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AI through the lens of equipment rental

By Brock Huffstutler

October 4, 2023

The wave of artificial intelligence (AI) has swept across multiple industries, making its mark even in equipment and event rentals. Achille Ettorre, managing partner, GTA Equipment Rentals, Oakville, Ontario, Canada, has developed expertise in the rapidly progressing AI domain, making him a unique voice in the industry.

Ettorre holds a fellowship at the International Institute of Analytics and is a founding board member at the Smith School of Business at Queen’s University. He also serves on the board of Miami Dade College’s AI Center. Apart from his roles in academia, Ettorre frequently shares his insights on business intelligence through speaking engagements. His experience spans various organizations including Loblaw, Walmart, Disney, SAS and Spin Master.

Rental Management spoke with Ettorre about his introduction to AI’s applications in business and how he is putting it to use in his rental operation. An edited version of that conversation follows.

Rental Management: Where did you gain knowledge about using AI in an operational context?

Achille Ettorre: My journey into the world of AI began right after university when I joined Fanuc Robotics. I was introduced to the integral role of robotics in the manufacturing sector, particularly in automating parts production and assembly processes. The environment, teeming with tech enthusiasts and engineers, was fertile ground for learning.

Later, I transitioned to Loblaw, Canada’s leading grocery company, where I delved into the then-emerging field of “big data.” My role in the supply chain involved optimizing network structure, managing product flow, overseeing global transportation and regulating inventory levels. I established the analytics council for the Loblaw group of companies, spearheading our own program.

My knowledge expanded significantly through strategic partnerships with companies like Disney and engaging with their head of analytics. This exposure to AI sparked my interest and has kept me hooked due to my innate curiosity and passion for unraveling complex problems.

Photo courtesy of Achille Ettorre

Rental Management: How do you approach the use of AI in an equipment rental business context?

Ettorre: I concentrate on three fundamental aspects: the people, the processes, and finally, the technology. It’s worth noting that technology always forms the final piece of this triad.

The successful implementation of AI begins with a focus on the human element — understanding the unique cultural dynamics within your organization, irrespective of its scale.

Next, it’s about gaining an in-depth knowledge of your operational processes and ensuring they’re thoroughly documented. Only after these two steps have been addressed do we consider the technological facet. I stress this order because there’s a lot of buzz around AI, often leading to misconceptions about what it can or cannot accomplish. The bottom line is, without first delving into the intricate details of your people and processes, the true value that AI can bring to the table remains undiscovered.

Rental Management: In what ways has the use of AI benefited your rental operation?

Ettorre: The advantages have been multifaceted. We have integrated our equipment maintenance schedules with our GPS system, ensuring every piece of machinery in our fleet follows a strict maintenance regimen. This method has resulted in increased longevity and reduced downtime of the equipment, which in turn enhances customer satisfaction rates.

The AI system allows us to segment our equipment based on various factors such as manufacturer or usage hours, enabling us to identify patterns in equipment downtime. This valuable insight helps us make informed decisions about the lifespan of the equipment, such as when it’s optimal to sell or retain it. The AI essentially serves as a traffic light report system for our equipment — a red signal indicates the need for attention.

Furthermore, AI has proven to be a game-changer for our marketing strategies and customer relationship management (CRM). It aids in profiling our existing customer base and rental patterns, which enables us to craft tailored profiles to attract potential customers. This is accomplished by leveraging targeted ads on platforms like Google and Facebook Marketplace.

The incremental improvements achieved through these AI implementations have significantly contributed to our growth and identity. It has equipped us with the tools to make decisions that ultimately boost our profit margins.

Rental Management: Did you develop your own AI platform or was it sourced from a vendor?

Ettorre: Our AI platform is a proprietary creation, though there are certainly vendors available for such services. What sets our tool apart is its application to buying decisions. For instance, it enables me to discern the worthiness of a deal at auctions by enhancing reports from sources like Ritchie Bros. or Marketplace. It essentially uses this external data to inform my internal decision-making process, imitating the strategies employed by large-scale businesses but tailored for my needs.

Rental Management: Is there an organizational size threshold where it makes sense for a rental company to look at utilizing AI programs in their operation?

Ettorre: The scale of an organization is irrelevant when it comes to the implementation of AI programs. Whether dealing with large data or minimal data, the focus should be on resolving existing issues within the organization — issues that are universal regardless of size.

The crucial element is understanding the applicable science to alleviate these problems. This might require external assistance in the form of a consultant. The primary advice I would offer is to avoid complexity at all costs. Maintain simplicity and ensure your team comprehends the purpose and mechanics of the AI implementation. This approach will guarantee success for both small-scale and large-scale rental companies.

Rental Management: Are most rental software providers able to offer suitable AI-based programs through their current offerings?

Ettorre: Upon evaluating various software providers, it is apparent that a majority are indeed embedding AI-based functionalities into their services to enhance efficiency and automate diverse tasks. The extent of AI integration, however, does differ from one provider to another.

Every provider generally offers an array of solutions that grant transparency in areas such as fleet management, asset utilization and maintenance scheduling. The more advanced ones employ automation and data analytics, which are fundamental elements of AI technology.

