HVACR contractors invest a significant amount of money in their tools and vehicles, so when tools go missing or a vehicle is being misused, it can be a significant financial burden.
To help business owners manage their assets, a growing number of tool and fleet-tracking software manufacturers are utilizing GPS tracking, radio frequency identification (RFID) transmitters, Bluetooth, bar codes, and more in order to create products and systems that give users unprecedented insight into their tools, vehicles, and even their employees.
A NEW GENERATION OF TOOLS
Milwaukee Electric Tool Corp. offers nine tools that include the One-Key platform, which allows users to track tools in real time. Steve Matson, One-Key senior product manager, said the digital component is now just as important to the future of the company’s tools as the mechanical components and design that goes into them. “Tools are more electronically proficient than they’ve ever been. They each have an identity.”
CalAmp offers fleet-management and employee time-saving tools that allow HVAC companies to better utilize their vehicles and equipment as well as measure driver behavior, fuel efficiency, and labor productivity, said Courtney DeMilio, national vice president – commercial and fleet sales, North America, LoJack Corp. “Our solution includes a driver-dispatching feature that allows a manager to distribute job information to their drivers, plus mobile phone applications that provide turn-by-turn directions to customer locations,” she said.
Russ Harju, product manager for Fieldpiece Instruments Inc., said Fieldpiece makes a network of test tools for HVACR contractors and technicians that utilize the Job Link system. “Job Link is an app that technicians can connect their tools to,” Harju explained. “This way, they can see all of their tools at one time, make whole-system diagnostics, and create professional reports. These features all increase their service capabilities and credibility with customers while saving them time and reducing callbacks.”
Another asset tracking company, GPS Insight, offers GPS vehicle and asset tracking solutions for HVAC business owners, fleet managers, and dispatchers, said Ryan Driscoll, marketing director, GPS Insight. “The software provides powerful visibility into fleet operations to help reduce costs, reduce risk, and increase revenue.”
ToolHound, a system designed to track tools, parts, and equipment issued to people or job sites, operates like a library, said Graham Cooper, account executive at ToolHound. “The company will know what went where, when, and when it’s due to be returned,” he said. “When the item is returned, the company will know if the item is OK, needs service, is lost, or written off. A complete history is stored for all items in the database.”
Trimble offers AllTrak Cloud, a cloud-based solution for real-time tool, material, and asset management for electrical, mechanical, plumbing, and HVAC contractors. “AllTrak Cloud supports both barcode and RFID technologies through a mobile scanner, which allows for easy check-in and check-out of tools and equipment,” said John Inman, product manager, MEP division, Trimble Inc. “Built-in certification records ensure assets are properly serviced and maintained and employees are properly matched to tools they are certified to use, which helps improve job site safety. With the mobile application, users can assign tools to employees, confirm receipt of tools, and verify that tools have been placed in the job box at the end of the day.”
CHANGES ON THE HORIZON
These tool- and vehicle-tracking solutions are still evolving and have come a long way in just a few years. Wireless technology has improved and costs are coming down, making these devices more effective and affordable than ever before. Additionally, mobile apps are giving users unprecedented, instant, real-time access to their assets.
“If you start to think about ways to eliminate loss or theft, if someone steals a drill, they’re going to remove anything that identifies that tool,” Matson said. “They’ll grind off a company ID or peel off a sticker before they try to resell it. By building that ID inside the tool, thieves can’t remove who the owner is. It’s a neat thing from the theft remediation side. Now, you can drop a pin and a time stamp on the last time a tool was seen.”
“[Fieldpiece’s] wireless tools get more than 100 feet with a couple of walls in between,” Harju said, adding that durability has also improved. “As products come back, we always strive to find out how they broke, what caused it, and what can we do to make it stronger in the field.”
“[GPS Insight’s] products are always improving,” Driscoll said. “The latest trends include technology integration and mobile app development. GPS tracking providers realize that businesses use a number of different software applications to run their businesses and understand the value it would have if they could share data, so integration capabilities have really come to the forefront. GPS tracking providers also realize that fleet managers or small business owners are not just sitting at their desks all day, but still need to manage their businesses. Mobile app development is a priority among providers to ensure fleet owners and managers can effectively manage their fleets on-the-go.”
