What's new in asset tracking and anti-theft technology? IRN reports.

By Murray Pollok11 November 2011

Irish theft prevention specialist Kosran ECV's Comms Keypad system integrates machine telematics/ass

Irish theft prevention specialist Kosran ECV's Comms Keypad system integrates machine telematics/asset management with its immobilisation system.

Murray Pollok reports on the latest efforts to combat equipment theft - including an ERA initiative for Europe - and looks at some of the latest asset tracking systems.

Is there a more complex issue in the equipment business than theft? It involves a number of interlinked issues each of which is difficult enough, such as the fight against international organised crime; cross-border cooperation of police agencies; and competing anti-theft technologies.

Adding to the problem is the fact that there are few definitive statistics on the scale of the problem. The European Rental Association puts a figure of €1.5 billion on the direct costs of theft to the region's construction industry, while the UK's insurance industry estimates the total cost in the UK alone - including ‘knock-on' costs such as project downtime and re-rentals - at between £750 million and £1 billion.

The ERA has recognised that any international strategy for combating theft needs to start with a detailed look at the problem, and one with the support of a wide constituency. For that reason, the association's equipment theft working group is now working with other European organisations - including FIEC (European contractors organisation), CECE (equipment manufacturers), ECED (distributors) and Leaseurope (the pan-European body for the leasing and car rental industry).

These organisations are jointly lobbying the European Commission to recognise the extent of the problem - an effort that met with some success last December when the Commission's justice and home affairs council made official note of the issue.

The ERA and the other associations are now designing a six month study into the problem that they hope will be funded by the European Union. That study, and the actions that eventually flow from it, are keenly awaited - and may be years in coming. In the meantime the industry has to struggle on with a sometimes bewildering selection of anti-theft products, including equipment tagging devices, asset tracking systems and mechanical theft prevention systems.

One notable initiative has been the UK's CESAR scheme, an equipment tagging and identification scheme supported by the UK's Construction Industry Association (CEA) and by many of the biggest suppliers in the UK, including JCB and Caterpillar.

The anti-theft and identification system involves both visible and hidden technology. On the outside of a machine, the company fixes, tamper-proof plates with identification numbers which ensure that the equipment can be identified and traced.

In addition, a glass tag the size of a grain of rice can be installed inside the machine containing a unique code that can be scanned, while microdot identification can be applied to any surface on the machine, making it difficult for criminals to locate and remove them all.

CESAR aims to make it easy for police authorities to identify equipment, and for the very visible stickers to act as a deterrent to thieves.

Since it was established in 2007 around half a million items of plant have been tagged - many at the production stage - and the company that runs the scheme on behalf of CEA, Datatag, is now looking at expanding the scheme outside the UK.

Kevin Howells, managing director of Datatag, says the company is in discussions with several organisations in mainland Europe - in the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, France and Germany - but more recently has started to plan a move into North America.

Datatag is talking to potential partners who cover the main equipment theft markets - not just of construction equipment - and that these partners will be able to provide the national network that is required to install the identification tags and provide the necessary support infrastructure, such as scanners.

He says pilot projects are due to be started in Texas involving a construction equipment rental company and several manufacturers and that initial trials will be focused on the US States that have the worst theft problems, with Texas, Florida, North Carolina, Georgia and California ‘leading' the table.

Datatag tags are already being fitted onto equipment by JCB in its Savannah, US, facility and by John Deere in the US for agricultural equipment sold in the UK.

Some in the anti-theft industry, however, take a sceptical view of the CESAR scheme. Patrick Sheeran, chief executive officer of Kosran, the Irish specialist in electro-mechanical immobilisation systems, says thieves are not deterred by warning stickers or registration schemes, and says the theft statistics since the scheme was launched support his views.

He cites the example of JCB machines that are CESAR registered, and says the statistics for 2009 and 2010 show that thefts increased by 66% last year. He says as well that of the 12541 items of plant stolen in the UK in 2009 and 2010, just 8% were recovered.

He goes further; "The value of CESAR for manufacturers is to show that they are working hard to combat theft...Currently OEMs are profiteering from plant theft and cannot resist the high value of sales orders for the replacement of machines stolen from their customers. For example £50 million is the value to OEMs of a replacement order for 2000 machines stolen valued at £25000 each."

