Watch and learn: using telematics to track and trace equipment on site

Automated remote monitoring of machines via telematics can unlock valuable insights, although collating transmitted data can bring its own hurdles, as Keith Cooper reports

Telematics technology looks like a great tool for construction firms. It allows data from machines – from vans and trucks to excavators and loaders – to be beamed to managers, keeping them abreast of usage and condition. It can warn of operators not wearing seatbelts or flouting other safety rules, and spot when engines are sat idle for too long, spewing out pollution and racking up unnecessary fuel costs. And it might even help to track down plant that has gone missing, feared stolen.

The ability to transmit, collate and crunch data from on-site machines, and to glean helpful insights, has been around for years now but remains a fast-evolving area of innovation. It is not a tool without complications and frustrations, however. A single major project might involve hundreds of machines, from multiple manufacturers, hire firms and subcontractors, each with their own individual data feeds, access rights and displays. Keeping on top of it all might seem more of a headache than a help.

So how is telematics being used by construction firms? What are its current limitations and what possibilities will it unlock in the future?

James Veitch, Balfour Beatty

One firm that has fully embraced the technology is Balfour Beatty. “As a construction manager, I need to understand what kit I’ve got, how it is being used, where it is and how that relates to the activities I’ve got planned,” says the contractor’s director of data and digital technology, James Veitch. “The plant I have in operation can be mine, something I’ve hired in, or that a subcontractor has brought in themselves, but they’re all on my project and I have to understand how it is all operating.”

Telematics was used widely on the M4 smart motorway upgrade that Balfour Beatty led. It was rolled out to keep track of costs, but was found to deliver unforeseen benefits. “We were able to identify where people were letting the engines idle for too long,” Veitch says. “We saved something like 150,000 litres of fuel over the life of that project, which is about 400 tonnes of CO2.”

“As a construction manager, I need to understand what kit I’ve got, how it is being used, where it is and how that relates to the activities I’ve got planned”

James Veitch, Balfour Beatty

Balfour Beatty is now examining how telematics might improve haulage and logistics by tracking delivery vehicles, the routes they take and their arrival times. “Everyone wants to arrive at 8am. No one wants to arrive during the middle of the day,” Veitch says. “But stacking [deliveries] that way is quite inefficient for us.”

Better data on incoming trucks could reduce their number, he adds. “Could we see a world in which you share some of the freight into the site?” he wonders. “We get a lot of deliveries for single things from similar places.”

That kind of outcome will require supply-chain collaboration and smart analysis of available data. This remains the biggest challenge for telematics: transforming the data beamed from machines into information that is helpful, accessible and can be used to drive better outcomes.

Fragmented information

“There’s an awful lot of information out there, but it is incredibly fragmented,” says P Flannery Plant Hire strategic manager Chris Matthew. “A log-in from one manufacturer might provide umpteen layers of information about a particular machine. You might have 400 to 500 machines under your control [on a big project] from six different plant-hire companies. The machines might come from five different manufacturers. Suddenly, you’ve got an awful lot of log-ins.”

Jennifer Thomson, MachineMax

To complicate matters further, manufacturers give varying degrees of access to the data on their machines and that access is usually given only to the owner. In many cases, in the UK, the owners are hire companies, not contractors.

This pattern of ownership has driven major hire firms to develop their own telematics systems. As the machine owners, hire firms have access to the machine data. The challenge then is turning that data into something useful and secure that their customers can access with confidence. “If Balfour Beatty [for example] has got a machine on hire and finishes with it, [and] then Skanska takes it on, Skanska must not be able to see Balfour Beatty’s data when they log on,” says Matthew.

To simplify access to telematics for both internal and customer use, P Flannery commissioned technology specialist MachineMax to develop a means to pool information in one place, gathering together the multiple data feeds from its rental machines. This consolidated data can then be accessed by hirers using a single sign-in. The effort was recognised with an Innovation of the Year accolade at the 2021 CN Specialist Awards.

“It seems inconceivable that investment in these machines can be that inefficient. Idling is also not always related to operator behaviour”

Jennifer Thomson, MachineMax

MachineMax chief growth officer Jennifer Thomson says construction firms should not have to wade through reams of data to reduce costs, improve productivity and cut carbon emissions. “We focus on a few [metrics], but we give a lot of detail around that,” she explains. Two of these key metrics are total operating hours and idling hours. The former helps firms decide whether they actually need the machine on the job, the latter how much time is spent using up fuel that could potentially be saved.

Machines can be idle on site for 40 per cent of the time, Thomson says. “It seems inconceivable that investment in these machines can be that inefficient,” she adds. “Idling is also not always related to operator behaviour. Idling could be a result of many factors, including the incorrect machine for the job or site-related factors such as bad site design.”

Cutting carbon emissions

The potential of telematics to help construction firms reduce carbon emissions is gaining interest with the arrival of new reporting standards. From 6 April, hundreds of the largest UK firms will be legally required to disclose climate-related data, as part of the government’s drive to improve reporting standards.

P Flannery offers free access to its hirers for some data, such as machine location, fuel burn and idle time, all once a day. It charges for more detailed data, which contractors can analyse to improve their productivity.

