A complete guide to Machine Telematics (and how we use them at iSeekplant)

Machine telematics 1

Telematics is a very broad term describing any device that combines telecommunications and informatics - but as it relates to the construction and earthmoving industries - telematics refers to the data that construction machines and equipment omit regarding the state of the machine during utilisation or after. Nowadays - telematics also encompasses the use of GPS data to identify not only the machine’s current state, but also its current and precise location.

Telematics has become a very hot topic in the construction industry, particularly because of the power of telematics to transform machine and asset productivity for their owners and end users, and because telematics data can ensure the machine is properly serviced and maintained. Telematics devices can be built into the computer and engine of the machine at the factory by the OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) - these are hereby referred to as ‘onboard telematics’ or sometimes ‘factory fitted telematics’. Otherwise - you can affix a modern telematics device to almost any machine or vehicle after it leaves the factory, which we refer to below as ‘after-market telematics’ devices. We explain the merits and uses of both types of telematics devices, and how iSeekplant will revolutionise the plant and equipment market by using that data to find our customers more work.

History of Telematics in Construction Equipment - The Greatest Machine Sales Strategy of All Time

Telematics has been around in the earthmoving and plant and equipment space for over 20 years. OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) like Caterpillar and Komatsu invented telematics and fitted the early rudimentary devices to machines during the manufacturing process for a couple of very important, and entirely self-beneficial reasons. OEMs across the world knew that they could make more money from the customers they sold machines to, by knowing precisely when those machines needed to be serviced, or if they needed filters or oil changes, or if something on or in the machine had broken down and needed replacing.

OEMs like Caterpillar and Komatsu originally built onboard telematics devices that would essentially ‘ping’ the mothership when that machine was in an error state, or if it had a working issue that was reporting to the machine dashboard so that the dealer could proactively contact the machine owner to organise service or parts. So, quite apart from a benevolent improvement to machine technology for innovation’s sake - this was originally quite a smart and slightly creepy sales strategy on the part of the OEMs and ultimately the dealers that would benefit from enhanced sales and parts revenue if they could proactively inspire customers to better service and maintain their machines after purchasing them. As most machinery dealers make the most margin off parts and service offerings, this was an ingenious way to maximise the parts and service return of any machine they sold ongoing and forever. But like all good technological advancements in history, people built on this original concept to develop telematics devices that would become more useful for a plethora of reasons.

What is telematics data used for now?

Over time, as the OEMs collected more and more data about machines, they began to realise that this data, particularly when analyzed in real-time - had many more applications than the simple timing of parts and service requirements. They knew that by packaging this data up in a way that was visible to the owner of the machine through a useful set of management reports, with complete and real-time reads on the productivity of that machine and all its operational features, including how it was being operated, how many hours it worked in a day and at what productivity levels, that live data could be used to manage a hire fleet, or better manage productivity of a fleet in disparate locations. Seeing another sales opportunity, OEMs invested in building fleet management software solutions over the top of the telematics data, triangulating the information of many machines registered to the one customer and providing them with a portal where they can access, read and analyze that data in real-time (and consequently make powerful business decisions with it).

Software services such as Caterpillar’s ‘Visionlink’ or Komatsu’s ‘Komtrax’ could be sold to the customer on a subscription basis, and could help a customer with a large fleet manage utilisation and ongoing engine status of hundreds of machines in the field at once, and in real-time, and help them identify and fix the machine operational issues with speed. Not only would this help each machine owner get more capacity and productivity out of the machine in a work day - but they could also closely monitor the actions of the person operating it, and correct any issues in real-time before the machine is damaged or the client takes issue with it.

Once the larger plant hire customers embraced this technology as a way to seamlessly and proactively manage their large machine hire fleets and operators, owners and project managers of major infrastructure projects started to understand the benefits of being able to connect the high-level telematics data of all the machines on their sites together and manage hundreds of machines, across the fleets of different suppliers all at once. Some of the largest construction sites in Australia with hundreds of construction machines working on them are now managed through centralised telematics software platforms. Suppliers to major ‘connected sites’ are required to provide their telematics feeds to a central project source, commonly Caterpillar’s Visionlink, Position Partner’s Tokara or Komatsu’s Komtrax, so the machines can all be maximised and managed through one central software platform connecting the whole site, and reporting real-time productivity data back to the central project management team.

