Picture a remote set of boots on the ground that constantly sends out status reports on construction activity across the globe. Now, imagine that existing work tools—trucks, dozers, cranes and drills—are the virtual boots, beaming quintillions of bytes into the ether every day.

This is how John Meese describes wireless telematics, which the senior director of heavy equipment for Waste Management, Houston, uses to keep tabs on a fleet of more than 5,000 pieces of machinery scattered across 700 locations in North America. Meese and his team use this data to schedule maintenance, train operators and gain other efficiencies.

"I don't have sufficient feet on the ground to see what is happening at every location," explains Meese, who estimates that, by the end of this year, Waste Management will have wired up about 20% of its fleet with telematics.

Monitoring so many machines represents an annual investment costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, but Meese has found that the data pays back in reduced breakdowns and costly downtime. Upfitting the machines and subscribing to the data feed is the easy part; the hard part, he and others note, is managing the data, which, in itself, has become another maintenance item.

"More technologically advanced equipment is a double-edged sword," Meese explains. "We can see more rapidly issues with machine health. At the same time, that means the machine is more complicated."

"Telematics" is a general term that applies to any mobile vehicle, tool or device, usually wired up with sensors, that sends information into a cloud. For years, this capability has been important to logistics operations, such as at NASA, Walmart and FedEx, but is gradually sinking into other industries, construction among them. Adoption rates are quickly increasing as more machines are leaving the factory with the necessary hardware built in, and costs are coming down for wireless monitoring services.

Because of today's complex emission controls, it's difficult to buy a piece of heavy machinery that is not equipped with some kind of data-feed capability. This development is helping fleet managers to diagnose, maintain and route machines more efficiently. Some are using this data to manage beyond the machine and identify risks, such as failures, claims, training gaps or even deadly accidents before they happen.

Caterpillar Inc. is one company trying to get ahead of this analytics curve. On March 5, the earthmoving manufacturing giant announced that it was investing in a technology start-up called Uptake, whose platform "takes massive data provided by sensors, combines it with data science to understand signals and patterns, and deploys insights in real time that save money, optimize performance and prevent unplanned downtime," according to Brad Keywell, co-founder and CEO of Uptake. "We want to empower our customers with the insight necessary to shift from a reactive 'repair after failure' mode to a proactive 'repair before failure' stance," adds Doug Oberhelman, Caterpillar's chairman and CEO. Prior to the announcement, Uptake had been working with Cat to refine its locomotive business.

As big data moves into big iron, new services—such as productivity benchmarking, using dump-load counters and other tools—become possible. Remote diagnostics also are gaining ground. By helping fleet managers improve equipment availability through timely data, manufacturers are helping dealers stock parts and sell services more efficiently.

While telematics could improve sales margins on parts, suppliers note that their mission is to keep clients up and running. "The customer is in control of everything," explains Dave Stafford, technology application specialist for Caterpillar. "The system lets the customer know when the maintenance is due and will give a list of parts required for that service." With clients' permission, dealers also can use Cat's VisionLink platform, developed with Trimble, to monitor fleets.