According to equipment managers working for contractors owning fleets valued at $100 million and more, they will remember this period as The Decade of Data. Sophisticated electronics under the hood of heavy mobile machinery is giving these people a clearer view of the real cost of owning and operating equipment. Many managers previously had no choice but to guess at costs, based on limited historical information.

The change is having a profound effect on their jobs. "In the past, if we wanted to know the history of a piece of equipment, we had to go find a handwritten list," says J. Pat Monnot, vice president of global operations for AMECO, Fluor’s for-profit equipment services division. Today, he says he can find out "what happened to a machine two hours ago" anywhere in the world, without getting up from his desk in Greenville, S.C.

IRON MAN Zachry’s J. Mike Monnot sees a gold mine in the new wave of available field data for machines.

The change is starting to have a positive impact on company balance sheets. "There’s never been a more rewarding time to be involved in equipment," says J. Mike Monnot, director of equipment, tools and scaffolding for San Antonio-based Zachry Construction Corp. Pat Monnot’s younger brother of two years, Mike Monnot says that greater access to machine run-time analytics is allowing him to become "an active, contributing participant" in the firm, rather than a passive service role that is part of overhead.

A focus on corporate finance and core competencies, coupled with this influx of up-to-date field data, has elevated equipment managers to positions of higher responsibility within their companies and, in some cases, launched star performers to the executive level. Those like the Monnots who are willing to dip their toes into the new pool of technology have a good chance of success, experts say.

Todd M. Perrine, equipment manager at Kokosing Construction Co., Fredericktown, Ohio, says that even with all the information and data, finding the right people to use it correctly is not easy. "People are my first priority, then equipment," he says.

"The equipment management business is becoming more and more complex," says Mike Vorster, a civil engineering and equipment finance professor at the Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Va. "Equipment managers will run 300 machines and know each one better than I know my kids," he jokes. In reality, he says these people control the "lion’s share" of a firm’s assets-to-revenue, a number he averages across the industry at 35.6%. That is certainly not a responsibility companies should take lightly, especially when "the chief executive in the vast majority of cases is not a gearhead," Vorster warns.

Smoke Signals

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s diesel cleanup program, which regulators began pursuing aggressively in the mid-1990s, is becoming a big hurdle for technicians to overcome. But they are promised significant, long-term benefits that are worth full exploration.

Reducing tailpipe emissions is the top contributing factor to new technology in engines. Heavy-duty construction machinery and trucks currently are being fitted with electronic control modules (ECMs)–essentially small onboard computers–as various engine classes phase into EPA’s program. The next "Tier 3" emissions deadline for off-road construction equipment is in January. On-road diesels changed this year and will change again in 2007 (ENR 5/24 p. 10).

In order to lower exhaust pollutants of machines, manufacturers connect ECMs directly into most engine, transmission and smaller-component functions, such as fuel and air delivery, hydraulic pressure, coolant flow, valve timing, electrical-system distribution, cam timing and powershifting. That means the ECM actively monitors and optimizes diesel combustion and power transmission and can parse the relevant information into real-time reports for manufacturers and users.

The value of this technology is a gold mine for equipment managers. As each next environmental step forces a higher level of sophistication in clean diesel engines, experts agree that the vast amounts of data left behind will be the legacy of EPA’s diesel cleanup program.

"We have more tools at hand to measure things we weren’t able to measure before," says Dave Markey, vice president of equipment services for American Infrastructure Inc., Worcester, Pa. A certified equipment manager and president of the Association of Equipment Management Professionals, Glenwood Springs, Colo., Markey says that years ago, he used to dream about how neat it would be to turn on a computer and dial into a machine. "That is all doable today," he says.

However, there is a small trade-off that few manufacturers care to discuss openly. The ECM’s first priority is to serve the low-emissions directive. It has no choice but to deliver performance second. Most everyone who drives a passenger car or light truck has experienced this effect. Rapid acceleration is delayed off the line, followed by a burst of power when the vehicle reaches about 20 to 25 mph. Many manufacturers are installing higher-horsepower engines to offset the lag time, but they risk compromising fuel economy, experts say.

In effect, the operator is at the mercy of the ECM. "The only input you are giving the engine is the throttle position," says Robert J. Aquaro, vice president of product assurance for Mitsubishi Fuso Truck of America Inc., Logan Township, N.J. He...

s manufacturers bounce back from a three-year recession that killed a record boom for new construction equipment, owners are jumping up and down over some very exciting changes inside the machinery. While last century’s greatest developments were diesel engines and variable-pressure hydraulics, which gave birth to scores of now-familiar machines, onboard computers are driving the latest changes.