What this gives the project manager of a major infrastructure or mining project is an unbelievable amount of accurate oversight on the performance and productivity of all machines on their sites - producing instant hire hours reporting, notifications to the control room when there is a breakdown, and notifications to the machine owner if there is an operational fault. In this way, telematics technology has provided unbelievable productivity and efficiency gains to complex construction and earthmoving tasks that require the coordination of many machines and operators, preventing problems before they happen and ensuring the job is using all of its machines to maximum efficient capacity through the course of a working day.

How does Onboard Telematics work?

Onboard vehicle telematics or factory fitted telematics uses a GPS or GNSS receiver and an electronic device (usually comprising a GPRS modem or SMS sender) installed in each machine within the computer’s onboard operating controls, that is constantly communicating with a central server and then ultimately a PC-based or web-based software program. The data is turned into management reporting tools and mapping software so that the OEM, and then ultimately the end-customer can use that data in the management of their machine, hire fleet or business generally.

Vehicle tracking systems and telematics may also use odometry information, operational hours, data from the onboard machine computers and information that is coming from the steering and controls of the machine, to consolidate and send all that data back to the central server for interpretation. Telematics systems have evolved to be able to provide real-time information about the height of a blade on a grader at operation, for example, or the productivity and torque of a fixture to the machine (like an auger or bucket). Essentially - all the data that is displayed through the controls of the machine and all of its current state data, such as the engine revs, speed, gears and even use of lights and safety features can be and will be passed through telematics devices that are now standard in the manufacture of most machines on iSeekplant.

Machine telematics 2

Accessing Onboard Machine Telematics Data

That data being obtained by the onboard device is being tabulated and transmitted back to the central server in real-time and is then published through software for use by the dealer and OEM, and is available for use by the customer if they subscribe to the management software services allowing them to access the reporting tools. Owners of machines cannot access their telematics data without subscription to a management software program provided by the OEM or the after-market telematics device provider - which is why a big portion of the plant hire industry won’t ever access their machine’s telematics, nor will they have a use for the productivity and current state data being transmitted by their machine. If you are operating your own machine, you are getting information about that machine from the control panel and you don’t need a spreadsheet or software subscription to tell you the same thing. Telematics software and reporting tools are most useful for companies with more than one asset, where they need to know the current state of multiple machines.

Onboard telematics tends to provider richer productivity and current state information than most after-market devices, but onboard telematics devices are not common to every different type of construction machine - they are mostly standard to yellow machines and earthmoving machines only.

Below we discuss the myriad of reasons why the owner of a particular asset would want to know precisely how their machine is being operated, for how long and how productively. We also discuss how they can react and fix problems in their business and service offering, in real-time, that can save them time and money across the short and long term.

What is an After-Market Telematics Device?

The telematics industry is quickly fragmenting as a number of suppliers come to market here and overseas with cost-effective devices that can be affixed to any and all machines and vehicles with ease. These after-market companies provide devices of varying size and intelligence (but almost all of them work on GPS technology), that can be affixed on the side of the cabin of a machine or wired through the major controls of the vehicle including utes, generators, air compressors or graders (just to name a few) or simply integrated into the onboard computer system of a yellow machine or specialist vehicle.

The devices send data back to a centralised software platform, designed by and proprietary to the after-market telematics supplier, that interprets and serves up that data to the owner of the assets. Most of these platforms have APIs to all the major OEM’s platforms and other onboard telematics providers - so that you can integrate data from the after-market devices, along with data coming from onboard machines or even competitors after-market devices. Most of these suppliers compete on the basis that their devices are the best and most affordable, and their software is most useful and most well-connected.

The pitch of these after-market guys is about centralising and streamlining all your telematics data into one central fleet management tool, regardless of make, model and age. Also - there is a range of machines like utes, generators, small plant and other small assets that just don’t have onboard telematics - but conceivably have the same management and productivity issues as yellow machines. The best after-market platform that we have found is The Fleet Office, which in our opinion, is far better than some of larger players like Navman and TomTom due to their ability to fully customise their offering to suit civil construction and mining applications. So, with a quality after-market telematics product, you can affix the same device to everything you own, and track everything through the same central portal. 

How does iSeekplant use Machine Telematics Data?

Telematics has evolved over-time as innovative people in the construction and mining industries have found more and more useful applications for the data telematics devices produce. At iSeekplant - we started to become very interested in telematics because of the power of the devices to give us a true location and utilisation status of a machine. Knowing precisely where a machine is, and whether or not it’s available for hire right now, would make our search results infinitely more useful for the user and help our customers in a myriad of ways. This is because telematics helps us go some way to solving the incredibly complex riddle of defining any unique plant hire company’s fleet availability and work radius.

