AI and the future: Manufacturers and equipment rental operators adapting to new technology
By Stephen Elliott
October 4, 2023
In the equipment and event rental industry, finding solutions to challenges resonates throughout for manufacturers, rental store owners and operators.
Artificial intelligence (AI) has taken the world by storm, and with it, a long list of potential opportunities await as companies look at how to improve and add value. Along with opportunities are concerns about AI, concerns that have already attracted potential government intervention and initial guardrails on both a national and international scale. A balancing act exists between humans and machines, and finding ways to improve productivity and innovation is a story still being written.
AI is evolving. For both manufacturers and rental stores, there is no set timeline for implementation.
“I believe that, at some level, we will see AI adopted in every single business as a simple aid to daily tasks, as we’ve seen the world adopt ChatGPT as a ubiquitous work companion seemingly overnight,” says Dave Swan, senior vice president, Trackunit, London, Ontario, Canada. “As to more specific construction- and rental-focused problems, I absolutely see these impacting rental companies this year and accelerating going forward.”
Swan says AI is at the center of some of the biggest challenges in the construction industry. Predictive maintenance or proactive machine issue intervention is what he calls “the Holy Grail” of machine connectivity for original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and their customers.
“This is the idea that without being beside a machine physically, a service technician could be notified of an imminent failure of a piece of machinery at a sort of ‘mission control’ where they can respond before it impacts productivity,” Swan says. “Taking that foundation and applying AI to build machine-learned models which tell that technician ahead of time which machine might fail and why, this is the next level.”
Swan says AI can potentially drive a more profitable, greener, safer and efficient construction industry.
Andrew Kahler, manager of technology solutions for John Deere, says Computer Vision and Machine Learning (CVML) are important elements of the Deere technology stack.
“These technologies are helping Deere develop solutions that solve some of our customers’ biggest challenges inclusive of improving productivity, augmenting the constrained labor pool and providing opportunities to enable improvements in overall job-site safety,” Kahler says. “Additionally, AI enabled by advanced data analytics and connected fleets can surface key insights to allow customers to make informed decisions unique to their operation.”
Kahler says CVML is being leveraged to help assist operators as well as enable autonomy.
“Specific to the construction industry, Deere is utilizing computer vision and machine learning in our soon-to-be-released SmartDetect™ solution to identify people around construction equipment and alert the operator of their presence and location,” Kahler says. “This is a useful tool in helping improve operators’ situational awareness.”
Kahler says CVML also is playing a key role in the perception system enabling Deere’s autonomy solutions.
“By identifying and classifying the environment, CVML enables machines to complete key tasks autonomously,” Kahler says.
Joel Honeyman, Doosan Bobcat vice president of global innovation, West Fargo, N.D., says the construction industry has seen an evolution of machine automation capabilities that has rapidly evolved over the last 12 to 18 months.
“There are several reasons why rental houses should take the time to learn about autonomous equipment and consider planning for future additions of these machines to their fleets,” Honeyman says. “For one, rental customers will continue to ask about it. Right now, early adopters are exploring how autonomous equipment can add value to their job sites through practical application and machine usage, while others are simply curious about how autonomous machines work.”
“For another, providing your customer base with varied technology and machine offerings can help you stay ahead of the competition and prepare your business for future opportunities,” he says.
Evan Fort, senior vice president (SVP) of Global Technology, Point of Rental Software, Fort Worth, Texas, says AI has been around for a long time, but new generative AI is changing the way many businesses operate.
“We believe that harnessing these new AI technologies will help improve our customers’ experience, make rental faster and more efficient, and ultimately help our customers outperform their competition,” Fort says. “AI can benefit rental owners and operators in countless ways. At Point of Rental, we’re building some of our own tools, but we also work with partners and are considering other partners throughout the rental ecosystem.”
Fort says there are emerging technologies that determine likely mechanical failure, which can help save on parts by allowing a machine to get fixed before it goes down on a job site.
“Even things that seem simple, an AI chatbot trained on software documentation, can help you get answers quickly and without having to get ahold of phone support,” Fort says. “If AI can answer those questions, it also frees phone support to be able to better, and more quickly, answer the tougher questions that come in, helping everyone be more productive.”
To see AI in action, Fort says there is currently a lot of focus on generative AI and ways Point of Rental Software can use it to benefit rental owners and operators. In addition to the help chatbot, the one technology Fort’s company is closest to implementing is leveraging generative AI to write better product descriptions on rental store websites, rather than relying on the description the manufacturer provides.
“By providing more complete, unique descriptions, customers and search engines will better be able to find the right products in your store,” Fort says. “And operators won’t have to spend hours figuring out how they want to describe every product they carry.”
Thomas Lee, director of product management at DEVELON North America, Suwanee, Ga., says AI is on his company’s radar.
“DEVELON plans to apply AI-based Prognostics and Health Management (PHM) and safety technology to our equipment for enhanced reliability and availability,” Lee says. “AI is an essential technology to move toward automation and unmanned construction equipment. AI has a lot of potential in our business areas, and we are working together to accumulate high-quality and relevant data.
“Once we have the data, we can prepare application solutions to address challenges, optimize processes and improve operations in our industry,” he says.
Lee says AI can be utilized for enhanced safety and operator productivity, including object detection (OD) using cameras in the safety field to enhance situational awareness, monitoring work site environments and helping to prevent accidents.
“Work productivity and work stability can be improved through automatic creation of optimal work trajectories for unmanned equipment,” Lee says.
AI is expected to improve field productivity by proposing optimal equipment operation schedules in the form of field work management solutions, Lee says.
As for adoption by the rental industry, Lee thinks AI can have an impact.
“It is anticipated that AI technology can be used to offer optimal rental solutions tailored to customer use cases,” he says. “However, as this relies on data accumulation and testing, it is expected to take more time.”
Alexander Sarian, sales lead — APAC, Baseplan Software, Houston, says AI can examine data quickly and derive valuable insight, enabling better decision making for clients. As a result, inventory management, demand forecasting, resource allocation and predictive maintenance are some of the areas where AI can make a substantial impact, Sarian says.
“Baseplan is already engaging with our in-house development team to understand and realize some of the product advantages that can be brought about by AI,” Sarian says. “We believe that there will be a relatively fast adoption of AI within the rental industry, through key considerations like integration complexities, data security and user adoption, which must be considered before fully committing to the technology.”
Kahler with Deere believes AI will be adopted in specific areas where, “it can help solve key problems or augment the workforce. It isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, but instead, another tool in the toolbox.”
For rental house owners, AI doesn’t have to be a big, overwhelming idea, Honeyman says. Implementing automated processes to keep track of maintenance schedules, product inventories and rental histories, for example, are just a few examples where AI can be integrated into the business, in addition to new machine adoption.
“Rental houses could think about these emerging technologies as a business opportunity,” Honeyman says. “We expect to see more customers who wish to try these solutions by renting before purchasing. In fact, some solutions may only be available as shared or rented options, initially. Rental houses may have the opportunity in the future to not just rent assets, but also rent the services made possible with these technologies.”