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Tool and asset management systems: Choices abound for contractors of all sizes

John Bleasby
Tool and asset management systems: Choices abound for contractors of all sizes

Tracking the location and monitoring the maintenance status of construction tools, equipment and high-end assets was a hand-written, labour-intensive activity for decades. However, since the mid-1980’s, technology has stepped up, providing increasingly high levels of asset management for trades, sub-trades and contractors. And it’s all possible from a hand-held device.

At the same time, the variety of technology choices means addressing key questions to determine the appropriate level of tool and equipment management. Is tracking required simply for anti-theft and security? Are status reports needed for maintenance and control? Is real-time location information important for maximizing efficient asset placement?

There is also the issue of scale. How many assets need to be monitored, and what is their size and value? Will this change over time?

For many independent trades and sub trades, security of small assets is critical. In most cases they are hired by the general contractor. On large and complex sites, multiple trades are busily engaged alongside each other. Control of their own tools is their own responsibility.

For many such firms, the proprietary tracking systems offered by leading tool manufacturers like DeWalt and Milwaukee can be an attractive entry point for asset management. Each offers a system that is simple and low cost, ideal for smaller outfits moving from job to job with their own teams and tool trailers.

Using a Bluetooth connection, DeWalt’s and Milwaukee’s systems transmit information to a hand-held device running their free software apps. When integrated into their brand-specific cordless tools, the information transmitted goes beyond location and can provide a number of diagnostic and control functions. In addition, each company offers individual battery-powered Bluetooth tags that can be physically attached to any tool or piece of equipment.

SUBMITTED PHOTO—Dewalt has a Bluetooth driven tracking system which uses their free software apps such as ToolConnect.

While these tags provide location information only, this allows upward scaling of theft protection on the same monitoring platform — ideal for an operation that owns a mix of assets from several manufacturers. As Stephen Blain, commercialization manager, professional tools, with Stanley Black & Decker Canada says, “If you count on your tools to make you money, you can’t have a tool go down or go missing.”

Bluetooth communication has both advantages and limitations. Tools using the DeWalt or Milwaukee systems must be within 100 feet of a handheld device. On the other hand, the system works like Community Watch — the more users running the monitoring app, the tighter the security network. Blain uses the example of a tool that goes missing from a site or beyond the range of the owner’s hand held device.

“If that tool comes within 100 feet of any device running DeWalt’s ToolConnect app, a location update will be sent the owner. However, because it’s a closed network, not an open network, that other individual running the app on his device won’t see it happen — it’s not his tool.”

Companies with a large variety of tool and equipment assets may choose to consider a passive radio frequency identifier (RFID) system, such as that offered by ToolHound, a wholly-owned Canadian company based in St. Albert, Alta. Passive RFID uses a bar-coded label made of metal or silicone. “Passive” means the label has no battery, but instead must pass by a reader in near proximity that, in turn, activates the label’s electrons.

In practice, this means some form of asset crib and choke point through which the tool leaves and returns, either at a warehouse or mobile kiosk. The system can be linked to a passive employee ID system to log custody. However, once out in the field, the asset’s exact location is unknown.

SUBMITTED PHOTO—Current technological advancements have provided the construction industry with hand-held solutions to tracking the location and monitoring the maintenance status of construction tools and assets. Software company Tenna has created a system which uses Bluetooth, GPS and cellular managed over one platform for asset management.

Despite the lack of real-time location tracking, Michelle Burnett, an account manager at ToolHound, explains that passive RDIF labelling has the advantage of low cost, making it extremely attractive to trades with numerous low and mid-level assets. Add-on modules can also be applied to individual tools to monitor maintenance issues such as annual calibration or required service intervals.

Once a company owns a multi-million dollar fleet of vehicles and mixed equipment assets from numerous manufacturers, a correspondingly higher level of asset management is required. Software developer Tenna, headquartered in Edison, N.J., offers a wide range of broadcast technology solutions such as Bluetooth, GPS and cellular that can be managed over one platform. The mix of technologies ultimately recommended by Tenna is the result of an analysis of client needs.

“We usually start by reviewing the asset fleet, digging into the client’s main goals, and making general recommendations,” says company co-founder Jose Cueva. “Most companies have a particular area of interest or pain point they need to solve. For example, it could be increasing safety and vehicle inspections to reduce accidents.

“It could be equipment utilization of high value assets to make sure those assets are being highly utilized in order to be profitable. It could even include relatively inexpensive tools that are an absolute must for a particular trade in order to get production of the day done.”

Power consumption and cost will also influence the choice of the asset management system most appropriate. GPS is the most power-hungry and most expensive, followed by Bluetooth systems. Passive RDIF requires battery power in the system’s reading device alone. Labels are comparatively low in cost.

Continued technology developments will mean that asset management systems will play a valuable role for any size of operation, and perhaps become a company’s most important piece of equipment in terms of safety, utilization and security.

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