, an automated dispatch and truck tracking system that uses handheld devices equipped with GPS and e-documentation capabilities.

Raymond Alletto, vice president, risk management at United, says the system has several benefits; “Our drivers can reduce paperwork related to pre- and post-trip inspections, trip logs, contracts and condition reports. Digital messaging improves communication between drivers and dispatch. And GPS routing provides turn-by-turn recommendations from one customer site to the next...Not surprisingly, we’ve found that we can serve customers better because we have better visibility into the movement of fleet.”

In United’s case, tracking of its actual equipment is mainly for anti-theft purposes, using LoJack tracking devices, and not just on large items.

In some cases, the same system is used to track delivery drivers and equipment. A-Plant in the UK used a third party supplier, Enigma Vehicle Systems, to develop the A-Trak system that is now fitted to 10000 items of A-Plant’s fleet and its delivery trucks.

The system uses GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) devices fitted to its equipment that transmit location and diagnostic situation to A-Plant’s server. “It is then instantly relayed through the Extranet system so customers can track the movement of their hired plant online 24-hours a day, seven days a week”, says A-Plant.

Not just the movement, A-Plant and its customers can monitor functions including towing speeds, fuel level, battery level, coolant, engine on/off, ignition on/off, engine covers open/closed and so on. The system is also helping customers determine their CO2 output, with A-Trak furnishing them with hours per machine and associated CO2 data.

A new project has involved equipping all new generators with A-Trak; “As well as providing an anti-theft solution for this new equipment, this will also enable us to utilise specific features and provide a whole host of data - such as maintenance reminders, utilisation data, remote shutdown, load % and special alerts”, the company tells IRN.

Hewden uses a Masternaut system to track its delivery vehicles, and also to track how its vehicles are driven; “This allows us to monitor our carbon footprint by assessing driver performance and analyzing vehicle utilization, which, in turn, helps us to develop a greener fleet.” (Masternaut has had good success in the UK rental market, with Speedy Hire also using its system to track its large fleet of delivery trucks.)

As far as tracking of individual items of equipment is concerned, it is theft prevention that is the main focus for Hewden. It currently uses a variety of tracking devices, including OEM systems like JCB’s LiveLink, fitted to around 1000 machines and says it now is “looking at the most viable option for extending this.”

Fleet tracking is becoming a more complicated issue because of the number of different systems being offered by the equipment manufacturers (see box story for some of the latest developments).

These system cost money to use, but they also present rental companies with particular problems, since it is extremely rare for rental fleets to be made up of a single brand of machines. This means that rental companies can end up with lots of different telematics systems to manage.

Both Cramo and Ramirent are tackling this problem head on. Ramirent tells IRN that its current system is a third party one; “More and more manufacturer systems are coming. A connection between manufacturer and 3rd party system [is currently] under development.”

Martin Holmgren, fleet manager at Cramo, tells IRN; “We are looking for tracking systems that have an open it-architecture, that is, both manufacturer or 3rd party systems. Due to the large number of suppliers we aim to gather tracking information into one Cramo interface.”

Hewden says that it generally buys new equipment with the manufacturer’s tracking system installed; “however for retrofit options we consider the product that offers the best value for money in respect of functionality, reliability and maintenance.”

Raymond Alletto at United Rentals says the company is “open to both third-party and proprietary approaches.”

Equipment theft, meanwhile, is seen as a ‘significant’ problem by three of the five rental companies, and the other two – Ramirent and United Rentals – both acknowledge that it is a concern. “I would describe United Rentals’ numbers as being within an expected range and reasonable for the size of our fleet”, says Mr Alletto.

Significant or not, all are using tracking technology to help prevent theft. A-Plant uses its A-Trak system as a theft-prevention measure, and says it has seen a 90% recovery rate of stolen machines fitted with A-Trak, equipment valued at £100 million.

United Rentals says its partnership with LoJack has been valuable; “Our use of LoJack anti-theft tracking devices is broad based across many categories in our fleet – not just on large machines. We’ve had 966 recoveries to date using LoJack, for an estimated total recovered value of more than $34 million”, says Mr Alletto. (United also tracks all company laptops using a specialised product from Absolute Software.)

Hewden is one of the few companies that uses asset tracking of the fleet primarily as a theft measure; “Equipment theft has certainly become more prevalent during the challenging economic conditions of the last few years”, the company told IRN, “and we are finding that the requirement for anti-theft devices to be fitted – both from our customers and their insurers is increasing all the time.”

Ramirent and United Rentals both use separate tracking systems for theft prevention purposes.

Regarding the most effective measures of theft prevention, there is general agreement among the five companies that vetting customers and their sites is important, while asset tracking devices are also highlighted by most of the companies. Cramo says it has found ‘DNA’ tagging of equipment to be a valuable tool.

As this exercise as shown, every rental company will have its own needs, dependent on the equipment it rents, the kinds of customers it has, and its geographical reach. What is clear is that the benefits of tracking technology are only now becoming fully apparent. As A-Plant tells IRN; “We anticipate that telemetry from remote assets will become a greater force within the rental business.”


