Modern Times

Oct. 1, 2006
Ask most rental industry participants the most significant change over the past decade, and most would point to consolidation and growth of national rental

Ask most rental industry participants the most significant change over the past decade, and most would point to consolidation and growth of national rental companies.

Although few would argue, many people would also cite the modernization of management and the contributions of software, particularly to fleet management and shop organization. With the growth of telematics systems offered by vendors such as Qualcomm, MicroLogic, Trimble and SmartEquip, and the updated offerings of software suppliers such as Wynne Systems, Solutions by Computer, Orion, Point-of-Rental, Texada and others, rental companies have greatly improved their ability to cut costs, reduce equipment downtime, offer preventive maintenance (PM) on a more timely basis and improve service in a variety of ways.

Increasingly, rental companies are looking to software for shop and maintenance management. “We are a service, parts and rental company first,” says David Griffith, CEO of Bristol, Pa.-based Modern Equipment. “Service is our highest margin activity and accounts for some 25 percent of our business and is growing. I can't think of how we would run without the information systems we have.”

Rental companies of all sizes are increasing their usage of available software functionalities. “Rental operations are definitely their main focus, but as time goes on, our customers do implement more advanced features such as parts management, purchases, depreciation, and maintenance and repair management,” says Andre Gilbert, CEO of Montreal-based Orion Software.

In this day and age, software can help rental companies track equipment by physical location; monitor its usage; keep track of when PM is due, down to the minute; keep track of service history and analyze expenditures in relation to cost; track and file warranty information; order parts; prioritize, plan and organize maintenance functions; train service personnel; and much more, depending on the system they use. And the ability for field service technicians to access this kind of information remotely is becoming increasingly available.

Come a long way? Yes, but the technology wheel is accelerating swiftly and many capabilities are in development that will propel efficiencies forward even more rapidly. For example, remote diagnostic capabilities are being experimented with and already being used in some applications, enabling service personnel to analyze equipment problems from computer terminals in their offices.

Take, for example, what San Diego-based Qualcomm is doing with sensors. Birmingham, Ala.-based Cowin Equipment rents excavators with hydraulic hammers attached that cost $30,000 or more. “If the lube system, which is applied manually, runs out of grease and the hammer runs without grease, it might cost $15,000 to $30,000 to repair that hammer,” says Bud Sims, director of product development for Qualcomm. “They came to us and wanted a sensor capability that would tell them remotely if a hammer was running out of grease. We worked with Lincoln Lubrication, a sensor manufacturer, to develop a sonar device that goes into the bucket of the machine.”

When the sensor detects low grease levels, it automatically shuts down the hammer, and Qualcomm's GlobalTRACS system alerts the operator, Qualcomm and Cowin Equipment. If the operator does not replenish the grease within a short period, GlobalTRACS issues a “sensor critical” alert, prompting Cowin to contact the user directly.

“They have not had a hammer failure since,” says Sims. “It saved Cowin a fortune.”

But back in the present tense where most rental companies reside, off-the-shelf software systems most utilized by rental companies have made great strides in enabling rental companies, from the smallest to the largest, to run their service departments more effectively.

Probably the most important aspect is tracking preventive maintenance and the industry's improvement in timely PM doesn't grab headlines but can transform a company. United Rentals calls it “preventive maintenance currency reporting.”

“We use our software to track maintenance intervals in various steps according to manufacturer recommendations,” says Bruce Lafky, director of service and maintenance operations, for the Greenwich, Conn.-based company, which also owns Wynne Systems, producer of popular software system RentalMan. “Each equipment file tells us what specifications each piece has and then provides us with inspection forecasting and service-due reporting. It provides us with history and tracking. We also use it for automated central warranty.

“We have a new PM module that tracks the different manufacturers' recommended intervals for all the equipment that we rent,” says Lafky. “Our reporting is fairly dynamic and allows operators to put in parameters and forecasts when equipment is going to come due for service. We can track all the different manufacturers' recommendations and recommended intervals for all the equipment and manufacturers that we rent. We can forecast and schedule work based on the jobsite, the customer and the cat-class of equipment.”

Other systems besides Wynne provide similar capability. “Sirius Pro offers complete, integrated maintenance modules, which will warn users that maintenance is required on equipment immediately or at a future date based on a counter usage or a certain period,” says Gilbert.

