The Technology Equation

Sept. 1, 2007
You've probably seen those commercials for office supply company Staples that show someone doing what should be a fairly simple everyday task in what

You've probably seen those commercials for office supply company Staples that show someone doing what should be a fairly simple everyday task in what looks like the very hardest way possible. Then the voiceover says “There's an easy button for that.”

Well that's a good metaphor for what computer technology can do for a rental business. Sure, rental companies can continue to do things the hard way, which is never as efficient as a healthy dose of modern technology could make them, or they can adopt some of the latest technology solutions designed to exponentially improve efficiency, and simultaneously improve customer satisfaction and add dollars to the bottom line.

The current competitive technology landscape has solutions providers working overtime to ensure that their systems are easy and intuitive to use for rental personnel.

Because the rental industry is so fast-paced, software providers know that their customers need to be able to adopt new technologies quickly, getting employees up to speed in a matter of days, not weeks.

In addition, providers of rental management software are paying more attention than ever to ensuring that their solutions can integrate with specialized technologies such as GPS, telematics, parts management and dispatching systems.

No rental industry technology can be better described as an “easy button” than the rental management system. Today's systems have hundreds more features with each new generation introduced, bringing with them a new level of sophistication, and greater efficiency and dollar-saving implications for the rental companies who use them.

There are many rental management solutions to choose from and most providers acknowledge that all of them are pretty good at what they do. Each solution, however, offers some unique features that set it apart from the competition.

Toronto-based Texada Software has been busy introducing new products to the rental industry, including a new version of its Systematic rental management system, which adds more than 300 features beyond the previous version.

A key feature to the new version is RFID tracking. Users can now tag both equipment and employees with RFID devices to improve all-around security. According to Texada CEO and president Don Whitbeck, customers have shown a lot of interest in RFID technology, but not as many have actually implemented it. The one exception, however, is using RFID to improve employee security and identification.

To achieve implementation, employees are given an RFID tag and the rental counter is equipped with a low-cost RFID reader. The employee logs into the system with a user name and password. When that employee gets more than three feet away from the counter, the system automatically locks them out, and he or she must log in to the system again. The RFID technology records the actions of each employee on the system, protecting the rental company from unauthorized contracts and discounts, and increasing employee accountability.

Texada also recently introduced its new Systematic Portal tool, designed to enable rental company customers to do more of their rental business online. The Portal provides customers access to their account, allowing them to review what equipment they have on rent, reserve additional equipment, and schedule pick-up and deliveries. According to Whitbeck, large contractor customers particularly are demanding a stronger web presence and additional ways to do business with their rental providers.

A third new product is the Systematic Dashboard, which provides a real-time graphical display of the rental business that shows owners and managers, at a glance, what the health of the business is, and whether business trends are going the right way.

“A dashboard will tell you right away when you're off the rails, so you can fix it, driving up efficiencies and, in effect, utilization, and then you make more money,” Whitbeck says.

Users can compare how the business is doing today vs. the same date last year, or choose from other measurement points to determine how the business is performing. The Systematic Dashboard can also be tied into other systems of a rental company, so data can be pulled from multiple sources such as financial, business intelligence and delivery systems.

Oxford Builders Supplies, which started as an equipment division for Canada's largest commercial construction company — EllisDon Construction — has expanded over the past three years into a full equipment rental, sales and service operation. Oxford uses Systematic rental software to better track its equipment rentals. Since its implementation about a year ago, the company has improved its customer service as a result of improved rentals tracking, delivery and parts ordering, and has experienced a bottom-line impact.

“The technology assists us in parts ordering and equipment cost reporting,” says Mike Demelo, vice president, equipment operations. “We now order parts more efficiently and in more realistic quantities. The software has paid for itself in a year's time by helping management make more informed decisions regarding equipment purchasing and utilization.”

RMI Corp., which offers its Advantage rental management software to the rental industry, recently introduced a new solution called Advantage-Live. The new version allows users to purchase the software license as a monthly subscription service, providing them access to a centralized copy of the system through a secure section of the server farm. The customer's data resides in a secure area and the company does not need to install the software or worry about the infrastructure necessary to maintain it on-premise. Users simply need access to the Internet and they have the benefits of RMI's Advantage system at a lower cost.