The crux of the matter lies in the source of your data, the method of its assimilation and the decisions you wish to derive based on this data association. It is never a standard solution for everyone; it’s a blend of software, people and process.

Rental Management: What role do you see AI playing in the equipment and event rental industry in the future?

Ettorre: AI has the potential to revolutionize the equipment and event rental industry in many ways. Currently we are working on:

  • Predictive maintenance. AI can predict when a piece of equipment is likely to fail or need maintenance. This can help rental companies to reduce downtime and increase efficiency.
  • Demand forecasting. AI algorithms can analyze past rental data and market trends to predict future demand. This allows companies to manage their inventory more effectively.
  • Automation of administrative tasks. AI can automate routine tasks such as booking, billing and inventory management. This can reduce operational costs and improve customer service.
  • Personalized marketing. AI can analyze customer data to understand their preferences and behaviors. This can enable personalized marketing, which can increase customer engagement and sales.
  • Fraud detection. AI can detect patterns and anomalies that may indicate fraudulent activity. This can help rental companies to protect themselves from fraud.

AI has the potential to make the equipment and event rental industry more efficient, customer-friendly and profitable. However, like all technologies, it needs to be used responsibly and ethically.

Considering AI? Start here

With all the buzz surrounding artificial intelligence (AI), some equipment and event rental business owners may be thinking about utilizing the technology in their operations.

“Adopting AI in a rental business can be a transformative step; it’s important to take a structured approach to ensure the process is as seamless and beneficial as possible,” says Achille Ettorre, managing partner, GTA Equipment Rentals, Oakville, Ontario, Canada, who has utilized AI to enhance the performance of his equipment rental operation. Based on his experience, Ettorre outlines steps others should consider when contemplating using AI:

Market research. “The first step is to conduct comprehensive market research to identify the specific problems that need addressing within your business. This could be anything from customer service to inventory management,” he says.

Feasibility assessment. Ettorre’s next step involves assessing the feasibility of the proposed solutions. “Weigh up the pros and cons impartially, considering factors such as cost, resources required and potential return on investment,” he says.

Strategic planning. “Once you’ve identified the problem and assessed the solution’s feasibility, it’s time to devise a strategic plan,” Ettorre says, adding that “this should involve understanding the processes associated with the problem, outlining your priorities and deciding if you’re prepared to make the necessary investment.”

AI implementation. “Now comes the technological aspect — implementing AI,” Ettorre says. “AI expedites decisions that might otherwise take longer for humans to make. For instance, Disney uses AI to make millions of forecasting decisions daily about room availability in their resorts and cruises. In the rental industry, similar dilemmas exist, such as deciding whether to rent an item for a shorter period at a higher margin or for a longer term. Balancing these considerations is a key challenge that AI can help solve.”

Assemble an expert team. After laying the groundwork, gather a team of business and technical experts to implement the technology. “Remember, perfection won’t be achieved immediately. The key is to consistently improve each day,” Ettorre says.

“Incorporate the decision pattern into your processes and it will become a point in your algorithm that can be fine-tuned over time,” Ettorre adds. “This will gradually improve the efficiency of your rentals and ultimately enhance your overall business operations. This is the sweet spot for my business and how I leverage my skill set to better serve our customer base.”

Ettorre sums up his points by stressing that “adopting AI in a rental business requires careful planning, strategic implementation and ongoing refinement. But with a structured approach, the benefits can be significant.”

The White House secures big tech commitments on AI

The growing prevalence of artificial intelligence (AI) in business, media, entertainment and more has prompted the U.S. government to begin taking steps to monitor and manage potential risks surrounding the technology.

While legislation like the AI Disclosure Act of 2023 — which would require AI-generated content to be marked with a disclaimer — has been introduced in the U.S. Congress, the most visible AI-related activity seen yet at the federal level has been the Biden administration’s securement in July 2023 of voluntary commitments from seven leading tech companies to manage the risks posed by AI.

Amazon, Anthropic, Google, Inflection, Meta, Microsoft and OpenAI committed to three primary responsibilities developed by the administration aimed at protecting Americans’ rights and safety:

Ensuring products are safe before introducing them to the public. This includes the companies committing to internal and external security testing of their AI systems before their release and sharing information across the industry and with governments, civil society and academia on managing AI risks.

Building systems that put security first. This includes investing in cybersecurity and insider threat safeguards to protect proprietary and unreleased model weights, and facilitating third-party discovery and reporting of vulnerabilities in the companies’ AI systems.

Earning the public’s trust. Under this pillar, the companies committed to:

  • Developing robust technical mechanisms to ensure that users know when content is AI generated, such as a watermarking system.
  • Publicly reporting their AI systems’ capabilities, limitations, and areas of appropriate and inappropriate use.
  • Prioritizing research on the societal risks that AI systems can pose, including the avoidance of harmful bias and discrimination, and protecting privacy.
  • Developing and deploying advanced AI systems to help address society’s greatest challenges.

The Biden administration says that in addition to securing these voluntary commitments from AI industry leaders, it is developing an executive order and will pursue bipartisan legislation to help America lead the way in responsible innovation.