Mining Machine Data
GPS equipment tracking and maintenance management can strengthen control over productivity and profitability.
The “academic” definition of data mining is the ability to discover patterns stored within data, using them as a catalyst to enhance business processes by avoiding failure patterns and exploiting success patterns. When applied to mining data from construction machines, this information may (when used to its potential) be employed to optimize maintenance practices, detect trouble before it happens, identify sources of fuel savings, enhance equipment utilization, locate units in real-time, improve job costing methods, and more. Indeed, these capabilities constitute yet another level of machine control—the addition of “machine health and well-being” information that enables the management team to monitor and predict machine availability and predict performance and future costs in a variety of applications. When all this information is integrated and delivered in real time to a company’s network, it’s called telematics—a term that is not delivered trippingly off the tongue by most contractors. Telematics, when applied to the construction market, is still in its early stages of acceptance. With that said, those contractors who currently employ telematics refer to it simply as the use of “GPS and equipment tracking systems.” No matter what one calls these technologies, they are poised for rapid growth.
Real World, Real Time
The Allen Co. Inc. is rapidly expanding its use of telematics in a variety of applications.
Based in Lexington, KY, The Allen Co. is a veteran provider of asphalt paving, drain and grade projects, and concrete work. The company also operates five asphalt plants and three quarries. During peak seasons, this family-owned operation employs more than 320 skilled workers. Assistant Vice President Grant Gabbard says that he has realized significant cost-efficiencies since investing in “GPS technologies and tracking” several years ago when he began using systems designed by HCSS. Based in Houston, TX, and founded in 1986, HCSS develops telematics software packages for the management of bidding, job costing, fleet and human resources, fuel usage, safety initiatives, and equipment maintenance.
“The biggest payoff is achieving greater efficiencies by identifying and tracking the location of each unit at the push of a button,” says Gabbard. “We started by outfitting our lowboy trailers to better manage our equipment moves. As things change quickly from job to job, we can track the trucks if we need to reroute them quickly. Smaller types of equipment such as backhoes and dozers are monitored for security alerts. We can also track our dump trucks to see where and when they loaded. Then we can monitor the dump time on our trucks to track our cycle times, allowing us to improve the trucking end of the business. For instance, we can see if trucks are just sitting somewhere burning fuel,” he says.
Gabbard also likes the fact that he can pull up daily runtime on each piece of equipment. “While the foreman may say that the equipment ran eight hours, the GPS will tell us that it actually ran only three hours—so you can tighten up your utilization to see where equipment is truly needed,” he stresses.
Maintenance savings is a major factor as well. “Due to the fact that we are getting a true meter reading versus any inflated numbers, we can service the equipment at the correct maintenance intervals rather than too frequently. Plus, seeing the true idle time and run time helps us make better decisions on equipment moves and allocation,” says Gabbard.
A very unique aspect that HCSS systems monitor for The Allen Co. is tracking the blasting trucks that haul explosives to the quarries. A geofence (a virtual perimeter for a real-world geographic area) is established at the blasting site. “When the blasting trucks enter and get near the magazines, we can track them for safety purposes. The ATF is very strict on a regimen of knowing where the trucks go and when they are loading. We use it as a double check, as every few seconds it will ping the truck and we will know its exact location, thus knowing precisely when the magazine is loading,” says Gabbard.
For those new to telematics, Gabbard recommends starting slowly and picking one process that you wish to monitor. “If you start out on a wide range of processes, you’re overwhelmed with so much information that it is hard to know what you need to really focus on. It’s better to walk before you run,” he says.
Baldwin Paving of Atlanta collects its asset-management data via the Spectrum Equipment Service System, which is software designed by Dexter + Chaney. “When we first started to research different types of tracking software, we found that much of it was ‘passive’—or merely collected historical data, while the system we chose is ‘active’ and monitors each piece of equipment in real time to determine location, fuel usage, meter reading, and maintenance needs,” says John Freidel, chief financial officer for Baldwin Paving. “I took on this investment mainly due to the rising cost of fuel,” he adds.