18m records

The National Equipment Register (NER) in the US holds 18 million ownership records for construction and agricultural equipment and is one of the main organisations in the US trying to compact equipment theft.

Ryan Shepherd, operations manager at NER, tells IRN that equipment theft could costs US businesses as much as US$1 billion a year, split between the value of the equipment itself and the knock-on impact of downtime and seeking replacement machines.

Since the register was established in 2001 recovery rates have increased from 5% to closer to 20%, and it was 21% last year according the NER’s just published theft report for 2011 (free to download). “That wasn’t just NER”, he says, “but we like to take some pride in that.”

Once registered a machine is more easily identified by the police or insurers. There is a one-off cost of US$40 for each item registered, with prices falling as the number of machines increases (it will cost $700 to register a fleet of 100 units).

“We get information from some OEMs directly”, he says, “’Here’s what we sold and who we sold it to’, and we have programme with organisations like the ARA. ARA pays on behalf of members to get their equipment registered.” Manufacturers who work with NER include Multiquip, Vermeer, JCB and Case.

NER also tracks changes in what is being stolen, and where. “In my ten years here the pie chart [of stolen equipment] doesn’t change very much”, says Mr Shepherd. The 2011 report, for example, reveals that skid steer loaders and backhoes loaders represent 18% of total thefts, while excavators represent 3%. More than 55% of the total is agricultural equipment.

Mr Shepherd says that an anticipated increase in thefts as a result of the financial crisis hasn’t really materialised.

NER, which is owned by risk information specialist Verisk Analytics, has in recent years moved into new areas, marketing its own anti-theft tracking device, which it calls IronWatch. The owner pays an initial fee and there is no monthly cost. Rather, NER activates a ‘sleeping SIM card’ in the machine when it is stolen, for which a charge is levied.

“More than one of the big national rental players has invested in the system”, says Mr Shepherd, “They get the concept and the value it brings.”

Another new focus is the used equipment market, with IronCheck, a service under which equipment buyers can verify that a serial number matches the make, model, and year for the machine and check whether its history includes a theft report.

Mr Shepherd says NER is now looking for other ways to use its equipment database, such as integrating repair, maintenance and warranty data from insurers and equipment dealers to give prospective buyers an insight into a machine’s likely running costs.


OEM telematics

Several new manufacturer telematics systems have become available this year while others continue to expand the functionality of their existing systems.

JCB says its well established LiveLink system has taken a “huge step forward” because it can now tap into the electronics available with the latest range of Stage IIIB/Tier 4i engines.

New functionality includes increased security, with ‘pairing’ of the LiveLink ECU (engine control unit) with the engine immobiliser’s ECU. If LiveLink is tampered with it will trigger the engine immobliser.

The new LiveLink also allows fuel data and fuel consumption monitoring, giving fleet owners the option of assessing individual operators, and remote management of the PIN access codings that give multiple operators access to the machine.

Caterpillar’s system, Product Link, offers similar functionality, with owners viewing machine data via Cat’s VisionLink interface, which enables geo-fencing, customised health and utilisation reports, mapping and mixed-fleet capabilities. The system will provide a GPS ‘trail’ that shows where an asset has been over time.

In terms of security, Cat offers a different option, called the Cat Machine Security System. Integrated into the electronics of the machine it guards the starting system and transmission. Only a yellow or grey security key can start the machine when the system is armed. Each security key is unique so operators can be restricted to certain machines or hours of operation.

Manufacturers launching telematics systems for the first time this year include Wacker Neuson, Case, New Holland and Merlo. Wacker Neuson Telematic, now available on all compact equipment, will provide information on current location, operating times, speed alerts, and whether the machine is operating or not. Geofencing is also possible.

New Holland’s new Fleet Force offers very similar functionality, as does sister brand Case with its new Site Watch solution. Italian telehandler manufacturer Merlo’s new MerloMobility system makes it possible to monitor the important machine functions, and to receive and process alarms.

Hitachi is one of several other manufacturers offering systems, including Komatsu (Komtrax) and JLG Industries (ClearSky). Hitachi’s Global e-Service, which is part of its after sales service offering, is an online application allowing customers to monitor their machines remotely. It is available as standard for Zaxis excavators and ZW wheel loaders, and is optional for large EX mining excavators and EH dump trucks.


One key, one machine

UK company TriMark is offering equipment manufacturers and rental fleet owners a high degree of flexibility with its security key products.

The company’s KeyOne Plus system allows OEMs or rental companies to choose from a ‘one key fits all’ option to a ‘one key one machine’ solution. A rental company could opt for an intermediate solution, with a key that fits all of their fleet but is different to the rest of the brand.

TriMark managing director, Keith Dolbear, says; “This system really is revolutionary and could considerably help to cut down plant theft and what’s more it’s barely any more expensive than a ‘one key fits all’ lock.”

KeyOne Plus is available on door entrance, ignition switch, compartment locks and fuel caps.

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