Though a long time coming, the regional uptake of telematics is finally rising in leaps and bounds, even if users don’t yet appreciate the technology’s full utility.
John Taylor, COO of Sitech Gulf, the official distributor of Trimble and a subsidiary of Gulf Caterpillar dealer Al-Bahar, says: “We’ve seen fantastic adoption of the technology last year. That’s a good thing. We sold more systems in Qatar alone in 2015 than had been sold in the entire history of the Gulf region, including Saudi Arabia — so it’s been fairly dramatic.
“There is always a push against technology here. We’ve been a dealer for three years now, but when I first talked to people it was just going right over their heads on technology.
“They’ve been doing the same thing for 40 years — so why should they change? It’s worked for them for 40 years. But I think with the way the economy is right now, they’re starting to understand that they’ll have to increase their efficiencies, and a renewed interest has come about over the last year or so.”
All things are relative, however, and while track-and-trace functionality may now exist in thousands of vehicles and pieces of equipment in the region, the uptake of more sophisticated forms of telematics such as machine control, GPS positioning and driver behaviour monitoring is still a long way away.
Taylor adds: “We’ve had huge success in this region, but it’s a relative success. Only 1% of the machines in this region are using advanced technology, like VisionLink, machine controls and production monitoring, whereas in Europe, the US and Australia, 50% would be using this type of technology. We’re growing dramatically, but we’re still at less than 1%.”
Part of the reason for this is the slow pace of vehicle and equipment regulation in the GCC.
In a rare exception, Dubai’s Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) recently announced that it is in the final stages of setting up a vehicle defect monitoring system that will require all heavy vehicles in Dubai to be fitted with telematics devices — but this system and the depth of its analysis remains to be seen.
However, telematics implementation has occurred in sectors like oil and gas, where regulation and the stringent requirements of oil giants like Saudi Aramco is ahead of the crowd, and with international logistics companies, who are accustomed to using the tools and technology from its use in their home markets.
Alan Hall, MD for the Middle East at MIX Telematics, explains: “If we look at Saudi specifically, at the moment the industry is in its infancy for sure, but the oil and gas majors have adopted it well — it’s part of their policy and procedure to have a device in every vehicle — and the market leaders like Schlumberger (a MIX client), Chevron, Halliburton, Baker and all of those people have them, because they get the benefits of it. However, if you’re looking at Saudi in general, the government-supported companies haven’t adopted it all.
“But it’s not actually a cost; there’s a well-documented and evident return on investment. I can quote you numbers from all over the globe on good returns that have been obtained.”
A specific subset of construction projects where advanced telematics can make a huge difference to productivity is in road-building operations and also port and marine work.
Anders Thomsen, construction technology application specialist for Caterpillar in the region, notes: “When you get into construction, there is a big potential for technology: machine control, telematics, anything that can help the customer be more productive: save costs or produce more.”
One of the most popular systems installed by Caterpillar and facilitated through Sitech is the mounting of GPS receivers on the blades of motor graders to provide automated machine control of the blade and receive satellite guidance to ensure the surface being levelled by the grader is accurate to the millimetre.
Thomsen explains: “With motor graders, it’s normally just a copy and paste on what’s below, so to do that manually is not actually very efficient. Everywhere we implement this, we see a 100% to 300% productivity increase. From one day to the next the operator will finish up to four times faster.”
Originally from Denmark, Thomsen affirms that back in his home country, half of the machines sold leave the dealerships with some kind of 3D machine control on them, and “hardly any machines go out without some form of machine control”.
He doubles down by explaining that far from adding complexity to an operation, machine control can allow the same complex tasks to be carried out by less well trained operators without having a detrimental effect on performance — a key consideration in many markets in the Middle East.
Thomsen comments: “What we have today immediately helps you get a sensible guy to learn this operation much faster than is conventional. Instead of trying to go out and get these guys that are 90% to 100% proficient operators, we can take a 50% guy and make him a 90% guy very quickly.”
Advanced telematics systems can also replace otherwise time-consuming ways of carrying out a number of functions on site. The flipside of machine controls on a grader is that surveying software can determine exactly what volume of earth has been moved where.
Alternately, Thomsen offers: “Let’s say you’re trying to build an island or a port and you have to have the bucket of your excavator underwater or you’re trying to place these big boulders under the water with a crane. It’s invaluable to be able to do that with GPS positioning — because otherwise you need a diver and a surveyor and it would be very time-consuming and difficult to do.”
The transport and haulage sector is another opportunity, and one where manufacturers are increasingly launching sophisticated telematics offerings. MAN Truck & Bus is currently in the early stages of introducing its MAN EcoStyle telematics system in the Middle East with the OEM’s long-standing partner, Microlise.
This system provides a range of detailed information about fleet positioning, direction, speed, status and time at customer locations, and is designed to improve driving standards.
It was introduced by MAN Truck & Bus Middle East in November 2015, but it has been used for more than a decade in the UK, where in excess of 10,000 MAN commercial vehicles are equipped with the system.
Where it has been implemented, a 10% to 30% increase in productivity and a reduction in fuel consumption of between 10% and 15% has been shown to be achievable within a year.
Dr Richard Brown, head of product management at MAN Middle East, is confident that the current conditions in the Gulf will only add to the persuasive argument for uptake.
He explains: “The low oil price has resulted in government budget reductions. There have also been increases in fuel prices, and the combination of factors is exerting pressure on commercial vehicle operators, both small and large fleets, in terms of an efficient usage of resources in all GCC countries.”
He highlights the efficiency of operations and driving style as two key areas where companies in the region could make significant improvements with sufficient fleet data — by reducing trip times and fuel consumption.
He adds: “There is an ever increasing supply of transport capacity in the Middle East. This is also creating an increasingly competitive environment within the logistics sector.
“Considering all the factors that are prevalent today for the transport industry, the introduction of MAN EcoStyle to the Middle East at this time presents operators of MAN commercial vehicles, and other brands, with the ideal tool to compete.”
Taylor notes that “there’s a lot of interest” in seeing what telematics we can do for monitoring and increasing efficiencies, and returning to the high rates of uptake in the oil and gas segment, adds: “Hopefully they’ll drive the rest of the industry as well.”