Satellites, Software Render Iron Service Data in Minutes

Thu November 04, 2004 - National Edition
Pete Sigmund

A quiet revolution is taking place in equipment management.

Advanced satellite-aided computer maintenance systems can now monitor entire fleets — picking out which units need servicing — and even compare the productivity of different operators. This allows equipment managers at contractor or dealer headquarters to run operations more cost effectively, saving thousands of dollars.

The sky is literally the limit. Utilizing wireless communications technology, such as cellular or satellite networks, and on-board computers, these systems can provide a wealth of information via new Web-based software tools. A person can access almost everything he or she needs to know in 10 to 15 minutes, sometimes as little as five minutes.

Initial Versions

Initial versions of satellite-aided systems have shown contractors and dealers the exact location of each unit, how much fuel it has used, and, via fault codes, whether it is experiencing any problems.

Product Link, for instance, a technology developed by Caterpillar Inc., Peoria, IL, shows equipment location, fuel usage and performance faults or warnings, often allowing potential problems to be addressed before they would occur. This system collects and reports data, like faults codes and hours of usage, on each unit, and enables equipment managers to monitor operations and equipment usage from afar.

Advanced Software

The newest software now provides much more information. A new on-line Web application, called EquipmentManager, which Caterpillar introduced this April, analyzes and prioritizes the data to help management make more informed decisions for their entire fleets. Based on fuel consumption, customers can figure out, for instance, whether the right machine is being used on the job.

David Solakian, technical services manager of Yancey Bros. Co., a Caterpillar dealer in suburban (Austell) Atlanta, GA, which has total responsibility for all equipment on the huge earthmoving project for the $1.2-billion fifth runway at the city’s Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (believed the largest earthmoving project in North America) said:

“EquipmentManager now takes a large number of machines and prioritizes the information. It tells us, in red, yellow, green format — it’s called Management by Exception — which ones need immediate attention, which need monitoring, and which are doing just fine. You can eliminate giving attention to 70 or 80 percent of your fleet on any given day and go right to the red ones that need action. This allows you to manage a lot of machines, belonging to all different customers, from one point.

“You know exactly where to focus your attention. When a preventive maintenance gets to within 40 hours of being due, the panel light changes from green to yellow. If it’s past due, it moves from yellow to red. Fault codes are prioritized. They might be green for something as minor as low voltage or red for something like loss of oil pressure. Instead of querying each machine, we can check the entire fleet.

“We can also upload the history of each machine, showing each repair, refuel or other operation affecting maintenance. This is a true equipment management system rather than a reporting system showing facts in a very plain format.”

Phenomenal Future

How might such universal systems develop in the future?

“I don’t think they can go anywhere but up,” Solakian said. “The vision for these systems throughout the construction industry goes way beyond managing equipment. The vision is total job site and project management. You will not only be able to know about your equipment. You’ll know how close the concrete is to being delivered, what percentage of completion your job is, which loader needs maintenance, what’s overdue this morning. You’ll also know that Joe was late this morning and that Harry is 32 percent more productive than Joe. The amount of information they will pull in over the next years will be phenomenal.

“I don’t see how this technology can not benefit everybody. It’s good for both contractors and dealers, both of whom can access all the information.

“There are different buy-in levels: first, location of equipment, next fault codes as well, and then maintenance watch, including maintenance scheduling. Eventually, there will be productivity watch with which we’ll start getting number of cycles, tons per cycle, who was in the driver’s seat and that kind of thing.”

Fast Diagnosis

Each contractor or dealer employs the technology as appropriate for the business.

Bill Kretschmer, vice president of sales of Binder Machinery Co., a Komatsu dealer in South Plainfield and Voorhees, NJ, said field use of on-board computers is a great boon.

“One, you can log in your maintenance interval, whether it’s 250 hours or 500 hours, on a computer. Some of the manufacturers are now extending engine-oil changes to 500 hours, but there are other companies who do not wish to do that. Contractors can plug in the hours, and when the hours come up, an alarm goes off in the cab. This means it’s time to service your machine. Time to Service comes flashing on the monitor panel, showing that you need an oil change. It’s like getting a signal when you’re driving your car and your seatbelt is off.

