Big machines, big data: What telematics means for Mideast construction

Manufacturers debate the trend of using more and more information

PHOTO: Effective use of telematics can improve the total fleet management strategy by providing aggregate data for the entire vehicle fleet. Credit:

In our modern world, the idea of transferring information via telecommunication devices may not seem so groundbreaking. However, the application of such technology to the construction sector is having a transformative impact both in the Middle East and worldwide.

The application of telematics in construction machinery is growing exponentially. The technology of gathering information relating to remote objects – such as a fleet of vehicles – is allowing contractors to monitor a significant number of specific and targeted aspects of their work.

Volvo Construction Equipment has decided to implement telematics as standard on all their general-purpose equipment, including excavators, free loaders and articulated haulers, in all the major markets in the Middle East. This means their machines are installed with the hardware direct from the factory. The only thing the customer needs to do is switch it on, says Marnix Reedijk, product manager for telematics at Volvo CE in the Europe, Middle East and Africa sales region.

The decision to make a proactive adoption of telematic technology was easy, he says, and the advantages in terms of increased efficiency were clear from day one.

“While all the machines are working somewhere in a quarry or a pit, you are in your office. As a decision-maker, you can easily follow all the machines. So if you can see the productivity – work hours, idle times etc – you don’t have to be out there, you can follow everything and identify key points in your fleet directly from the office and make decisions based on actual data.”

Reedijk highlights a specific example in this region whereby telematic technology on board Volvo machinery played a vital role in preventing large-scale complications for a customer. In this case, the user had connected one of his wheel loaders to his mobile phone in order to receive live telematic updates.

“An error code came to his phone and it was one of his loaders equipped with Cab Track. The indicators said that fuel was contaminated, so he went to the job-site where the machine was working to investigate the problem and he found out that in his fuel tank on the site – and it was a big site with a number of machines working, both Volvo and others – there was water mixed into the fuel.”

If you have a little knowledge of machinery, you’ll know that when water contaminates the fuel system, it can cause havoc for a lot of internal machinery components.

Reedijk continues: “It is thanks to this alarm – just one single alarm – he managed to stop all the vehicles and change his fuel tank to remove the water.”

Because of this signal transmitted from a telematics system on a Volvo machine, the fuel system from that machine was spared damage, as were other vehicles working on that site.

“One can only imagine the kind of downtime, production loss and repair costs that were avoided just from that one single alarm. I think it’s an example of where we are today with telematics, and how much value it has for a customer.”

The overarching benefit to the industry of telematic technology is the capability it provides to be proactive, says Isidro Arosemena, manager of Equipment Management Solutions for the Middle East, Africa and Europe at Caterpillar. “Telematics can finally make that jump from being reactive to proactive. That is really why it helps – it is the key aspect of telematics. It really allows you to move from the reactive approach that we have seen in the past in the industry.”

Becoming proactive is not only limited to isolated incidents. Telematic technology also has the capability to reinforce total fleet management strategies by providing aggregated data across a full fleet of vehicles. The resulting information provides owners with up-to-the-minute knowledge of entire fleet activities in one centralised interface. This accumulated information can be used to help senior management develop fleet strategy in numerous ways, including increasing productivity, reducing labour costs, controlling fuel costs, improving customer service, and increasing fleet safety and security, and all the while reducing operating expenses.

Speaking of fleet management, Per Andersson, aftermarket director at Volvo Construction Equipment AB, comments: “When it comes to product planning, customers with a big number of machines can remotely monitor every machine on-site and see if there is a lack of production in a certain area. If he needs to reinforce more machines going there to increase the loading speed, he can. He can monitor how many machines are idling, what kind of times they have, and he can move machines around, and if you look at the cost efficiency for that, you can optimise it. This is hugely appreciated by some of the big customers here.”

The growth of telematics is not without its challenges. Encouraging customers to adopt it is a test, according to Arosemena. “Telematics is still a bit strange to them, like what exactly does it mean and what it can do for them.”

Fortunately, Caterpillar offers telematics as standard on all global construction and infrastructure machines, which put the technology in front of customers so they can experiment and start using the information to really help them in their business operations.

As well as original equipment manufacturer (OEM)-supplied telematics systems, there are also third-party suppliers offering competing products. While these are technically competitors, they are viewed as having an important role to play in the market.

“There are still a lot of machines out there in the field that are not connected − perhaps at the time they were purchased, it was not standard. In those cases, yes, there are third-party suppliers competing with all of us, with all the OEMs,” comments Arosemena.

This third-party competition is currently fragmented, with no single supplier yet standing out as a clear market leader. Arosemena predicts that this will change in time, but not yet.

Frequently, customers opt to purchase from a third-party supplier because they have a large mixed fleet. The issue with this, Reedijk explains, is that there is a risk of losing the partnership with the OEM dealer and all the benefits that come with that. This relates to the expert knowledge OEMs have of their machines, in addition to trained technicians who are skilled in handling those machines, both mechanically and out in the field.

Samir I. Abdul Hadi, CEO of Sam Tech Middle East, a provider of third-party GPS vehicle tracking solutions, points to growing demand in the region for third-party telematics devices. Demand in the construction sector began with fleet management, as customers needed to know their fuel usage, vehicle temperature, door control and speed control across entire fleets, and from there it grew to different applications.

Samir is optimistic about future demand too. “I would say for the UAE and Dubai, in particular, it’s going to be booming. I believe that [third-party] telematics and technology will play a big role in the coming 12 months and for many years to come.”

To bridge the gap between OEM telematics and those provided by third-party manufacturers, there are two main options available for contractors operating a mixed fleet. The first is to visit multiple websites to manually retrieve data from each manufacturer’s telematics interface before manually entering it into their fleet management programme’s database. This is labour-intensive and time-consuming, as it lacks automation. The more efficient but more expensive option entails using an API (Application Programming Interface) to automatically integrate the data from each telematics provider into one centralised database.

Ultimately, with more and more customers asking for total fleet solutions, the industry is going to have to respond to demand. Customers want peace of mind – they want a one-stop-shop – and telematics will have to evolve to meet that need, explains Arosemena.

Whether OEM or third-party, telematics in fleet management is certainly bringing noticeable benefits to the construction sector. With greater adoption levels and advances in research and development, specific telematics applications will infiltrate more areas of fleet management, offering solutions to a greater number of challenges.

From a manufacturer and dealer standpoint, managing all the aggregated data in a more sophisticated way and allowing increased analysis will make the technology more user-friendly. The amount of information that telematics is currently producing is astronomical. Identifying ways to process this information and translate it into practical outcomes is therefore essential if telematics is to continue helping customers take their businesses to higher levels.

Telematics prompts uni courses

The popularity of telematics has led to several universities, including the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), the University of Twente (UT) in the Netherlands and the University Carlos III of Madrid (UC3M) providing two-year Telematics Master of Science programmes, in addition to PhD Telematics Engineering programmes.

Higher education in telematics offers students advanced skills in the telematic engineering field. This includes a range of theoretical and practical grounding in applications, networks and communication services, protocol architectures, multimedia management, broadband networks, mobile communications, ubiquitous computing and internet technologies. It also provides the student with knowledge of state-of-the-art technologies, prone to be deployed in the near future.

The objective of the Master degree programmes is to educate researchers capable of making original contributions to the development of telematics technologies, many of which will be central to the future of the construction machinery industry. Graduates of the telematics programmes will find careers in numerous sectors of industry and the academic world, including management, design and research and development, according to university admission departments. In our technologically advanced society, commercial and governmental organisations are in constant need of people with a solid networking background at graduate level, and this need will only grow as technology forges ahead.

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