Machine Telematics

The Go-Line: Power of telematics data to increase fleet utilisation.

So we have a big dream - and that dream is to use telematics data in the future not to sell our customers more parts and service for their gear (like the cheeky OEMs) - but to indeed find them more work for their machine so there overall fleet utilisation is higher. We believe that telematics data, and real-time asset availability and location information will be able to be utilised on iSeekplant to better identify machines and assets that aren’t currently being fully utilised and deploy them to jobs nearby. There are so many benefits for our customers for being able to do this, not least including:
  • Reduction in costs of machine float, mobilisation and demobilisation
  • Reduction in cost of maintaining and servicing machines at the depot, and shipping back out to jobs in the field
  • Being able to expand a company’s work radius online to a much larger footprint which is a better, and truer representation of their area of service
  • To help customers to expand their business without the need to rent a depot in a new city or work area - to obtain work for their machines in new areas without being physically located there at an address.
  • To assist users in finding the most proximate unutilised machine, and reduce hiring costs in mobilisation and overall hire rate (because the supplier is keen to rent the machine to a site nearby)

The Complexity of Defining a Plant Hire Company’s Work Radius and Machine Availability

The search algorithm - developed by iSeekplant and The Fleet Office - on our platform works by cataloguing the plant hire company’s fleet and, geographically, assigning them a work radius around their current head office and depot, or likewise multiple depots if it has them. But as you can appreciate - this is an imprecise science and is not a perfect view on exactly what machines or services the company provides, or where they provide them. Just because a company has a single machine, say a backhoe, and their head office where they do their accounts and fuel their trucks, is say, based in Sydney, then you can naturally and fairly safely assume that they offer backhoe hire services in Sydney. But, in actual fact - the owner of that backhoe got a job on the Central Coast a little while back and has been commuting up there to drive his machine every day for the last 4 months. The backhoe has been parked on a site on the Central Coast every night for several months, where the owner turns up every morning at 6 am to fire it up and operate it.

So, in the example above is it then true to say that the customer’s work radius with his backhoe is just Sydney? Or does he offer backhoe hire in the central coast? Or both? Or is it only true to say that the customer’s work radius is a circle around where his machine is - which would legitimately extend his backhoe services to Newcastle? Now think more about the utilisation state of a machine. Is it true to say that a machine is available for hire is it's currently switched off? It might have just been stood down for the day and is on long-term hire. Conversely, is it true to say that a machine is not available for hire because it's currently being utilised? It’s hire contract might end tomorrow, making it subsequently available for hire virtually immediately.

Before your head officially explodes with all the possibilities - essentially all of those assumptions are true at the same time - we think that knowing the true location and utilisation will help solve a piece of the puzzle, but not the whole puzzle. If our search results could show a combination of suppliers with machines in their fleets and depots nearby AS WELL AS machines in the field that have been unutilised for a short-term recently, then the user could choose to hire an unutilised machine off a job site nearby, or out of someone’s yard nearby - and in either way find the closest, proximate unutilised machine to meet their needs.

So, iSeekplant and The Fleet Office invented the ‘Go-Line’ which is a beta technology (the first of its kind in the world) that allows iSeekplant to see the real location and utilisation status of thousands of machines by drawing on their onboard and after-markets telematics data, and use that information as part of our search algorithm to show our users (people who are searching to hire plant and equipment) a combination of machines that are under-utilised and parked in their local area, as well as companies with depots and fleets in the local area.

Go-Line Partners

We launched the Go-Line a couple of years ago and it's truly the first piece of technology that was built by iSeekplant and The Fleet Office that our customers pulled into the market. We started accessing customer’s telematics data, and slowly more and more customers asked to supply their data to the program. We then built more and more data reading technology to different onboard and after-market telematics companies and could see more and more assets, to the point now where thousands of assets are giving iSeekplant’s search algorithm a daily update on their true location and utilisation status. Our customers on the Go-line have reported between 26% - 86% increase in leads sent through our system to their business, all on the basis that they were sharing their machine’s real-time availability data with us. We promote customers who are on the ‘Go-Line’ at the top of the search results as the most modern and agile supplier on any page of search results. We think customers who use telematics to manage their business and subsequently supply that data to us are the best suppliers you can bet on for quality service.

New call-to-action

Subscribe to receive news on projects as it happens

Get the latest updates in Major Projects and Industry News straight to your inbox