Trucking companies and other fleet operators routinely use Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) systems to monitor trucks and other vehicles. Each vehicle included in a GPS fleet management program is equipped with a monitoring device which collects and transmits data to low-orbiting satellites which in turn send information back to a message center on earth. Equipment owners access secure information via the Internet. The system can provide periodic reports in a variety of formats, and a vehicle can be queried at any time for real-time status and location updates.

The fact that GPS technology is an efficient and cost-effective tool for managing fleets of vehicles is evidenced by its widespread use in the transportation industry.

But GPS benefits are equally effective for other applications, and the technology is perfectly suited for use by organizations involved in all types of construction, including electrical contractors. In addition to monitoring a company’s line trucks, service vehicles, vans and pickups, GPS systems can provide a wealth of information about other construction machines and non-mobile assets.

The evolution of GPS technology over the past five years has made it more efficient and reliable and enables monitoring programs to gather a wider range of information and make it more easily accessible.

“Early systems—and those available until very recently—were dependent on cellular technology to transmit or communicate text and voice data,” said Cliff Henley, CEO of Fleet Management Solutions, LLC. “Next-generation solutions do not rely on cellular networks at all but utilize modems that are provisioned on a satellite network. In addition to the cost advantages, pure satellite coverage and communications equates to 100 percent coverage throughout most of the world and all of the United States 100 percent of the time, regardless of the location or topography where assets are traveling or are located. Cellular solutions simply do not have this capability.”

“Today’s GPS systems offer increased memory capacity, improved communications and processing, and more inputs,” said Lawrence Carroll, vice president, research and development, FleetBoss Global Positioning Solutions Inc. “Software has been built from customer demand, ground up to meet common needs and provide solutions to real-world customer problems, not just theoretical engineering issues.”

For all their sophistication, GPS systems are surprisingly easy to use; service providers furnish monitoring equipment, GPS and satellite modems and software.

A client only needs an Internet connection and computer with sufficient memory to store values and asset information, said Henley.

“Customer data,” he continued, “is housed on secure Web servers. All information is stored and accessed via service provider’s operation center. Customers access fleet data via the Web using a unique ID and password.”

The amount of training a new customer needs depends on the amount of information that will be monitored and how it is to be used.

“Training will be as little or as much as needed to get the desired knowledge from information in the database developed by the GPS system,” said Carroll. “Some users are happy with the basic reports and graphs, others become ‘power users’ who develop very effective results from the tools at hand.”

Only a few years ago, GPS monitoring was considered most effective for large fleets, but today fleets of all sizes can implement this system to realize tangible results, said Carroll. Henley said his company serves clients with fleets from one to more than 10,000 units.

Monitoring vehicles

GPS monitoring begins with location.

That is accomplished with satellites transmitting radio signals to ground GPS devices and ground-based stations on earth. From this information, the longitude and latitude of a vehicle is calculated to an accuracy of a few feet at the exact time of the transmission. The location of a vehicle can be monitored at pre-set intervals or on demand at any time.

“GPS technology, combined with analysis and mapping software, provides a ‘bird’s eye view’ of activities of fleet vehicles, instant locations, and graphic annotation of key events,” explained Carroll.

In addition to location, information can include route tracking; direction of travel, speed, and speeding violations; variations from a planned route, driver stops; engine idle time; mileage between stops; mileage driven in individual states, and total mileage reports. A “geo” fence can be constructed around a vehicle with automatic alert if it leaves defined boundaries.

“Fleet management systems not only provide instant access to this data,” Carroll continues, “but also analysis tools to measure driver efficiency, review vehicle maintenance history, assess fuel usage, and instantly spot anomalies such as driver speeding, unauthorized vehicle usage, and vehicle stops that are inconsistent with business requirements.”

Adds Henley: “GPS programs with automated routing and dispatching features enable customers to more effectively locate and dispatch the right vehicle to customer locations. Routing information can be sent to drivers via onboard message display terminals. Because these are two-way messaging terminals, dispatch and drivers have real time communication, enhancing productivity and saving time and money.”

Monitoring equipment

GPS technology can be just as effective at monitoring construction equipment as it is tracking cross-country trucks, but it has not been widely accepted by providers of construction services—Henley estimates penetration at about 10 percent for both the general and electrical construction markets.

Monitoring construction equipment also begins with location, but variables for managing equipment are not the same as for vehicles.

“We have solutions specifically designed for construction equipment, and they also are 100 percent satellite,” said Henley. “They include monitoring engine hours; sensors for monitoring separate engines and motors; drum rotations; engine status and diagnostics; temperature alerts; fuel levels; pressure sensors; daily, weekly and monthly recap reports to include all asset activity and alerts; and automated maintenance scheduling.”

Knowing locations of equipment at all times improves managing logistics; alerts when a machine is taken outside predefined boundaries and assists in locating stolen equipment.

Records of precise hours of operation translate into more accurate billing. Properly used, equipment operating and diagnostic information certainly should make routine maintenance more efficient and breakdown alerts will enable faster repairs—benefits that can boost overall profitability. GPS helps quickly identify under- and overutilized equipment so you can redeploy machines for increased efficiency and productivity.

The bottom line

GPS service providers say the bottom line is that their systems make it possible to achieve significant reductions in downtime and improve overall equipment utilization, and that as operators of both vehicle and equipment fleets, electrical contractors are good prospects for GPS fleet management services.

Before a construction-oriented organization can evaluate costs and benefits of a fleet management program, it must decide what inventory should be monitored. All company operated trucks, or only some? Some GPS system users monitor construction equipment with replacement value above a defined dollar amount.

Those who previously ruled out GPS fleet management because of start-up costs should check again. Henley said that satellite hardware pricing has dropped by 60 percent in the past 12 months, and the monthly subscription, communication, hosting and air time costs are less than half what they were a year ago. Cost per unit varies with functions monitored and service provider.

Henley provided these estimates for Fleet Management Services programs:

To get started, the cost for hardware is between $800 and $1,100 per unit, depending on whether two-way messaging is included. Hardware can be purchased or acquired on monthly lease.

“Monthly subscription, hosting and access fees range from $15 to $40, depending on how often a customer wants reports from an asset,” he explained. “For example,a vehicle that is used daily for service and delivery may require reporting every 15 minutes 24 hours per day, seven days a week. In a 24-hour period, that is 96 reports sent via the satellite and will cost $40 per month.

“On the other hand, an aerial work platform may only require one report a day, and that would be $15 a month.”

To get maximum benefit from GPS service, variables to be monitored must be carefully selected and that information effectively managed and evaluated.

Carroll concluded: “Good use of this type of information can satisfy many objectives such as improved productivity (how much gets done), increased efficiency (getting more done with the same resources) and better profits by cutting unnecessary expenses. In the capsule view of management as ‘observing-analyzing-deciding-controlling,’ fleet management provides the means to observe, the tools to analyze, and—after management decides a course of action—a method to control.” EC

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