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Let's talk AI

By Tony Conant

October 2, 2023

Technology is one of the focus areas in the American Rental Association (ARA) strategic plan, and our goal is to ensure that our members are effectively utilizing technology to increase operational performance. Artificial intelligence (AI) falls in this realm and has the potential to improve decision making in almost every facet of our industry. AI is a technology application that can perform tasks that typically require human intelligence. Much of what we do every day is repetitious. I know, rental is exciting because it offers different challenges every day, but those challenges are generally not wildly different. There are different customers with different needs, but we address the challenges with a set of physical resources including staff, facilities and equipment, as well as operational resources like processes, software and decision support tools.

The most productive organizations spend a great deal of time figuring out how to optimize these tools so they work together in the most effective and efficient way possible, and AI is at the core of this work. AI can be used to create content, like ChatGPT does, or make better decisions like the machine learning algorithms used in fraud detection applications. AI is often used to build systems that have the cognitive capacity to mine data and continuously learn from repeated events. Since ChatGPT is all the current rage, I thought I would use it here to show how it works. I asked ChatGPT how rental companies can leverage AI to enhance safety for staff and customers.

Here are five responses:

Real-time monitoring. Equipment can be equipped with sensors that monitor factors like temperature, pressure, vibration and more. AI algorithms can continuously analyze this data and alert operators or maintenance teams if any abnormalities are detected, enabling quick response to potential safety risks.

Computer vision for safety checks. Computer vision technology can be used to visually assess equipment and the surrounding environment. Cameras can detect if operators are wearing the necessary safety gear like helmets and vests, and they can also identify potential hazards in the vicinity of the equipment.

Risk assessment and mitigation. AI can analyze historical data to identify patterns that indicate potential safety risks. This can help rental companies implement proactive measures to mitigate those risks, such as modifying equipment usage guidelines or improving site layouts.

Collaborative robotics (cobots). Cobots can work alongside humans, assisting them in tasks that may pose risks. AI algorithms can enable cobots to adapt their behavior based on human actions and movements, ensuring safe interaction.

Data-driven safety improvements. By analyzing accident and incident data, AI can help rental companies identify common causes of accidents and develop targeted safety improvements. This might include design changes, improved signage or additional safety features.

This is a simple example, and the quality of the results are directly tied to the specificity of the input or question. We have spent decades collecting data and generating digital content without really knowing how it was going to be useful. AI is an application that makes it all very useful given that it is able to parse huge amounts of data very quickly and do so with intelligence — identified by humans — to produce a curated result. The things we are on the cusp of doing are incredible and if we can harness this capability in a meaningful way, it will transform our industry. It will allow rental operators to make better decisions around accepting new customers, increasing the useful life of equipment, reducing downtime and keeping people safer.

AI is also technology that is very accessible for companies of all sizes. Developing marketing plans, writing job descriptions, utilizing a chatbot and refining your strategy are all at your fingertips now. You can literally harness the power of the internet in a much more useful way beyond reviewing pages and pages of search results. Let’s engage on AI and machine learning to figure out how we utilize these powerful digital tools to advance our industry.