“Our thinking internally is it will be the smaller users that will adopt Advantage-Live because the capital expense up front won't be so high, and it will be easier to justify from month to month,” says Paul Chapdelaine, president of the Avon, Conn.-based company.

The easy button

In fact, the company recently took an order from a customer who is just starting out with only a few users, but whose goal is to grow into a very large company. The enticement to the customer was that it's an industry-standard solution that can be immediately implemented, and there's an upgrade path, Chapdelaine says. The customer can switch over to RMI's on-premise Advantage solution at any time, and they will receive a discount on the license.

RMI's on-premise Advantage solution offers two popular benefits. Data such as key performance indices can be displayed on a digital dashboard to make analysis easy to read and evaluate. Additionally, the system is built right inside Microsoft Dynamics NAV, which gives the user a fully integrated enterprise system designed specifically for companies that rent, sell and service equipment to let them have complete knowledge of their business KPIs at any moment. And the system is designed to be easy to operate, without needing a large IT staff to help run the business.

Houston-based Western Data Systems, which offers high-end GPS and optical-type survey instruments for sale and rental to the heavy construction market, more than doubled the size of its staff and product line in less than two years, making implementation of a rental management system a necessity.

“For me, it was a control issue,” says Ed Meche, Western Data Systems' chief operations officer. “I had to get all of this under control and in one place. This software package for us is the core of the company now.”

Not only did the company grow at lightning speed, but it also went from a paper world to an electronic one with the implementation of Advantage. Before, an office administrator would have to physically dig through file cabinets to find a customer invoice on an old sales order, while today one click will pull up every ledger entry for that customer in the database. And the data is accessible from any location, using any device, with an Internet connection.

Minneapolis-based Genisys Software recently released version 7.2 of its AlphaRental solution, which, in following with the trend, is entirely graphical and integrates with other Windows-based software packages. AlphaRental is designed as a full-featured package that can run the entire rental operation, including quotes, reservations, rental contracts, inventory control, point-of-sale, parts, service, back office, CRM and automated monthly billings.

Another highlight of AlphaRental 7.2 is the capability to create PDF files of quotes, reservations, rental contracts or invoices that can be automatically faxed or emailed to the customer right from the workstation. In addition, signature capture allows the user to display the customer's signature on the screen before accepting it, then print it on the rental contract or to a thermal credit card receipt.

The company also recently announced that its AlphaRental solution is now compatible with smart phone devices, including Apple's new iPhone and any smart phone that is based on the Windows Mobile 5.0 or 6.0 operating systems.

“We have written a software application that loads on the phone, and then has secure access and communications to the fileserver of the rental company through the Internet,” says Ray Bonestroo, president of Genisys Software. A query on the device that returns 25 records is generally displayed in 1 to 2 seconds.

“Having real-time access to the data in your fileserver is incredibly valuable, and it opens up entire new applications that were not available before or were simply too expensive for most rental stores to consider.”

Enfinity rental asset management software from Springfield, Mass.-based Solutions by Computer, is designed to improve inventory control.

“From issuing a purchase order for a piece of rental equipment, to receipt of the inventory to delivering it to a customer, renting it out, periodic invoicing, preventative and remedial maintenance, off-rent calls from customers, to pick-up from a jobsite, our system keeps track of the status of every piece of rental inventory in your fleet,” says Jack Shea, president. In addition, it helps in operations management by organizing daily activities such as billing, accounts receivable and cash control. Its design for transaction processing is also simple for new users to understand.

Russ Walsh, president and co-owner of EZE Rent-it Centre in Chilliwack, B.C., recently switched from a UNIX-based system to Enfinity's Windows-based system because he and his management team not only felt that it would be an easier system for employees to learn, but also because they believed it would integrate more effectively with other technologies in the marketplace.

The benefits EZE Rent-it has experienced at the counter have had a profound impact on its labor resources. Counter personnel can quickly access a customer's history without contacting the accounting departments, and the speed at which reports are generated and at which Enfinity does month-end processing saves the company a lot of valuable time, Walsh says.

