One of the biggest challenges contractors face is getting the most out of every dollar invested in heavy equipment. Measuring fleet utilization has always been a tricky science, but the more precisely a business can track each machine’s contributions to their bottomline, the better their return on equipment investments will be.

Now, heavy equipment with embedded sensors and Internet connectivity is helping contractors constantly collect and analyze data about usage, maintenance needs, downtime, and more. This information can be used to make construction more efficient by keeping better track of fuel use or predicting maintenance needs to reduce machine downtime.

Contractors can also use IoT (Internet of Things) connectivity to better track time spent on certain projects, helping them package more accurate bids for future work or track overruns to avoid contract disputes when billing customers.

IoT-ready equipment has taken center stage at construction expos around the world in the past few years, but contractors should know that there are several ways to get equipment connected and reap the rewards of detailed data.

Integrated IoT Equipment

Most contractors are probably already aware that equipment manufacturers offer connected equipment with built-in telematics sensors and associated apps. The technology is generally built into the largest machines in OEM (original-equipment operators) lineups today, though it’s quickly becoming available on smaller equipment too.

Businesses that are already planning ahead for the costs of new equipment can invest a little more to update their fleets with new models that have IoT sensors and come with complementary tools, like mobile apps. On top of the extra cost for connected equipment, it is likely OEMs will charge extra up front or add an annual subscription fee for data usage through apps.

Except for those subscription fees, that investment will only cover one machine, so replacing several outdated machines with new, connected ones could be prohibitively expensive. Businesses that want to connect more of their equipment or even their entire fleet at once will want to avoid taking on too much debt to finance a fleet overhaul. They should instead explore aftermarket connectivity options that are more cost-effective than new machines.

Outside of purchasing IoT-ready machines and apps from OEMs, a contractor’s two primary options for IoT connectivity are fully-customized platforms or “plug-and-play” style IoT terminals. Each option still requires some design work but should cost less than a few new machines.

Building a Custom Platform

Custom IoT solutions start from the ground up, so contractors will need the help of outside experts to design and layout printed circuit boards. Firms hired will need extensive RF design experience in cellular applications and will need to source and purchase raw circuit boards, electronic components, antennas, and power supplies—and that’s just to develop a prototype.

The finished IoT product will then need to be certified with the respective carriers through a process that can be quite time consuming and costly as well, and businesses that go the custom route will need to negotiate the ongoing costs of cellular connectivity with mobile network operators.

For businesses with very large fleets, the potential for savings on fuel, labor, insurance, and other areas may justify these investments in fully-customized telematics solutions. For smaller fleets though, it may not be cost-effective to build an IoT program from the ground up. Instead, “plug-and-play” IoT solutions are probably a better fit, and still less costly than purchasing new equipment.

Plug-and-Play Cellular Terminals

Terminals purchased from IoT device manufacturers should already be certified with mobile network operators, significantly reducing the barrier to entry for contractors who want to connect equipment.

While prototyping and compliance testing are already taken care of, some technical assistance will be necessary to connect IoT terminals to machines and back to apps and cloud networks. But it won’t take a large team of engineers to attach terminals to machines and connect them to networks; off-the-shelf terminals really are “plug-and-play,” when compared to custom solutions, and businesses will likely be able to find capable outside IoT consultants in their area.

Even after integration with an IoT platform, the plug-and-play approach to IoT connectivity is significantly faster than building a custom solution. Custom IoT designs may take 18 months in total, while off-the-shelf terminals will have data flowing from machines in the field to analytics platforms in the office in just 3-6 months.

Choosing the right IoT solution

Regardless of the method, connectivity is making a positive impact on bottomlines for those businesses that are tracking machine data through the IoT. The choice between new equipment, custom IoT solutions or plug-and-play telematics equipment really depends on the size of a business and their goals over the next several years.

Large businesses with many thousands of machines and steady work lined up for the coming years might be more attracted to gradually connecting fleets as they replace equipment, or to custom IoT solutions that require significant investments but offer large returns across massive fleets.

Conversely, smaller businesses with less certainty for work three or five years out may earn a competitive advantage by investing in plug-and-play IoT to connect specific equipment or their whole fleet.

For businesses of any size, the best place to start is with a plan: what information do you not have about your fleet today that will make it more cost-effective for the future? With the IoT, finding that data could be as simple as “plug-and-play.”

Scott Parish, channel manager of mobile services and IoT, Gemalto North America, has worked in the semiconductor and IoT industry for 30 years and today manages Gemalto’s North American IoT channel.