United Rentals is developing a single onsite solution to increase visibility, accountability and utilization.
The construction industry in North America has a big problem with small assets — namely, tools. Thanks to underutilization and lack of accountability, it overspends on tools to the tune of about $2.9 billion each year.
Compared with large equipment, which can easily be tracked with telematics and an equipment management solution such as Total Control™, managers have less visibility into tools and small equipment, which, not coincidentally, have a greater tendency to go missing.
“Tools end up going home in the back of somebody's pickup truck and into their garage for their own personal use,” said Adrian Gram, director of sales for United Rentals Tool Solutions. Gram noted that companies lose about 30 percent of their owned tools on an annual basis.
Tools “walk away” in part because mangers tend to overbuy. And they overbuy because, as Gram explained it, they lack the visibility and auditability to know the utilization associated with tools throughout a project.
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“North America spends in excess of $12 billion trying to get right tools into hands of workers on jobsites. Customers spend approximately 36 percent of that $12 billion on an annual basis because they overbuy and aren’t proactively utilizing all the assets they purchase,” explained Gram.
Improving visibility and accountability begins with tracking. Some manufacturers build Bluetooth trackers into their tools, but the solutions themselves are underutilized, Gram noted. “Brand X doesn't talk to brand Y. That really causes challenges for customers.”
United Rentals is working on developing a broader solution. Late in 2021 it plans to roll out elements of a new Bluetooth tracking solution in which rental tools from multiple OEMS are outfitted with United Rentals tags and tracked via a dashboard. “We can then deliver analytics, reporting and visibility to our customers in one centralized location,” said Gram.
A core part of the solution is a rugged Bluetooth tag affixed to every rental tool in a customized job box. “We can clamp them very tightly to the power cord, so if someone attempts to cut it off, more than likely they're going to cut the cable itself,” said Gram. For cordless tools, the tags will be affixed to the side of a tool where they won’t interfere with operation.
Bluetooth was chosen over other technology standards, despite its limited range, because of shortcomings of other standards. GPS transceivers, for instance, have a very short battery life and require line of sight with the sky for effective tracking. RFID requires expensive readers, and the signal is easily blocked by metal. Bluetooth’s range limitations can be reduced when multiple job boxes on a worksite talk to each other. In the future, Bluetooth readers will be added to telematics on heavy equipment and used to triangulate tool location.
“Those are active units because they have power to them at all times from the engine, and they already have GPS inside the telematic. As equipment is roving around the jobsite, it’s going to be recognizing Bluetooth tags and saying, ‘there's your Lidl drill,’” Gram explained. Multiple pieces of equipment detecting the same tool can improve the accuracy of the signal.
United Rentals plans to offer a mobile app that allows users to locate rental tools around the worksite — and their cellphones will add yet another node in the Bluetooth network.
With the addition of wearable RFID, perhaps integrated into workers’ hardhats, rental tools in the job box could be checked out to individual workers, making it possible to know not only where each tool is located at any moment but who has custody of it. Creating an entry/exit point gateway, another solution United Rentals is developing, could allow mangers to be alerted via cellphone if a tool passes through it. Imagine the reduction in that 30 percent tool loss figure if that technology existed.
Down the road, accelerometers inside the tags could reveal whether the tool is actually being operated vs. sitting on the ground.
The goal of tool tracking technology is reducing loss, underutilization and over-purchasing by providing increased visibility. Ultimately that visibility can help contractors better understand their true tool needs and their true tool costs, which in turn can help them make better buy-vs.-rent decisions, reduce their overall tool spend and increase profitability.
Dave Johnson is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer who has been writing about all aspects of business and technology since before there was an internet.