To better manage equipment fleets and cut costs, contractors are increasingly using telematics technology, which blends on-board instrumentation and Internet computing. The recession has forced firms to do more with less, fueling innovation to remain competitive. Telematics has become a digital-age toolbox for succeeding in today's tight economy.

Just ask Jeff Ciampa. As operations manager for Aggregate Industries' Northeast region, he processes 23,000 invoices annually from 120 vendors that transport building materials on the company's behalf. Ciampa has reduced paperwork by 70% by combining a global positioning system with payroll accounting software. Both are uniquely configured to reflect regional prevailing wage rates. The materials company first implemented a custom-tailored, hybrid system from software provider HCSS, Sugar Land, Texas, for its Saugus, Mass.-based Northeast region in 2011.

"We generate a daily statement and send it to our vendors by e-mail. They can either accept or dispute it," says Ciampa. "It allows us to see our costs on a real-time basis rather than waiting six weeks to get an invoice from a driver." Telematics also allows Aggregate Industries to gauge truck travel speed, fuel consumption and work production.

But the process hasn't been without hiccups. Larger vendors quickly embraced the format and its subsequent faster payment process while some smaller firms resisted the change."Some of these guys are telling me that it's the first time they have used e-mail," Ciampa says. "There is also a struggle matching our invoice number with their accounting systems. Technically, however, the system works fine. This is definitely the way of the future."

Telematics 2.0

Equipment makers agree, and they are integrating telematics into machines at breakneck speed with features that monitor fluid levels, idle time and maintenance schedules. Telematics can give owners greater management control over the jobsite and allow them, for instance, to create an invisible, electronic boundary around equipment or a jobsite area by using GPS or radio frequency identification. Machines that stray past the electronic border trigger an alert via text message or e-mail. Some manufacturers like Volvo additionally provide a so-called "time fence" for specific hours of machine operation.

Telematics 2.0, which incorporates interconnectivity to smartphones and tablet devices, is quickly being embraced by manufacturers. Caterpillar, for example, now uses a VisionLink system that melds GPS with digital cellular technology for real-time diagnostics. The customizable Web-based interface shows individual pieces of equipment or full-fleet functions.

Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Trimble powers the VisionLink system, which has since aided companies like Saiia Construction Co. in troubleshooting potentially pricey problems. The Birmingham, Ala.-based contractor discovered that its drivers weren't using supplemental braking systems, known as retarders, while traveling down a steep haul road at its aggregate quarry and swiftly addressed the issue.

Telematics "brings all the needed information together in the same place. Instead of guessing what one machine uses, we can look at averages over time," says Saiia project manager Mark Ray. "The customer has been able to get at least 10 more loads a day as a result. It has increased all of our efficiencies." Similarly, Ford's Crew Chief system, introduced last year, claims to cut fuel consumption by up to 20% in part due to its ability to help fleet managers monitor driver behavior.

John Deere, Moline, Ill., recently made its JDLink system available to mobile devices for remote machine mapping. "It alerts customers of an issue in real time, even when they're away from the office," says Liz Quinn, John Deere product marketing manager, in a statement. "Our customers are constantly on the go and have limited time to track entire fleets."