In 1948, Walter Kennard hired out a concrete mixer from his rural supply and machinery business in Bathurst and an iconic Australian business was born.
Keeping track of a single Lightburn concrete mixer wasn’t too hard – Wally just had to ask his customer next time he saw him. But fast forward 70 years, and Kennards Hire is the largest family owned hire business in Australia and New Zealand over 180 branches, more than 2,200 employees, 1,200 vehicles, 1,000 excavators, 1,200 lighting towers, 1,000 generators – and plenty of portaloos.
Asset tracking, management and maintenance is now a far more sophisticated and complex task for the business. It’s also critically important – equipment loss or unscheduled downtime can have a direct impact on the bottom line. Replacement value of equipment at a typical branch is significant, and when it’s not working it’s not earning.
To provide the business with clarity Kennards Hire has developed an innovative Internet of Things (IoT) solution, leveraging cloud computing, edge computing and satellite communications, to keep track of assets. And it wants to know more than just the location of their assets. Through GPS tracking, it’s using a range of sensors to monitor usage, fuel levels, and a raft of other data so that it can gauge how equipment is used and schedule preventive maintenance when it makes most sense – reducing the risk of downtime and promoting safety.
Beyond the initial pilot, the business is looking to really exploit the intelligent edge capabilities of the solution – so that its customers can also take feeds from the platform to know that the equipment they have hired is being used properly, efficiently and safely.
Dubbed EasyTRAK the system is designed to accept inputs from vehicles, sensors on plant and equipment, wearables and environmental sensors. It analyses the data, transmits it to the cloud, ingests it, performs further analysis and then provides insights to managers, its call centre, eventually through an app to customers, and integrates to the corporate ERP.
It is also designed future proofed – as Kennards Hire buys new equipment, often already featuring its own in-built sensors, the IoT solution can integrate that data, using application programming interfaces (APIs) to access and then ingest the data, before creating a single comprehensive view of the location, health and history of all Kennards Hire equipment where and when it’s needed.
Mitch Hirsch, IT Infrastructure Manager, takes up the story. “We have an extensive range and depth of equipment and we’re talking about getting insights into generators, lighting towers, vehicles, delivery trucks, right down to small and powered hand tools across our network.
“Obviously, the data on the vehicle is going to be a significantly longer list of attributes than what you can get from say just a power drill or something like that. It’s really getting more visibility across our fleets and having a single pane of glass to interact with that information.”
He wants significant information granularity. “Things like how much fuel is in that generator, how long until it runs out of fuel, what’s the battery charge of that electric scissor lift, what are the diagnostic codes that piece of equipment is sending? For example, if there’s a boom lift on site and it stops working, we could see in real time the diagnostic codes coming across.”
Hirsch adds that the IoT solution can be extended to monitor safety, and collect environmental data to help manage site safety and compliance associated with noise and dust management.
Underpinning the Kennards Hire solution is Microsoft IoT Edge, the Azure IoT hub and an array of intelligent edge services that bring together the real and digital worlds. This allows readings from a drill out on a remote site to be collected, analysis performed at the edge, relevant data uploaded to the internet via either cellular networks or satellite, ingested into the Azure IoT Hub, analysed and then made available to optimise equipment and provide importation operational insights to employees and management.
The intelligent edge approach essentially stretches the cloud to create a mesh of interconnected devices and services, creating an interface between the real and the digital worlds.
“Empowering our operational staff, giving them access to this data and this telemetry will help them to better manage their fleet, their branch and their customers,” says Hirsch.
Working with Microsoft and Telstra, which provides the communications backhaul services, and Microsoft partner, Kloud – Kennards Hire developed a proof of concept and then a pilot. Using an Agile approach, the solution was delivered in sprints allowing continual improvement.