His view is that CESAR is a cheap alternative to fitting more complicated, but effective, immobilisation devices.

For Mr Sheeran, there is no serious alternative to electromechanical immobilisation, where the fuel supply and hydraulics are shut off. He argues that electrical immobilisation - of the sort used by Kubota - is also ineffective as it can be bypassed.

In response, it has to be said that there is overwhelming support for the scheme in the industry, and not just from equipment manufacturers. The Construction Plant-hire Association (CPA), which represents the UK rental companies, as well as insurance giants Allianz and Aviva, are supporters, as are other organisations in the agricultural sector.

Kevin Howells at Datatag has heard these criticisms of CESAR before, and is measured in his response; "What we are offering is a layered approach - CESAR tagging needs to be part of a layered anti-theft strategy."

He dismisses completely the idea that the manufacturers have other motives in supporting the scheme; "Having worked with the manufacturers and meeting them continuously, it is clear to me that they feel they have a duty of care. These stolen machines do go somewhere and deprive them of a sale somewhere else, or are sold for parts, which deprives them of parts sales."

And while it is correct to say that a tagging system will not prevent a machine from being stolen on its own, CESAR points to a much higher recovery rate for CESAR protected machines - six times that for ‘unregistered' plant - and says registered machines are eight times less likely to be stolen.

The ‘layered' approach to security emphasised by Mr Howells is also emphasised by Southco, the company that specialises in access control systems for off-road equipment.

Ulrike Sturman, industry marketing manager for transportation at Southco, says; "In addition to the importance of initiatives like CESAR, we believe security and safety needs to become a fundamental design consideration and our aim is to work closely with OEMs to bring the off-highway sector sophisticated levels of more secure, in-built latching solutions which reduce levels of theft and provide a safer environment for drivers.

"In terms of security, as a proven supplier to the off-highway industry of access hardware to all entry, chassis and interior applications, Southco is able to offer OEMs enhanced protection for their vehicles by integrating access control and electromechanical locking devices at the point of entry. These products and systems are intended to be incorporated into the OEM vehicle design."

Southco's electromechanical latching solutions are concealed, and can be used by companies to control access to equipment and capable of remote monitoring. Ms Sturman says Southco has "taken things to another level" with its Electronic Access Solution technologies; "For example, whilst providing the door handle lever actuator for an entirely mechanical system, we can bolt on an electronic locking system which can be integrated to a host of other electronic systems on the vehicle."

The support of the OEMs is obviously important when it comes to fitting theft prevention measures in the factory. The ERA's theft working group, for example, is lobbying manufacturers to adopt a standard machine interface connector for anti-theft systems. The working group acknowledges that some manufacturers already provide such connections, but hopes that a "generalised" solution can be agreed.

If there is continued debate about the best way to prevent theft, then there are also increasing numbers of companies offering sophisticated asset tracking system that can help rental companies track their equipment for fleet management purposes, and at the same time alert them to when equipment goes missing.

For example, Danish company M-tec A/S reports that its TrackUnit FMS system is now fitted to more than 35000 units in Northern Europe, the US and the Middle East. One of its customers is Riwal Denmark, who has been using the system for around five years and has now fitted it to around 30% of its 2200 unit fleet in Denmark.

The prime use for the system is for fleet management - seeing where equipment is and when it is being used - with theft prevention a secondary but important element.

Søren Rosenkrands, general manager of Riwal Denmark, says the cost of installing and running the devices would not be justified by anti-theft benefits alone. He says the costs of the system are covered by reduced insurance premiums and at the same time more effective and accurate billing, for example for machines used on Sunday and during holidays.

While theft may be secondary, the M-tec system has been useful in this area. Riwal Denmark experiences around 5 to 6 thefts a year, and one machine was recently recovered on its way to Poland because the tracking system revealed its location.

Another Scandinavian tracking specialist is ABAX of Norway, whose mtrack system is widely sold around the world. Richard Taylor, managing director of Automatrics, the UK dealer for mtrack, tells IRN that it recently upgraded its theft recovery tracking device from the original dual band modem GSM/RF location device to a quad band GSM/RF location device with additional GPS.

"The additional GPS is helpful if signals are available (that is, they are not being blocked by jamming devices or not available if assets are stored away from satellite view). The primary mtrack location technology of GSM cell site triangulation combined with a radio beacon is retained from the outgoing model to ensure maximum tracking capability regardless of environment."