Following the industry trend to graphical display capability, Solutions by Computer recently introduced a new application called Enlighten, which allows the manager to view data from both a numerical perspective or in a dynamic graphical presentation.

“For example, trend analysis of revenues by customer type, jobsite location and equipment type, by month, quarter or year are instantly presented,” Shea explains.

Tempe, Ariz.-based Result Group offers its rentalresult java-based rental management solution. Customers identify its benefits as breadth and depth of functionality; flexibility of web-enablement; and ease and speed of use. Additionally, rentalresult is designed to easily integrate to third-party technologies, a benefit that can further increase equipment utilization and business efficiencies for rental companies.

Rentalresult offers three different packaging options of its core technology, which lets users identify the option that best suits their rental business.

“Software should offer a huge range of flexibility and features to allow a company to adopt a competitive strategy; if it doesn't, then you have gained nothing by implementing it,” says Helen Sowerby, Result Group senior vice president of business development.

Like many of the latest rental management solutions, rentalresult can provide data about key performance indicators using dashboard displays defined by the user, an important feature the company says helps it deliver very complex business requirements that are almost invisible to end users.

Based on the intuitive design of its graphical user interface, Asheville, N.C.-based Volvo Rents recently adopted the rentalresult solution for all of its franchises.

“It's the lifeblood of the system, and if you think about all the complexities, making that system easy to use is paramount,” says Nick Mavrick, vice president of marketing for Volvo Rents.

Montreal-based Orion Software offers its Sirius family of rental management software developed using the latest Windows technology to provide ease of navigation. The company offers Pro, a full-scale version designed for medium to large rental companies, and Lite, a less expensive version designed with all the options necessary to run a smaller rental business.

The latest version allows users to access their data remotely, either from satellite offices, from home, or from the road, explains Andre Gilbert, Orion Software president. Salespersons in the field can even complete rental contracts at a jobsite and initiate equipment deliveries using cellular web links.

North Augusta, S.C.-based Blue Star Rental & Sales opened its doors 3½ years ago with Orion's Sirius rental management software. Today, the company has grown into a multi-branch operation that uses the system to schedule and track equipment; perform inter-store stock transfers; track maintenance records by serial number; and track performance by store, employee, equipment, category of equipment and customers, in a number of different formats.

“The use of rental management software has definitely increased our bottom line,” says Randall Chafin, operations manager for Blue Star Rental & Sales. “Sure, we could have started with pencils and paper, but no amount of cost savings would have been worth the missed opportunities of not having a computerized rental management system.”

Combined with rental management systems, other technologies can further improve operating efficiencies in a rental business. The GlobalTRACS telematics solution from San Diego-based Qualcomm is designed to integrate with back office rental management systems such as rentalresult, Wynne Systems' Rentalman, RMI's Advantage, and other technology providers including, streamlining everything from order entry and dispatch to accounting.

“By integrating data from the GlobalTRACS and OmniTRACS systems with RentalMan, rental companies can ensure that their business systems are updated with accurate equipment operations information,” says Mike Stilwagner, vice president of Wynne Systems. “Access to this timely data provides equipment managers with a powerful tool for monitoring operating expenses and delivering superior customer service.”

Bakersfield, Calif.-based heavy equipment rental company Golden Empire Equipment uses the RentalMan solution and has employed Qualcomm's GlobalTRACS solution on all of its equipment and water trucks for the past three years. The company employs the solution for its GPS tracking capabilities, and also for its reliable engine hour monitoring and, most recently, for its machine health monitoring features.

“Being in the rental business it's imperative that we know where our assets are, and GlobalTRACS allows us to track the location of our assets, and whether the assets have been moved or not,” says John Peters, president and owner of Golden Empire, which sets a geofence on all the equipment it has on rent as well as the equipment on the yard. When the geofence is breached GlobalTRACS notifies a chain of contacts at Golden Empire so the safety and location of the equipment can be determined quickly.

“Additionally, our equipment is serviced on an hourly basis, so it tracks the number of operating hours so that we can determine when things need to be serviced,” Peters adds.

GlobalTRACS allows users to set a preventative maintenance schedule for each piece of equipment based on recorded hours of engine operation, making it very simple for equipment technicians to plan service calls in the field and maximize those calls to perform maintenance on other equipment nearby that will require service in a matter of days.