The company has “wired” 70 to 100 pieces of equipment—skid-steers, dozers, rollers, and pavers. “Since 20% of your inventory makes 80% of your worth—we focus mainly on the largest equipment to track run time and idle time. If a machine is idling for 10 or 20 minutes, we want to know why,” says Freidel. “An employee once asked why a little idle time is such a big deal. After all, it’s cheaper to keep the equipment running, they say. But it all adds up. If you multiply 10 minutes of idle time by 250 equipment operators and 210 production days, you’re up to about a half a million dollars in fuel. That is a number that gets the message across,” he adds.
Freidel says that, naturally, one of the challenges in getting a buy-in on the use of tracking systems is overcoming workers’ perceptions that “big brother” is watching them. “I tell them it’s not watching you; it’s controlling our costs. Then they realize it’s one of the reasons we’re still in business,” he says.
For Freidel, it’s also a matter of accuracy, time-savings, decreased maintenance costs, and optimal equipment utilization. “With hundreds of pieces of equipment to monitor, doing manual logs meant we were usually at least three months behind in data and maintenance. Also, we found that many times workers had not filled out work orders properly or noted run time hours accurately. Now we know where the each piece of equipment is. We’re able to cost it back to the job, and we’re able to schedule preventive maintenance at the right intervals,” he says.
As for equipment utilization, Freidel says, “We can determine if a foreman is ‘hoarding’ equipment just to have it nearby—but not necessarily using it. If we monitor run time and we know it’s not in use, we can allocate it to another job; and the foreman can check the system to locate equipment when they need it.”
According to Dexter + Chaney, the system is user friendly. The Spectrum Equipment Service System includes three main components: an equipment monitor, the Field Master touchscreen device and the fuel controller. The equipment monitor, a small device attached to each piece of machinery, records a daily log of operating hours and idle hours and automatically relays that data to the Field Master.
The Field Master—hand-carried or mounted in a fuel truck or service vehicle—uses a built-in cellular modem to relay equipment hours, fuel usage, maintenance, and other data to Dexter + Chaney’s Spectrum Construction Software at the home office. The Fuel Controller captures gallons of fuel dispensed to each piece of equipment, which enables the company to track usage and reduce fuel theft.
Calculating the ROI
PacWest Rentals, the rental division of Mesa, AZ–based PacWest Trading, offers a full line of earthmoving equipment for sale or rent. Jim Lowry is the general manager of the rental department, which uses asset management and tracking software designed by Navman Wireless. “Our intent in using these products is not only to know where and when units are working, but to provide better solutions to customers regarding downtime, utilization, and project efficiencies. Collecting this real-time data minimizes everyone’s time in going out to the job site to read hours. It keeps everybody honest—us and the customer—and allows all involved to bill out accordingly without a lot of back-office time and cost,” says Lowry.
Lowry shares his ROI calculation (based on an average of $95 per hour in heavy hauling) regarding the use of the Navman Wireless M-Nav 760 system:
“An initial return is derived from time saved in dispatching from the office to field truck driver. No calls are made. The driver is dispatched by the M-Nav 760 and a message is sent to the navigational unit on the dashboard with the best possible route using the most right turns. M-Nav 760 has an option for vehicle dimension, and can calculate the best route with the least amount of traffic.
“The trucks run at least six hours per day on a 20-day month, operating 120 hours per month. We estimate that the M-Nav 760 is cutting two hours per day when compared to hours logged when units were not tracked by GPS. That comes to a calculation of $190 per day multiplies by 20 days, equaling a savings of $3,800 per month.”
It is also beneficial for customers to know when the truck will arrive. The M-Nav 760 tells the exact destination time. If it says 7.5 minutes until delivery, it will be 7.5 minutes. This saves on miscommunication from the office to the field, as everyone would like to be on the phone less, and the Navman Wireless system has cut down on cell phone traffic as to where and when the truck will arrive.
