Using a satellite-based global positioning system (GPS) to track motor vehicles is nothing new. Trucking companies have been doing it for years. Many organizations, including electrical contractors, routinely use GPS technology to monitor planned travel routes, travel speeds, hours of use, stop reports, idle time and maintenance alerts.

Not so widely known is that a GPS also can be used to manage other assets, including con-struc-tion equipment, such as mobile lifts, loader-backhoes, trenchers, excavators and skid-steer loaders.

“Benefits of GPS are not limited to over-the-road vehicles,” said Cliff Henley, chief executive officer of Fleet Management Solutions Inc. (FMS).

For example, a machine can be equipped with sensors to monitor its primary power source and separate onboard engines and motors; fluid levels; oil and hydraulic fluid pressures; operating temperatures, including high-temperature alerts; and other functions. For equipment that remains on a job site over the course of a project, the system can immediately notify the owner if it leaves prescribed boundaries, a valuable theft-recovery tool.

For those who have not investigated the capabilities and costs of GPS units recently, there have been significant changes in technology over past the few years. Today, owners of construction equipment have several options to consider.

Daniel Lee, vice president, sales, for FleetBoss Global Positioning Solutions, cites four basic categories of systems:

• Live/active systems that are Internet- or software-based

• Passive systems without monitoring fees that can download to a supervisor’s laptop

• Hybrid systems that combine active and passive data into one database

• Self-powered GPS devices with 20- to 30-day battery lives that are capable of tracking indoors using both cellular general packet radio service (GPRS) and GPS technology.

Lee said FleetBoss offers a portfolio of products, including each of these GPS fleet management categories.

“Active systems use a cellular component transmitting on a GPRS and [global system for mobile communications] network,” Lee said. “The cellular components are self contained in the hardware. There is no cell phone.”

Henley said a typical FMS satellite-based system includes a GPS receiver, satellite modem, antenna and access to FMS FleetCentral.

“Our systems,” Henley said, “offer multiple analog and digital inputs/outputs for added features, such as in-cab, two-way text and e-mail messaging, display terminals or remote vehicle diagnostics. Data is transferred from the vehicle, machine or other asset through Orbcomm or Iridium satellites to an FMS Network Operation Center and from there to FMS FleetCentral where it is immediately available to clients who log on through a secure Internet connection to manage their fleets.

Properly used, Henley said, equipment operation and diagnostic information will make routine maintenance more efficient, and breakdown alerts will enable faster repairs—benefits that can boost overall profitability. The GPS helps identify under- and overused equipment, so it can be redeployed for improved efficiency and productivity. Records of precise hours of operation translate into more accurate billing.

Qualcomm Enterprise Services (QES) offers GPS equipment and subscription services for both vehicles and construction equipment.

“In general construction, the use of satellite monitoring is increasing greatly for several reasons,” said Bert Gillespie, QES director of sales. “OEMs of GPS products and services are stepping up their efforts to make the technology available at the time of purchase of a new machine as well as implementing value-added programs through their dealerships to make it an easier implementation process. Contractors are beginning to see the value for their businesses in the areas of asset protection, utilization and location.”

Gillespie said acceptance of the use of mobile asset management technology has not been as rapid as in other markets.

“However,” he said, “we believe that adoption in the electrical market will increase significantly in the coming years as businesses better understand the value of implementing mobile information systems in terms of increased productivity, reduced costs and improved customer service.”

Lee said construction organizations use GPS devices in a number of ways, including monitoring asset location, security and maintenance.

Although tracking machine locations are not comparable to tracking over-the-road vehicles, Lee said an organization can own hundreds of equipment pieces that may be scattered over numerous job sites.

“Often,” Lee said, “there is the need to locate a specific piece of equipment, either from an office or in the field, and that is a standard GPS benefit. Satellite mapping can pinpoint asset location within 100 meters. New to the industry is GPS hardware capable of tracking an asset inside a building or warehouse.”

Assets can be secured using the standard GPS “geofence” feature.

“An invisible border can be drawn around a job site, known as a geofence,” Lee said. “When the asset containing the traffic device leaves the geofence border, the asset can alert organization management via e-mail or cellular text message.”

GPS units can track and report important engine equipment operating functions and report them back to the office to monitor maintenance schedule requirements.

“Select GPS hardware devices are equipped with inputs and outputs capable of measuring ignition on/off, fluid flow rates, doors open/close, etc.,” he said. “Remote shutdown of any powered equipment can also occur using any computer with Internet access.”

Gillespie said Qualcomm’s services employ a mobile terminal with GPS hardware that mounts on vehicles or equipment. Usage and location information is retrieved from equipment and converted into actionable information. Data is accessed through an easy-to-use, Web-based application from any computer anytime or integrated into existing back-end business software systems. For trucks and vehicles, there is a dashboard display.

Qualcomm offers two systems for equipment. One is for large machines. The other is for smaller, less expensive equipment in a mixed fleet.

“Maintenance profiles allow customers to specify the intervals at which equipment is due for specified types of maintenance,” Gillespie said. “Multiple maintenance profiles allow customers to specify a service interval, and add different types of service to be performed at different multiples of that interval.”

So, what does it cost to initiate and operate a GPS?

Costs, said Lee, vary with the type of system and vehicle hardware, installation and number of inputs/outputs, and whether installation is hired or done with organization personnel, power source used, memory capacity of equipment and monitoring requirements.

“For a professional, Internet-based system, costs range from $400 to over $1,000 per asset for hardware,” Lee said. “The range in price is attributed to device type (self-contained battery versus power by vehicle) and features (data collection, data transfer, data interpretation). The only other startup cost could include an optional environmental container to host the hardware.”

Lee provided two examples of operational costs:

• Monitoring inputs and alerts that report every two minutes from devices powered by the asset would cost $1,700 per month.

• For 50 pieces of equipment with devices also powered from the unit to report location and monitor secured geofences with outdoor-indoor monitoring would cost $60 per month per asset or $3,000 per month.

The bottom line

Lee asked, “Would you pay $35 to $60 per month to secure an asset worth $25,000? Or $60,000? Or much more?”

Qualcomm has a solution and price point for any size fleet, Gillespie said.

Henley advised those who previously ruled out fleet management because of startup costs to evaluate today’s systems, which employ new technology.

“Satellite hardware pricing has dropped by as much as 50 percent over the past two years, as have monthly subscription, communication, hosting and satellite air time costs. Those reduced costs have improved what was already a very attractive return on investment for customers,” Henley said.

Manufacturers and marketers of GPS asset management systems emphasize that their products apply to small- and medium-sized companies as well as large corporations and government agencies that own and operate equipment. Henley said FMS has clients ranging in size from a few to thousands of assets.

No matter how big or small a fleet size, before construction equipment owners can evaluate costs and benefits of a fleet management program, they must consider important factors such as whether to monitor their entire fleet inventory or just a portion of it. In addition, they must decide what categories of equipment will be monitored. Some GPS users restrict monitoring to construction equipment with replacement values higher than a defined dollar amount.

With several brands of GPS with various options available, careful evaluation is necessary to determine which one best fits an organization’s needs.

Qualcomm’s Gillespie suggested considerations that should be addressed before making a decision include how the system will benefit an organization’s operation and productivity, how simple the system is to operate and how much training will be required, what mapping software is used by the system, capabilities for downloading reports, warranty coverage, and service options.

A good approach is to narrow choices down to those that appear to best fit an organization’s need and budget. Then request a demonstration and proposal from each.

GRIFFIN, a construction and tools writer from Oklahoma City, can be reached at 405.748.5256 or up-front@cox.net.