Cooper agreed that these HVAC products are constantly evolving, changing, and improving. “We have made hundreds of changes to ToolHound to enhance our customers’ experiences and future needs. We offer both on-site and cloud-based options for licensing so customers truly have the best of both worlds and can decide which solutions are best for them.”
CalAmp has expanded its reporting and analytics capabilities to provide managers with better insight into their operations, DeMilio said, adding that their mobile app is designed to make users’ lives easier. “Our mobile device applications provide data to supervisors and drivers in the field so they always know what jobs are coming up and where their employees are,” she said. “Operationally, we believe many fleet management software users are frustrated with their inability to sift through all the data that is collected to quickly gain insight on performance. CalAmp offers analytics and business intelligence tools to quickly find the needle in the haystack of data that our fleet-management system collects.”
Trimble is also working to provide its customers with real-time information on tools by location, employee, cost, and availability through a laptop, PC, tablet, or smartphone, Inman said. “AllTrak Cloud streamlines the workflow between the office and the field. Developed specifically for mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and HVAC contractors, AllTrak Cloud facilitates a seamless workflow and complete visibility of tool and material asset management to help contractors get to the job site on time, with the right information, and with the right equipment to complete the work.”
Of course, any device connecting to the internet is exposed to potential cybersecurity threats, so manufacturers are proactively taking steps to ensure user information is kept safe.
“Our product is software as a service, and all hardware and operating software is safely behind secure firewalls,” DeMilio said. “We maintain redundant data centers to ensure up-time operations, no matter what occurs.”
Harju said Fieldpiece prefers to hire out when dealing with sensitive information. “For any data transferring that would be sensitive, we use trusted companies rather than doing it ourselves,” he said.
“Cybersecurity is a concern we take very seriously,” Driscoll said. “We have taken every measure possible to ensure our customers’ information is secure from hackers or even from employees who shouldn’t have this type of information at their fingertips.”
ToolHound protects information by requiring specific information from a user before he or she can access the information. “In order to access ToolHound, someone needs a company name, user ID, and password — without that information, they are not accessing ToolHound,” Cooper said, though he added that, “generally speaking, ToolHound — or tool tracking, in general — is not a high target for hackers.”
Trimble is constantly evaluating its systems to ensure they’re as secure as possible, Inman said. “The security of customer data is always a top priority. For this reason, we continually evaluate systems to ensure they are as secure as possible from unauthorized access. We have utilized both internal reviews and reviews by outside security experts to keep the data as secure as possible.”
With technology improving in quality and decreasing in both size and cost, manufacturers agree that asset tracking will only become more popular, accurate, and affordable. Additionally, improved analytics will give users more insight into how their companies are utilizing its assets than ever before.
“We foresee an increase in the information that is collected from field operations in the future,” DeMilio said. “Fleet-tracking solutions will also help businesses save money. Lowering the cost to consumers is where the market needs to go, and utilizing technology to minimize business expenses allows you to do that.”
Apps will also continue to become more popular and powerful.
“Everyone, including us, is trying to get in the app business,” Harju said. “We’re going with the approach of not just making an app because its cool. It must help technicians do their jobs better and give contractors more profitability.”
Cooper said mobility and remote accessibility are a growing trend. “People want to be able to look up information in the field and act on it,” he said. “If someone has something that’s needed elsewhere, it is more feasible for them to transfer the item from one place to another rather than purchase another item.”
“We’re looking at continuing to take this technology into as many tools as we can and making it a standard feature set for Milwaukee,” Matson said. “The next phase is not just, ‘Where’s my stuff?’ but ‘What’s up with it?’”
And, of course, safety is a top concern among manufacturers and contractors.
“The industry continues to recognize the important connection between managing safety risks and quality project delivery,” Inman said. “Ensuring that properly trained personnel are using tools and equipment correctly, and that tools and equipment have been properly serviced and maintained, are critical for both for safety and performance.”
Publication date: 11/7/2016