Bob Shaffer, CEO of Point-of-Rental, Grand Prairie, Texas, says his system notifies the rental company “through displays, when renting or receiving items and/or by printing reports.” Shaffer adds that instructions for the mechanic on the maintenance to be performed, including parts required for the task, can be automatically printed.

“If an item needs maintenance after each rental, an unassigned work order is automatically created by the system each time that item comes off rent,” says Jack Shea about the Enfinity software produced by his company, Springfield, Mass.-based Solutions by Computer. “Or if the meter reading is the trigger, the system automatically creates an unassigned work order when the meter exceeds the next maintenance point. Unassigned work orders automatically appear on the manager's screen for assignment to a technician according to the skill level needed to do the job. If a technician Level 2 is the logical choice, the manager can look at that technician's available time slots on the screen and schedule the work.” And, as Shea points out, the work order records the cost of labor, parts and any outsourced work and determines if the work was completed within the anticipated timeframe.

Telematics can facilitate PM by daily tracking. Qualcomm's GlobalTRACS, for example, enables the service manager to see what time a machine is being operated every day. “There's nothing more frustrating for a service manager or technician to go to service a piece of equipment and find that it's running,” says Larry Cleary, vice president and general manager of construction equipment for Qualcomm. “Chances are they are not going to shut that piece down. But if you look at the operations map, a history of when that machine is on or off, you might see that that machine typically starts later in the day at 10 in the morning and shuts down at 6 at night. So you dispense your technician at 8 a.m.”

This capability is particularly effective when a jobsite is running multiple pieces of equipment from the same rental company. If only one piece is on a job, a phone call to the subcontractor might facilitate PM scheduling. But if the technician wants to schedule maintenance for multiple pieces, the time history can help him plan his service day for maximum efficiency.

Jay Dee Sale, director of parts and service for Escondido, Calif.-based heavy equipment rental company Red Mountain Machinery says GlobalTRACS has helped Red Mountain significantly reduce equipment-tracking costs. With its equipment spread out over a large area, Red Mountain used to depend on customers to provide it with hour-usage information to plan PM, or it would have to send staff considerable distances to check hours.

“Sometimes [asking the customer to check] inconveniences our customers,” says Sale. “Or if we couldn't get the information from them, we'd have to send someone out to get the hours information ourselves. This increased our tracking costs and the data was not always accurate. Because we weren't right on top of the hours our equipment was running, we sometimes serviced too late, which increased our long-term maintenance costs. If we sent someone to a customer location too early, at maybe 100 hours [when the PM was scheduled for 250 hours], we'd do the service anyway, because we were already paying travel time and expenses to get there, but we were wasting time and money.”

Software systems can provide detailed service-interval tracking systems for fixed assets, which can be set to manufacturer-specified terms. A piece of equipment might have more than one interval, for example, but the first one to become due triggers a maintenance-due reminder. “You can also build in a percentage tolerance, so that you don't send out a piece of equipment that will likely become due for maintenance on the next rental,” says Rob Ross of Colorado Springs, Colo.-based Alert Management Systems. “Some of our clients even use the PM system to track customer equipment and charge fees for maintaining customer fleets on a PM schedule.”

Increasingly software providers offer interfaces with Qualcomm and other telematics providers. Also growing in use are built-in reminder systems for license renewals and other date-sensitive requirements.

Analysis is key

Not only can modern software help a rental company plan maintenance more efficiently and economically, it can help the shop determine the profitability of each machine and help the rental company plan its fleet.

“Return on investment is often calculated including the cost of labor and materials used for PM and repairs,” says Mike Stilwagner, vice president of Irvine, Calif.-based Wynne Systems. “We have a data element we called Labor Code used to narrow the analysis of repairs into specific areas such as electrical, structural, drive train and more to compare year-over-year costs by manufacturer or model areas where there may be engineering defects or improved operator instructions.”

“Analysis is the key,” says Point-of-Rental's Shaffer. “For example, suppose you get a deal on ABC brand of air compressors, so you buy 15 to replace your fleet of 7-year-old XYZ units. Because of inflation, your cost per unit is higher, but your remedial maintenance costs should be lower. Assuming flat rental revenue, your ROI with maintenance costs factored in may well be higher for the new units because they incur less maintenance expertise. Your software should be tracking ROI and maintenance cost trends.”