As to optimizing preventive maintenance cycles, Lowry says that the Navman Wireless systems have maintenance cycle module templates that can be adjusted for any machine. Preventive maintenance cycles are set anywhere from 250 hours to 4,000 hours to ensure that the factory-recommended maintenance is completed to ensure top-performing units in the field.
Instead of tracking hours with phone calls and/or a drive-by, the company uses the Navman system to send e-mail messages to the maintenance department, alerting the company that the machine is due for maintenance in 40 hours. It sends a message to all personnel involved without any manual entry after setup. The message is delivered to order the necessary parts and look for the best time to do the PM. Then PacWest Rental can check the customers’ hours of operation and schedule the service after hours.
“Planning even one maintenance call would take several minutes and coordination from several people. I would assume the system is now saving countless phone calls and time. Plus timely oil sampling for warranty guidelines is achieved to prevent future costly repairs. We also plan to install sensors to monitor the health of our equipment, including air-filter restriction, engine overheating, and loss of oil pressure. Also, we input notations into each machine’s information log, which lists part numbers for filters, oil types, and oil amounts—cutting time for unnecessary phone calls and research,” says Lowry.
Topcon Positioning Systems (TPS) recently introduced its SiteLINK 3D, a real-time, advanced communications management system for the 3D-MC grade-control range of products.
Tony Vanneman, TPS construction product marketing manager, says, “The goal is to provide information from the machines to and from a central office or job trailer or to other machines. This recorded data can then be analyzed to help calculate productivity, ultimately improving production and reducing costs.”
SiteLINK 3D features include text messaging, file transfer, machine tracking, proximity alarms relayed in the office, remote access and support, real-time cut/fill mapping, post-process volume calculations, and activity and delay reporting.
“With SiteLINK 3D,” he says, “you can track each machine, size, and model, through an array of applications. Data collected can be used to track productivity based on the application and material. You will have real-life examples of what your machines operators can do on different machines and in different job-site conditions. You then have a matrix from which you can bid jobs more accurately based on your production numbers for similar projects, and not just on averages or guesswork.”
Trimble offers its Trimble Con-struction Manager, which is designed as an interface that connects assets in the field to decision-makers in the office, making it easy to evaluate construction operations and take action in real-time.
According to Trimble, it helps centralize and simplify onsite operations management; improves individual asset productivity; reduces maintenance and fuel costs; provides extensive data for accurate billing, project costing and estimating future projects; improves both operator and site safety; reduces overtime; increases employee productivity; and allows integration of ERP systems, such as payroll, accounting and in-house maintenance packages.
Alerts Protection from Trimble Construction Manager is intended to minimize fines, downtime, and lost or damaged equipment by providing pre-determined criteria alerts regarding unauthorized, after-hours use of equipment, and featuring geofence alerts when equipment leaves a predetermined area.
The system also tracks fuel usage by relaying real-time and historical idle-time data from each piece of equipment, allowing fuel waste monitoring and providing key information for more accurate job bidding.
Leica Geosystems recently introduced iCON, a portfolio of tailor-made positioning and measuring solutions that, according to the company, changes the way construction tasks are performed onsite by offering a new technology that optimizes construction workflow efficiency.
Leica Geosystems Construction program, iCON includes: iCONstruct, a tailor-made hardware and software solution for positioning and measuring tasks on site; iCONtrol, which provides communication between construction personnel onsite and a comprehensive portfolio of machine-control solutions; iCONsult, an extensive support network with clear guidance on strategies to grow contractors’ businesses; and iCONnect, which connects the system to a network for fast, easy, and secure wireless data transfer.
Machine Data Is Power
When one can gather accurate information quickly, and analyze it easily on a user-friendly platform, there is the potential for significant time-savings, increased productivity, and an ability to cut labor and maintenance costs. Clearly, mining for machine data is a powerful strategy.
Author's Bio: Construction writer Carol Wasson is a frequent contributor to Forester publications.