“We work in a very large geographical area, so if we go 100 miles north of our shop for instance, and we know that two machines need to be serviced and a third one will need service next week, we'll go ahead and service that one too, so we don't have to travel back, which saves us money,” Peters says.

Recently, the company installed sensors to monitor water temperature, engine oil pressure, transmission temperature and hydraulic oil temperature, so any time a machine gets outside its temperature or pressure parameters Golden Empire is notified that there is a problem, often even before the customer notices it.

“When you can get two systems like RentalMan and GlobalTRACS to work together without a lot of interaction with yourself, you're saving a lot of time,” Peters says.

Red Mountain Machinery, a heavy equipment rental company that serves Southern California, Arizona and Nevada, also employs the GlobalTRACS solution to track machine location, engine hours and manage the maintenance schedules of its fleet. As Red Mountain grew, it was challenged to keep up with its own high level of customer service standards. Using GlobalTRACS to track engine hours eliminated the company's dependence on customers to report accurate operating hours, eliminated the costs associated with sending a field technician out to collect hour meter readings, and improved customer satisfaction by simplifying preventive maintenance schedules, which reduced equipment downtime.

“Now we don't have to inconvenience our customers to collect the hours, or pay travel time to get them ourselves,” says Jay Dee Sale, director of parts and service for Red Mountain Machinery. “The up-to-date information results in more accurate billing and makes it easier for us to work with our customers to resolve any service issues that come up.”

The peace-of-mind variable

Productivity: The function of automation and GPS

Some GPS solutions are designed to track the logistics of equipment pick-ups and deliveries. St Louis, Mo.-based Midwest Aerials recently implemented the TDPS2000 logistics optimization software from Dispatching Solutions. The busy company needed a more efficient way to assign drivers to jobs and track their progress along the way.

The TDPS2000 software helps Midwest Aerials track transit times on the way to each pick-up or delivery; how long the driver is present at that location; how much fuel is burned; and the fuel mileage for each trip. It also integrates seamlessly with the company's RentalMan software, giving Mike Sherman, Kansas City, Mo., branch rental coordinator, all the information he needs to assign drivers the most efficient routes each day.

Drivers use transponder devices installed in their trucks to communicate with Sherman at each step of pick-up or delivery.

“It's a lot better than before because it was just constant phone calls all day — it was crazy,” says Sherman. “The biggest benefit is you can see where you're losing time and you can actually track it even by jobsite.”

Benefits extend to the accounting side of the business as well. Management can quickly examine by each truck or asset number exactly how much fuel was used from Point A to Point B. Data can even be broken down for each step of the process. This information, Sherman says, helps rental business owners determine whether they have more or fewer trucks than they need.

“The DSI solution provides tools and actionable data so rental companies can move machines and people around in the most efficient way possible,” says Doug Mitchell, vice president of business development for the Ontario, Calif.-based company. “When a driver is assigned to a load in our system, specific and very granular data points are collected on that specific load such as equipment type, driver, etc., allowing one-click access to decision-making information for dispatchers.”

TDPS2000 is also designed to help companies track driver information, from time-clock tracking, drivers' license information, driver performance, truck maintenance and more.

“It will really help with productivity,” says Gary Lynn, Midwest Aerials Kansas City store manager. “We'll probably get four extra runs per day total, which will cut down on overtime, make mileage more efficient and result in fuel savings.”

And its integration with customer's back office systems is key to Dispatching Solutions' success, according to Mitchell, who notes integrations with Rentalman, Rentalresult, GlobalTRACS, and many accounting systems.

“We find that the ROI accelerates rapidly when we help the company modify their process and support it with systems,” Mitchell says. “It's less about ‘learning new software’ that way. It's more about providing tools that make what they did before easier and more efficient.”

San Francisco-based DPL America provides GPS solutions to the rental industry that address dispatching efficiencies, driver accountability, and machine hour monitoring. Recently endorsed by the Canadian Rental Association, DPL America's Titan and Skyhawk systems are engineered to reduce fuel and service costs, provide theft protection and deliver efficiency gains and cost savings for both trucks and equipment.