Mr Taylor adds that the new specification also comes with both GPRS and SMS roaming-enabled SIM cards; "which means we can update the system software over the mobile network remotely and units will work in virtually all countries".

Meanwhile, UK company Masternaut - which recently merged with its UK competitor Cybit (see box story) - offers the Asset Track system, which is a covert tracking device that transmits the precise location of the asset.

The system gives equipment owners real-time visibility of their equipment on the internet or via smart phones, and a geofence facility will alert the owner if a machine goes outside a specified boundary.

"For plant hire companies, the system provides a record of usage for Pay-As-You-Use services", says Masternaut, "Customers are given accurate invoices, backed up by the system's monitoring capability. In addition, because the ‘hirer' is responsible for assets on loan to them they now also have peace of mind from knowing that the equipment is fitted with a real-time tracking device and in the event of it being stolen it can be traced and retrieved."

One company using the system is Flannery Hire based in Yorkshire, UK, which has fitted tracking devices to high-value equipment such as excavators and telehandlers.

"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," says Pat Flannery, director, Flannery Hire.

"The system has been tailored to suit our needs. It is intuitive, allowing us to assign geofences to suit any site and it provides a live view of our tracked equipment wherever it is deployed", says Mr Flannery.


Masternaut gets
European boost

Bill Henry, chief executive officer of Masternaut, says the merger of two of the UK's market leading telematics firms - Masternaut and Cybit - will give it a genuine pan-European presence.

"They are complementary", he tells IRN, "Cybit is strong in Germany and Scandinavia and Masternaut is a leader in France. Together it gives us a very strong position." The combined business, which will use the Masternaut name, employs 500 people and has 10000 customers across 32 countries.

Mr Henry says the demand for asset management through telematics continues to grow in Europe, but he highlights driver behaviour monitoring as a key technology trend that could be useful in the equipment rental market.

"It's about understanding how people are using your equipment and vehicles", says Mr Henry, "Monitoring driver behaviour can lead to fuel savings and improved safety, and less wear and tear on the vehicle. That's an issue for plant hirers...you become much better at identifying who is causing the wear and tear.

"We have customers who are saving 20% on their fuel costs doing the same routes, because they are driving in a more efficient way." He says problems like over-breaking or over-revving can also be tracked as ‘events' by the system.

Investment in this type of technology has not been a priority for rental companies over the past few years, but Mr Henry thinks that is now changing; "Over the last six months we've signed several deals with rental companies. People have weathered the storm..."

He says Masternaut can bill customers a monthly fee that incorporates the cost of installing devices, and a Software as a Service (SaaS) option - with Masternaut holding the data and making it available through a secure website - will also help minimise any upfront costs.


RFID smooths
the pipeline

AssetPulse, the Californian RFID company, has installed an RFID system to allow an oil and gas service company to improve the management of its fleet of 2000 drill pipes at its yard in Houma, Illinois.

Ritesh Rajani, project leader at AssetPulse, tells IRN that the RFID system replaces an engraved coding system that required manual reading - a length process when you consider that a typical job might require 100 to 300 pipes.

"They need information for billing - what pipe was out and for how long", says Mr Rajani, "The first thing they want to do when it returns is to reconcile what has come back. For them to check manually it would take a few days."

And there is a similar time saving when preparing equipment for a customer; "It used to take a week to execute a job with 250 pipes. Now that takes 6 hours", he says.

In addition to the billing accuracy, the RFID tags allow the company to keep track of the annual pressure testing records for each pipe - a key requirement in the demanding oil and gas sector. This also means that the system will not send out a pipe that is due for its test during the period of the rental contract.

Mr Rajani says that visual inspections are also much easier now, with bulk scanning of pipes possible without the laborious task of identifying and noting the number of each pipe. "Even if you force staff to do things manually, people will not always follow the full process. RFID scanning eliminated omissions and errors and makes it much easier for staff to follow the correct procedures."

A final benefit is the ability to properly track utilisation of each individual pipe. This allows the company to allocate under-used assets for projects - sharing out the workload for each pipe - and also identify specific types of pipe (sizes, lengths) that are under-used.

The company is using just two handheld units - Motorola MC9090-G RFID handheld readers - and the tags, which have proven very robust, are attached to the pipe using a circular steel bracket.

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