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How the Internet of Things is Impacting the Construction Industry

By Mike Henstridge

Monday, May 15, 2017

The phrase the Internet of Things (IoT) means any object or machine component can have sensors installed to monitor operating conditions, performance levels, and/or physical states. This is known as telematics in the Construction Industry.

IoT isn’t just permeating the construction industry. Rolls-Royce, for example, installs up to 25 sensors in its commercial jet aircraft engines to measure things like temperatures, pressures, shaft speeds, vibration levels, the metal content in the oil and more.

Maybe a worker on the manufacturing floor wears “smart glasses” that project a heads-up display with work instructions. It tells him torque specs on all the fasteners he’s tightening, or how to customize the next unit coming down the line, or lets the user create videos to train other workers on the processes.

IoT in construction equipment

Right now there’s a lot of speculation and hype surrounding IoT. But don’t be misled, there are many companies actively using some form of machine-to-machine (M2M) communication, but they’re not raising a big fuss because why telegraph all your competitive advantages to your competitors?

When we look at the construction industry, the major equipment manufacturers are all highly invested in these concepts. At this stage maturity, most applications are still harvesting the low-hanging fruit like machine hours, fuel consumption, GPS tracking and idle time. This allows the owners to schedule preventive maintenance, determine optimal operating procedures, prevent theft and misuse of equipment, and more.

More sophisticated systems measure and track information like engine load, fluid temperatures, and pressures, and other operational parameters. Depending on the software, you will receive varying levels of analysis to help you use the data for decision-making. Better data and analytics can lead to less downtime by enabling more predictive maintenance, so you only change the oil when its physical condition has deteriorated, for example. Predictive maintenance helps owners make repairs only when truly necessary.

European equipment manufacturer has developed a service program for customers. The technicians perform comprehensive diagnostic audits using mobile devices, testing equipment such as thermal imaging cameras, embedded sensors and other tools to essentially perform a health check-up for that particular machine. The final result is a report of all the parts and services needed to keep the equipment running within factory specifications.

Equipment manufacturers plan for IoT

The growth of “smart machines” has been quietly happening for several years. Incremental changes every year lead to better-performing systems, with users gradually growing accustomed to the new ways of doing things.

Buy or lease a new machine from Case, Komatsu, Caterpillar or others and, depending on the model, it will come standard with a package of telematics sensors and some form of software where you can see the data being gathered.

Is one of your operators using 25% more fuel than the others? Do you have a machine that has unexpectedly left the job site? You’ll know about it, whether you’re 10 or 1,000 miles away. Where is this all leading? Just like your car, the manufacturers will update the technology and integrate it into the machines whether you want it or not.

What the technology can do for contractors

It’s all about total cost of ownership (TCO). How much does unscheduled downtime cost when a machine breaks down? Why does one of your operators use 40% more fuel than the average? Which parts or consumables can wait longer before being replaced? These are questions you may be able to answer if you look at the available data.

One thing you shouldn’t do is ignore the new technologies. Just think, if you have 10 machines running and can save five gallons of fuel per machine every day, that adds $25,000 to your annual bottom line.

And if you’re in the market for a new machine, you have one more set of criteria to judge before putting down your money. Right now, only machines made within the last several years have telematics installed from the factory, and mostly in larger models with the highest operating costs. Retrofitted systems are available so you might consider that option if you own a large fleet of equipment.

The future state of IoT in construction is still really up to the imagination at this point. Maybe your excavator will send out a message that it needs a new hydraulic control valve, and a self-driving service truck will arrive at the job site and fabricate the part on its mobile 3D printer. One thing’s for sure, IoT will definitely be an area to keep an eye on.