The Skyhawk Vehicle Tracking System features route history, mapping, stop/start/idle time identifications, speeding notifications, automatic vehicle location updates and mileage reports. The Titan system includes the ability to remotely shut down equipment, wirelessly collect hour meter readings, schedule maintenance automatically, and locate equipment in real time from any Internet-connected device.

According to Tony Nicoletti, DPL America national sales manager, one of the biggest benefits to rental companies of using the Titan system is to control collections with customers. If an asset, out on rent to a new customer for example, goes past due and calls go unreturned, the rental company can remotely disable that equipment, locate and recover it, then settle the customer's account.

Mike Fusco, owner of Flemington, N.J.-based Fusco's Rental, which rents heavy construction, homeowner and party equipment, used the remote disable feature to persuade a recalcitrant customer to settle his account. The customer had a couple articulated dump trucks on rent at a rate of $10,000 per month, and had repeatedly promised to pay the $40,000-plus bill. Tired of the run around, Fusco remotely disabled the trucks, prompting the customer to call and report that neither of the trucks would start. After explaining the situation and receiving assurances that a check would immediately be delivered, Fusco re-enabled the trucks so the customer could get back to work.

Norwalk, Conn.-based SmartEquip offers its e-FleetPro platform, designed to integrate to a fleet owners' fleet or rental management system, creating streamlined processes for parts ordering, service support, purchase order integration, preventative maintenance and invoice reconciliation with fully integrated work order and purchase order functionality. e-FleetPro automates previously time-consuming and error-prone components of equipment service, inventory management, parts procurement and other processes to bring significant efficiencies to a rental operation.

Volvo Rents, which considers repair and maintenance costs a controllable expense, utilizes the e-FleetPro solution throughout its franchise network. The company, which aims to keep its repair and maintenance costs at or, ideally, below 6 percent of annual revenue, depends on the SmartEquip solution to achieve that goal. Quite simply, a rental company can carry many fewer parts, freeing up working capital for use elsewhere, and potentially realize a substantial increase in profit.

Users can call up a parts schematic for any machine, down to the exact serial number, click on the specific part, then view the history of that part with that product, and add it to the shopping cart. Once in the shopping cart, the part links directly to the manufacturer or to your other rental branches to find out the location of the nearest part. Delivery is generally same day or next day, and in the event the part is on backorder, the user knows immediately.

Sum of its parts

“It's pretty clever,” says Volvo's Mavrick. “What's interesting is that you're taking something that's fairly complex and you've made the graphical user interface easy for that person in the field. As you know, if someone perceives something to be difficult, they will resist it, whether it really is or not.”

The e-FleetPro solution provides an effective way for the person in the field or at the counter to take action quickly, keeping equipment up and running, without the need for an extensive parts inventory. In addition to providing integration to all the branches of a rental operation and a growing list of OEMs, SmartEquip solutions are designed to integrate with many other rental industry technology solutions.

“The value is in the integration, at being able to integrate with your other stores or the manufacturer about availability,” says Mavrick. “It's the intelligence that enables the user to look up, using the serial number, the history of that asset, and then tie in to preventive maintenance schedules.”

As technologies engineered for the rental industry continue to multiply, solutions become more sophisticated, intuitive and valuable. Their impact on the business is felt across the board — at the counter, in the shop, in the back office and by customers on the jobsite. Technology-influenced efficiency gains lead to hard dollars on the bottom line, and more satisfied customers.

According to Texada's Whitbeck, the difference between a really profitable rental business and a break-even rental business is actually not very much. For example, if a rental operation has a utilization rate of 50 percent, it's barely making money; but at a utilization rate of 65 or 70 percent it's making a lot of money.

“Technology can help you to drive the difference between that 50 and 70 percent,” says Whitbeck.

It may not be feasible to adopt all the discussed technologies, but take a closer look at what they can do. Users might find that the return on investment will come quicker than expected, and the bottom line will grow wings. Technology is delivering greater business efficiency gains than ever with easier to use solutions.

The absolute value of technology

Latest from Features

Photo by kzenon_Getty images; Design by Deja Hsu, RER
November 2211 Rer Cvr 1540x800
Photo by Finning Canada
Finning Labour 3
Graphic by Joshua Bourland, rer