“Two, computers in the machine also troubleshoot out in the field. They publish an error code. You can diagnose your machine from the field by checking this code in the service manual. An operator can call us with the code, which tells us that the swing solenoid valve, for instance, has failed. Our mechanic can then bring the valve to the site and make the repair. This saves a troubleshooting step. Previously, an operator might notice that the machine wasn’t functioning properly and he would say, ’You know, boss, the swing’s slow.’ The boss would call us and we would have to go out, find the problem, return to our shop for the part, and then go out again to the job. Meanwhile, an excavator that is worth $500 an hour is just sitting there while people just stand around.”

Big Boon for Large Fleets

Mike Phillips, vice president of customer support of McAllister Equipment Co., Chicago, IL, commented:

“The benefit of this satellite technology is that you know the location of the machine and the exact hours you have put on it so you can respond and keep the maintenance right up to the present. This, of course, extends the life of the machine. You also know how the machine is operating.

“The real advantage of this technology is for your really large customers with large fleets who do projects across the country. It’s a direct link so you know exactly what’s happening instead of relying on what people tell you. It’s peace of mind. If a guy is working a big project and he’s up against the wall and must keep the machines going to finish the project by the deadline, he might otherwise overlook a service here or there. This applies both to contractors and dealers whose machines might migrate across the country. Hand-written records are just not good enough these days.”

Commenting on future applications, Phillips said:

“This technology is a necessary trend. Manufacturers are extending the life of the standard 250-hour service to as far as 500 hours. If you exceed that, it’s not good; you are breaking down the filtration process as well as the oil itself. I think we will see more and more of this technology. I’m sure the process will be simplified and get cheaper like everything else in the technology world. I’m sure we’ll continue to take advantage of it in the future.”


Computers and software for satellite communications are available on many new pieces of equipment and can be installed aftermarket on any machine.

The software can tap into the datalink if the equipment has on-board computers (equipment dating from the late 1990s onward), reporting back information from these computers. The newer the equipment, the more information you can usually get. Installing new hardware to access all these features can cost up to $2,500 but less expensive units, providing only location and hours, are available for equipment, which previously had no on-board computers.

There’s also a monthly access fee per piece. This fee varies depending on how much, and what type, of information you are obtaining.

Awaiting the Right Time

Some executives said their bottom lines in the current economy dictate that they wait before utilizing satellite-aided equipment management.

“They are an addition to the cost of equipment which we haven’t gotten into yet,” said Mike Waller, vice president of operations of Plote Construction Inc., a general contractor in Elgin, IL. “We haven’t bought into the expense of tracking them automatically, though this is coming in the future.

“Most construction equipment will last five to seven years with good maintenance. If you have 700 pieces, you’re looking at a seven-year period to transfer 100 pieces a year, rotating [replacing] your entire fleet to new equipment every seven years. Once we replace 50 percent with equipment including new computer chips to use this new maintenance technology, then we would consider the technology. It will take three years before we would be even close to having this 50 percent. Even then, we would have 50 percent, which we would still have to maintain the old way.

“It’s a commitment on the company to purchase all this high-tech maintenance software with the piece considering that it will be two or three years before you are ever going to set up and use it. Right now, with the economy, things aren’t all that rosy, so even if you continue your normal swap-out of 75 to 100 pieces per year, you’re not going to spend the extra money on a maintenance program that you really won’t utilize for three to five years.”

Waller added, however, “In a couple more years, when the economy has turned around, there will be reason to do it. Anything that is computerized and taken out of physical hands is a great advantage, but it’s a pretty big investment until the economy allows us to see a positive flow again.”

Waller said Plote is using computer programs for general maintenance of machines coming into the shop, rather than taking the next step of receiving data from the field.