To ensure that data from any device – wherever it’s located – can be analysed at the edge then ingested, Hirsch explains that; “It’s really about being agnostic, not just across devices but also that backhaul connectivity stack. So, we will be using the Iridium satellite network, we’re using some partners with a low orbit satellite network. Obviously the traditional 3G, 4G, 5G cellular networks along with LoRa, Bluetooth, NFC, all those technologies as well, will be part of the equation in terms of transporting data from device to IoT platforms.”
This open and agnostic approach also promises Kennards Hire new business opportunities, allowing it to potentially create new revenue streams from information solutions that help Kennards Hire customers manage their own job sites more efficiently by having access to a much greater array of information. The same data that tells Kennards Hire how its equipment is being used can be provided to customers so that they also get greater insights about the way gear is used on site.
Hirsch explains that the pilot is already delivering Kennards Hire with real time visibility about its equipment. “Our branch staff can look at all of their assets in real time, see where they are, where they’re moving, down to who’s driving the delivery truck, how much fuel is in it, are there 10 scissor lifts onsite, but know that only three are being used.
“There’s a million and one sort of different use cases for how they can turn that real time data into tangible value out in the operational world. “
Craig Kesby, Kennards Hire’s General Manager of Strategic Projects, notes that it opens up new business models for the company. “You want to get things like automating the tolling charges from vehicles which saves time and money. Being able to measure the levels of fuel in a generator or a fuel cell or waste in an ablution block enables us to coordinate the replenishment or removal of those items. We can then take that on as a service for the customer remotely, which opens up new revenue streams.”
Kesby says that Hirsch’s deep thinking around the architectural design of the solution means that it can be leveraged with new equipment as it comes on stream, and also integrated with existing information systems – so data sourced from the intelligent edge of the network provides important insights for the business as a whole.
Hirsch’s ambitions for the solution are impressive. He’s already envisioning services allowing customers to use a smartphone app to see how near their equipment is when it’s being delivered to them, and a proactive maintenance scheduler that will save time, money and enhance safety and security. He’s also confident that when deployed fully the solution will let Kennards Hire offer more efficient and cost-effective services to customers without compromising on customer service.
Being built on top of Microsoft Azure also ensures Kennards Hire has instant access to the array of artificial intelligence and machine learning tools that can be leveraged to extend the capability of EasyTRAK in the future.
Kennards Hire’s Keen Customers
After a successful pilot, the solution is now being rolled out to Kennards Hire’s branch network.
Providing access to the data insights to customers takes everything to a different level – delivering transparency about equipment utilisation and the opportunity for much greater efficiency.
According to Kesby, “The feedback from customers when they get an indication of what we’re looking at doing has been surprising. Our customers weren’t knocking on our door asking for it, they didn’t know it existed, didn’t know it was possible. When you give them an idea what’s possible, they then get very interested very quickly in the efficiency and safety gains for their business.
“This has gone from a little niche project being run in the back end of the IT department somewhere, to being one of the core strategic projects for the business. “
Beyond the current horizon for EasyTRAK Hirsch envisages its potential application -monitoring data, moving to a more predictive and automated, rather than responsive, tool – critical for safety on sites.
“Things like advanced telematics, which is pulling in more feature rich sort of data that our larger equipment and output and that sort of CANbus and Modbus data. That’s the diagnostic codes that underpin a lot of the operational metrics beyond just location and fuel.”
Kennards Hire also recognises the opportunity to use its IoT and Intelligent Edge expertise to move into new business areas such as providing services such as site access management, safety and environmental services, with water, noise and gas monitoring, refuelling and water monitoring and compliance, waste management offered by the branch network.
An automated site management system for big festivals or events where a lot of equipment is hired is also possible using EasyTRAK, while it could also facilitate automatic hiring with authorised customers able to access equipment such as drills or saws from unmanned depots.
As Hirsch notes, “Things such as the operational metrics of smaller tools, predictive maintenance, consumption-based charging, has the potential to change our whole pricing model, from time used versus time out and things like that. There’s lots on the cards for the next 12 to 24 months.”
Wally Kennard would be proud.