Shaffer adds that such analysis can also help determine which brands are more cost-efficient. “Suppose in Year 2 the average maintenance costs for the XYZ units are four times what the ABC units were in Year 2,” he says.

“We tie our labor to labor codes and various task codes within our system so we can, at an equipment level, see what's been done to the equipment and how much time has been spent at a systems level,” says United Rentals' Lafky. “So we are able to analyze our costs and know how much we spent on brakes and cooling systems and those sorts of things at the make, model, down to the serial number level.”

“A complete history is maintained and a running total is included in an ROI calculation,” says Orion's Gilbert. “Users can even select capitalized repairs so [the system] will include this new amount (changing the motor for example) in future depreciation calculations.”

Part of the solution

While some rental companies are reducing the quantity of parts they choose to stock, the organization of parts is still a major issue for many service departments. And while the human factor is still a vital component in parts planning as well as shop organization as a whole, software is becoming increasingly intelligent. “We run parts ordering every day and our system gives us suggested stock orders based on many different established criteria,” says Modern Equipment's Griffith.

Ordering parts online has become common as many manufacturers have facilitated this capability and integrated their ordering systems with the operating systems of their customers. Telematics pioneer SmartEquip, based in Norwalk, Conn., has pushed forward this type of integration and taken it a step further than most.

“SmartEquip's parts and service allow for parts inventory organization, the ability to transfer parts among rental branches, allowing users to simultaneously see their own parts inventory and that of the OEM,” says CEO Alex Schuessler. “It automates all parts supersedence information (a major cause of involuntary inventory accumulation and disposal), matches up parts-pricing information, and ensures serial-number matching of equipment to parts configuration, preventing parts misorders.” Schuessler says that some manufacturers have admitted that 20 percent or more of customer parts orders are wrong.

With the SmartEquip parts-identification and parts-ordering functions, interactive schematics facilitate parts identification. By clicking on the desired part, the technician can figure out the availability of the part in each of his company's locations, and simultaneously search parts availability at the OEM or OEMs dealer. He can subsequently submit a purchase order electronically with a click and receive electronic confirmation.

Alert uses the popular Partsmart interface, which also enables a technician to view an on-screen schematic and order directly. Orion's Sirius Pro can link with manufacturers' or distributors' files for direct import. Parts sellers can list the suggested retail price or be calculated based on pre-defined profit margins for each line of products.


One of the most important functions of shop management is prioritizing jobs, and as anyone who has worked in a rental business knows, priorities can shift many times in a day. Still, planning what to do, by whom and in what order, is critical to utilize staff efficiently, take care of equipment that has a customer waiting for it to show up on his jobsite, perform PM in a timely manner and service customer-owned equipment to meet the agreed-upon deadline.

While human decision-making remains an important part of the process, software can play an important role in prioritizing and scheduling.

“RentalMan Dashboard displays the down equipment in highest utilized order by default,” says Wynne Systems' Stilwagner. “Dashboards can be created to show each technician equipment within his specialty, and by highest utilization. For customer equipment, the dashboard can display by due date or any other key indicator our client desires. In order to facilitate ease of use, the same work order system is used to create customer-billed work orders as well as internal work orders.

“For repairs and service on site, reports can be produced by jobsite, customer, major project and geographic territory to show equipment in the field that needs preventive maintenance; repair or factory retrofit to facilitate dispatching of field service technicians. RentalMan's logistics, Truck Dispatch, will track on the time and date, as well as the status of service calls.”

“A work order can be coded for minor work or for major work, at the discretion of the manager,” says Shea of Solutions by Computer. “For example, major work may require a certain skill set, or it may indicate that repairs must be completed before a machine can be rented again.”

Texada's Systematic Enterprise software programs a priority field for work orders, giving technicians a priority list, including the date and time an item is needed. “The visibility makes it clear for everyone, including the person doing the work, when the item is needed,” says Texada CEO Don Whitbeck.

With most software systems, when a service task is completed and the technician or service manager inputs the information into the computer, the machine is automatically moved into the rental company's ready-inventory list, or can be placed there with just a few additional keystrokes.

Tracking warranty

In the past, rental companies would keep large filing cabinets full of warranty folders. While hard copies may still be kept for security, most warranty information is now kept on the computer, which not only tracks warranty information, but can flag the service department and inform it when a particular repair should be covered by warranty. Warranty claims are routinely filed electronically, and in some cases, occur automatically.