“All engines are electronically run by computer chips so we tap into them for regular maintenance in the shop to see where we’re at,” he explained. “When a machine comes in, the computer can analyze it and give you a printout. Manufacturers also have their own maintenance software that tracks costs pretty well based on factors like hours and mileage. This has meant upgrading mechanics and purchasing new software for reading the engines when they come in.”

Some contractors, on the other hand, don’t employ much of the new technology.

Jeff Dykema, equipment manager, of Dykema Excavators Inc., Grand Rapids, MI, said: “We don’t really do too much with on-board electronics, to be honest with you. We still do it the old manual way. We get hours every night on all our off-road equipment from our field trucks, which receive the information from operators and field people at our sites. Then we manually enter the hours for each machine into the computer to generate our service intervals and all our field costs. We probably have 150 pieces, including 25 excavators, in the field.”

How It Works

In systems now being widely utilized, an equipment manager sends a radio command, via a wireless communications network, to a piece of equipment, requesting location, a possible fault, quantity of fuel or other information.

Some operational systems automatically broadcast the information to users, via the manufacturer, every six hours. Within this interval, if an operator calls about a problem showing as a red light on his dashboard, the manager can transmit a command asking for fault codes indicating specific situations.

Each machine has an on-board electronics module, which includes a wireless communications transceiver and a GPS receiver. The communications transceiver collects data from the machine’s computer systems and combines that data with location information from the GPS receiver.

The combined data is then transmitted (either via cellular or satellite networks) to a centralized database, which an equipment manager can then access via an Internet connection and any Web browser.

Tracking From the Cradle to the Grave

Every piece of equipment on the huge earthmoving project for the planned fifth runway at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in Atlanta, GA — believed the largest earthmoving project in North America — has been monitored by satellite.

Using a conveyor belt and off-highway trucks, the project, nearing completion after 30 months — six months ahead of schedule — has moved more than 27 million cu. yds. (20. 6 million cu m) of earth over 5 mi., raising the ground level for the 9,000-ft. (2,743 m) runway as much as 110 ft. (33.5 m) — the height of an 11-story building. The job has used 83 pieces of equipment, including motorgraders, bulldozers, trucks, truck loaders and dirt compactors.

The runway and its related projects, including the earthmoving, will cost approximately $1.2 billion as part of a $5.4-billion airport expansion.

“We have perfect cradle-to-grave records from the moment each machine was put into service until it was taken out of service,” said David Solakian, technical services manager of Yancey Bros. Co. in Atlanta, the Caterpillar dealer that is responsible for all equipment under a Total Maintenance & Repair (TM&R) contract.

Each unit of equipment automatically transmits information on location (within 50 ft.), faults, and hours of usage every six hours, via the Global Positioning System (GPS) to Caterpillar Inc., headquartered in Peoria, IL, which transmits it to Yancey. The entire round trip takes about 10 minutes.

Yancey also can directly access each piece for this information at any time.

“We know where the units were, how many hours they were used, the daily usage, and the error codes,” Solakian said. “This allows us to respond not just to failures, but in some cases before failure. We receive not only faults, like a servo failure or a wire breaking, but also performance problems like overheating, overspeeding or transmission abuse. This allows us to address problems, possibly earlier than an operator might report them. Most equipment is running 7,000 hours to 10,000 hours, with a 98 percent uptime as a result of good equipment management.”

The runway will cross above Interstate 285, the loop around Atlanta, which will go under the apron’s 1,200-ft. (366 m) bridge with a planned 18 lanes. This is believed the first takeoff-and-landing runway to cross an interstate. The contractor on the project is the 5R (Fifth Runway) Constructors LLC joint venture in Atlanta.

Yancey Bros. employs Caterpillar’s on-board Product Link hardware and new EquipmentManager reporting software on approximately 800 machines at the airport and other sites, offering the same service to other customers.

Yancey was one of the first users of the EquipmentManager software, rolling it out during Yancey’s 90th anniversary celebration in April, just after Caterpillar introduced it.

After the earthmoving is completed, the final concrete runway, including the bridge over the interstate, will be built.