“Productivity management is the clever stuff – it can help firms save tens of thousands of pounds a day,” argues Matthew. “It might help you identify that your traffic management system is flawed or that your haul route is of poor quality. [The surface] might be rutted or thin. The safe speed limit on a site might be 15mph, but [via telematics] you might find that it’s an average of six.”

In such situations, without the insights telematics can bring, plant managers might simply conclude that they need more trucks. “You may think that’s brilliant for a hire firm like P Flannery, and maybe once upon a time it was,” says Matthew. “But the reality is we’re short on trucks and drivers.”

Safety benefits

Reducing the number of machines on site has obvious safety benefits: fewer machines tend to imply a lower risk of accidents.

Balfour Beatty monitors the speed of its fleet and whether operators are wearing seatbelts, and it can also detect when its machines corner too sharply or brake excessively. “We’ve been doing this for years,” says Veitch. “It’s just how we work. The push for us over the past couple of years is to make that capability a bit more ubiquitous.”

“There are customers who don’t take the site manager platform and don’t take the data. They say, ‘I would rather not have the data, because if I have it, I would have to do something about it’”

Jeremy Fish, Ardent Hire Solutions

The challenge in spreading this practice is, again, hampered by the fact that safety data often sits in separate silos across multiple machines and owners. While some may have access to hourly updates via an app on their smartphone, others might rely on manually inputting data. “You’ve always got to work to the lowest common denominator, which is always, invariably, ‘I don’t have that data’,” says Veitch. “Then, I’m reliant on people or an Excel spreadsheet to tell me what’s around.”

The safety benefits of telematic monitoring are a priority for some hire companies too. Ardent Hire Solutions chief executive Jeremy Fish says it has led to a “paradigm shift in the management of safety on sites”. Its telematic platform flashes safety warnings directly to site managers. “It notifies users when events are imminent, [there is] a threat to human life, or that equipment is likely to be damaged and result in big bills for the customer,” he adds.

But, despite this potential for safety improvements, Fish admits that some contractors actively resist or refuse these insights. “There are customers who don’t take the site manager platform and don’t take the data,” he adds. “They say, ‘I would rather not have the data, because if I have it, I would have to do something about it’. They have safety challenges and don’t want to do anything about it. I find that extraordinary.”

P Flannery gives hirers data such as machine location, fuel burn and idle time once a day

During the height of the pandemic, Balfour Beatty explored using telematics to monitor and maintain social distancing on construction sites. This would have involved workers wearing smart badges, so the firm could track their locations.

“We looked at whether there was a way in which we could identify high-risk activities when people are trying to socially distance,” Veitch says. “There were some projects in London where you were trying to get 1,000 operatives on site with lots of obvious pinch points, like elevators and stairwells.”

However, the data protection issues raised by this innovation, the training required and the high churn of workers meant the benefits of monitoring people via telematics didn’t stack up, he adds.

Low adoption rates

Despite the obvious benefits of telematics, the firms embracing it say adoption rates remain low. Matthew says the creation of a new senior role on construction sites – the digital plant manager – could be introduced to drive the use of telematics. “They would need to have the seniority to make or at least influence decisions,” he adds. “The reality is these sorts of roles are often given to a junior person while the senior individuals get on with the job on site.”

“If the excavators [people] hire from one company keep getting stolen, people will – rightly or wrongly – off-hire them and hire them from somewhere else”

Peter Thompson, CanTrack Global

A more likely driver of telematics is pressure from top-tier construction firms, such as Balfour Beatty, and from hirers keen to keep track of their machines and protect them from theft.

“Reputation is an issue with theft, even if it makes no sense,” says Peter Thompson, managing director of CanTrack Global, a firm that specialises in installing covert wireless tracking devices and recovering stolen machines. “If the excavators [people] hire from one company keep getting stolen, people will – rightly or wrongly – off-hire them and hire them from somewhere else,” he adds.

MachineMax’s Thomson says access to metrics is being increasingly mandated as a condition of equipment hire. “We’ve seen this with a lot of the big infrastructure projects, which are often ahead of the pack,” she adds. “It’s not unusual for terms and conditions to state that if you are bringing a machine on site, we expect these metrics, and we expect it to be reporting with a certain frequency.”

Hard stance

Balfour Beatty took a “hard stance” on access to telematics data on its M4 project, says Veitch. “We were explaining to original equipment manufacturers that unless they were willing to open up and provide data for us to use, we wouldn’t be using their kit longer term,” he adds. Subcontractors will be increasingly expected to share data, but it wants to help those that lack the capacity to do so.

Major projects such as HS2 involve machines from many providers

“I absolutely don’t want to be in a world where we have a worse delivery partner because of a mandate that they need to be at a certain level of digital maturity,” Veitch adds. “In some places these people might not have that capability, so we might have to work with them to raise it.”

For all that telematics technology promises, those who embrace it warn that software cannot replace the eyes and insight of an experienced construction manager on location.

“The data might look horrendous on a machine that is technically idling, but it might still be a critical machine,” says Matthew. “It might be static and holding a load, while other work is going on. Don’t make your decisions from data alone. It is there to spark that conversation.”

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