“Multiple warranty dates can be kept for a single asset,” says Stilwagner. “For example, there can be a different warranty date for the drive train, electrical system and the hydraulic system if the manufacturer provides such warranties. This functionality can also be used for replacement of warranted components such as engines, alternators and starter motors.”

“We track warranty claims through the software from the time we submit them to the time they're paid,” adds Lance Sullivan, director of fleet management/service for Phoenix-based Sunstate Equipment. “We can see how many we were paid on, and we can see what issues might be out there with the fleet. It gives us a good track record of the types of failures a particular piece might have encountered.”

SmartEquip's warranty module interfaces with the rental management system of rental companies as well as with the warranty management system of the manufacturer and is working to develop OEM-original flat-rate labor codes, saving service managers time in establishing labor charges.

No longer remote

In the past, field technicians had limited access to information in the field. But now many rental companies are equipping their service technicians with laptops or cell-based systems that allow them full access to service information from remote jobsites.

“Site technicians can be live via a laptop and printer to inquire about parts, consult a plan, order a part online from a distributor and emit a service ticket or an invoice to the customer,” says Gilbert.

“The technician can access the system from a laptop connected to his branch with a modem, WiFi or high-speed cellular,” says Stilwagner. “The user has full access to work orders, manuals, parts, purchase orders and more as if he were in the shop, and Wynne Systems has developed technology that allows for work when not connected to the network to synchronize as soon as the device is next connected.”

Many software systems are integrated with telematics systems, facilitating field service. “Using a $1,300 tablet device in the field is equivalent to traveling with several thousand always-current service manuals, along with diagnostic information, machine service history, as well as parts inventory availability at the rental company and the manufacturer,” SmartEquip's Schuessler says.

Back to school days

Software can also play a key role in training service staff. Many manufacturers have long offered online or CD-ROM training programs. But software may play a more important role in charting the way technicians spend their time and indicating the training requirements that would help them develop within a particular area.

“At a systems level we are able to look at how much time each individual has spent working on a particular type or portion of that equipment, and then we are able to look at, from a training perspective, how much training that individual has had or needs to be further developed within what they predominantly work on,” says United Rentals' Lafky.

Keeping full detailed service histories on each piece of equipment is another major benefit of service department software. An executive of a large rental company recently said his company sells about $30 million in equipment per year and is convinced that if his company had proper maintenance histories on all of its machines and could prove at the time of sale that it had performed the proper maintenance, it would generate an extra 10 percent per piece of equipment, adding $3 million straight to the bottom line. With today's software, keeping that type of maintenance history is simply a matter of taking the minimal time necessary to do it.

It's evolution, baby

Software is evolving fast in the rental industry, as it is in most businesses. Between the completion of this article and when you read it, further technological improvements will have developed and many more will be coming in the foreseeable future. The ability to diagnose machine problems remotely is coming into being and will evolve significantly in the coming years, to the point where, as Qualcomm's Cleary predicts, manufacturers will offer comprehensive diagnostics packages as standard equipment within the next decade.

As always, the evolution will be customer driven, and the importance of proper maintenance is growing in the minds of rental executives. “Maintenance is coming to the forefront as people are peeling back the onion and looking for opportunities to better manage and extend the life of their assets and get a higher residual value for those assets,” says Lafky. “So from a pure asset-management perspective and then of course from an ongoing cost-management perspective, you need better systems.”

Systems will improve, but the key is implementation. “Taking the information gathered in the shop, in the field and keeping it up-to-date seamlessly will be the evolution,” says Stilwagner. “This will be done with laptops, telemetrics and handheld terminals. The use of RFID tags allows information to be written to this identifier such as last service date and current contract. ‘Dashboard’ applications will tell technicians what needs to be worked on next by reservations and utilization, based on the technicians' skill level.”

And that skill level will go beyond what mechanics do on a machine. Stilwagner points out that as the industry evolves, shop technicians need to be skilled at more than “turning wrenches.”

“The industry needs to accept that a person working at a discount oil change shop has to use a computer terminal as well as the professionals at auto and equipment dealers, and so should the rental yard technician,” he says.

Just like in any business, rental is all about managing assets. More than ever, software is here to help.

For additional information and interviews with the sources, please check out and the October issue on

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