Landscaping Company Keeps Tabs on Tools

By Michael Belfiore

Environmental Management adopted an RFID asset-tracking solution to eliminate losses and monitor inventory.

In the U.S. Marines, everything has a process, says Brian McGrady, Environmental Management, Inc.'s assets and facilities manager. He should know. McGrady served 21 years in the Corps managing logistics, including an eight-month tour in Iraq, where he helped supply a battalion of 1,000 Marines. And, says McGrady, "A good process is vital in the Marines." Now, he sees RFID-enabled asset-management processes as the key to EMI's success.

But before McGrady came on board, processes were sorely lacking at EMI, a $25-million-a-year business, based in Plain City, Ohio, that provides landscaping and grounds-maintenance services to homeowners and businesses across central Ohio. EMI's managers wanted to double the company's revenues within a few years, but managing inventory was a hindrance to growth.

The team used epoxy to attach tags to some tools and electrical tape to attach them to others, based on tests conducted at EMI to determine which would be least intrusive when using a given tool, while also staying in place without damaging that item.

"We had no accountability," McGrady recalls. When tools inevitably went missing, there was no way to track down where they ended up. Often, the company had no choice but to re-order the mislaid equipment, wasting money.

Leaders of each landscaping crew were required to perform inventory counts once a week, McGrady says, but the manual process was broken. Crew leaders filled out paper forms, and it took McGrady and an assistant a minimum of three hours each week to update spreadsheets. "Many of the forms were illegible," he explains. "Often, you couldn't even read who the guy was." Even worse, to stay on schedule, crew leaders would sometimes estimate rather than verify the quantities of shovels and other items, which would lead to a shortage of crucial tools on a job.

Now, only a year into his job at EMI, McGrady has overhauled how the company tracks tools and equipment, by implementing an RFID asset-management solution from Silent Partner Technologies (SPT), based in Lutz, Florida. He estimates EMI has achieved roughly a 240 percent return on its investment during the first year of its use alone.

Keeping a Handle on Tools
When McGrady interviewed for EMI's assets and facilities manager position in November 2014, the conversation with Gary Clark, the company's second-in-command and co-owner, quickly turned to how to stop the ongoing loss of tools and other equipment, and how to gain control of the company's weekly inventory process. Clark and the then-maintenance operations manager were already considering RFID as a possible solution, and McGrady had experience using the technology to track equipment for the Marines.

Soon after joining the EMI team, McGrady began the task of selling the idea of RFID for asset management to the rest of the company. He first obtained buy-in from the executive team—including EMI's president, Mark Wehinger, CFO Tom Kiefer, landscape operations manager Brandon Gepper, and maintenance operations manager Jason Hall—by explaining how the technology could support the firm's expansion goals.

Brian McGrady uses a handheld reader.

McGrady then had the more difficult task of getting the sales managers and area managers who would actually be using the RFID solution to accept it. At a regularly scheduled production meeting, he gave them a presentation on RFID-enabled asset management—what it was and what it could do—and showed them how such a system could reduce waste and add value. "It wasn't an easy thing," he recalls.

The sales managers were immediately receptive to the idea of new technology that could boost the bottom line, McGrady says. The area managers were a harder sell, because some employees were resistant to learning a new process, while others were concerned the new system might be more time-consuming.

McGrady places an RFID tag under the seat of an ATV.

But McGrady knew obtaining everyone's support was crucial to getting an RFID system to work effectively. So he won the area managers over with another presentation in which he explained how the new system would actually save them time rather than waste it. He also showed that the return on investment—as calculated by EMI controller Tom Kiefer—would result in greater pay for them. "The production [area] managers are awarded an annual bonus based on profit margin," McGrady explains, "and this program would yield a gain in less than three months."

In March 2015, McGrady began searching for the right RFID asset-management solution provider. He soon learned that very few providers offered dedicated solutions for landscaping businesses. "There were some that could tailor [a solution] to us, but they hadn't had that experience before," he recalls. McGrady wanted a solution purpose-built for landscaping, and that also came with a high degree of support.

McGrady narrowed a field of 10 contenders down to Silent Partner Technologies and one other company. Each offered a solution that fit within EMI's $35,000 budget for the project, and both made good sales presentations. But SPT, he says, offered to provide more of the support he wanted.

Tools in the office trailer were inventoried within five seconds using RFID.

In addition, McGrady liked the rugged tags that came with SPT's solution. "Those things are almost impossible to destroy," he states. "That was one of the most important things to me," because EMI's tools need to handle tough jobs. Plate compactors, for example, "vibrate at a high rate of speed," he explains. "My guys use shovels for everything. They use them as crowbars, they use them as hammers, you name it. So I had to have something durable."

Preparing the Ground
In May 2015, McGrady and the EMI managers selected SPT and its landscape asset-management system. SPT then sent a team to EMI to explain how the system would work and to test a variety of passive, ultrahigh-frequency RFID tags, as well as adhesives for attachment to the tools.

They decided to identify hand tools, such as seed spreaders, shovels, pitchforks, street brooms and fence post drivers, via SPT's Micro tags. Power tools with two-stroke engines, such as weed whackers, leaf blowers, hand augers and tillers, as well as metal gas cans, would be tracked using Confidex Halo tags. For bigger pieces of equipment, including all-terrain vehicles, trucks, riding mowers, large augers and generators, the team chose Confidex Ironside tags.

The team opted to use epoxy for attaching tags to some tools and electrical tape for others, based on tests conducted at EMI to determine which would be least intrusive when using a given tool, while also staying in place without damaging that item.

The SPT team remained in Plain City for three days, after which McGrady put in an order through SPT for roughly 2,000 tags of all of the chosen types. Before sending the tags to EMI, SPT applied a bar-code label to each tag and associated that bar code with the tag's unique identification number, to simplify data entry in SPT's Intelliview software.

Confidex Halo tag

McGrady and an assistant, yard manager Clark Loman, began attaching the tags in June, and they completed the job before the end of EMI's peak season. To register the tools in the IntelliView application, they scanned the bar codes on the tags using a Datalogic reader connected to a Panasonic Toughbook laptop, which entered the asset number. They then added any pertinent information, such as the model number, warranty and calibration date.

McGrady took charge of training, which continues to this day on Monday mornings. He knows training is critical to the project's success—and one of its biggest challenges. "In landscaping," he says, "we have a lot of different people from different walks of life, some people that have no technology experience." He worked after hours to train each of the 21 managers who would be responsible for monitoring inventory with one of the four Convergence Systems Ltd. CS101 UHF Gen 2 RFID handheld readers provided by SPT. "I still stay back," McGrady says. "If they have an issue, I don't have a problem with being the last guy here." He also created laminated reference sheets to further aid in training.

According to McGrady, his performance efforts have paid off. "I can't emphasize enough how important it is to have an internal project manager who's dedicated to the success of the project," says SPT CEO Ted Kostis.

Harvesting the Benefits
Now, every morning, before EMI's approximately 80 trucks go out, the yard manager climbs on board each vehicle equipped with a handheld RFID reader—which runs SPT's IntelliView software—and registers all inventory present. "We've taken something that would take you hours to do, if you even did it," Kostis explains, "down to seconds with 100 percent accuracy."

Upon their return from a job site, the closing manager uses a handheld reader to quickly register the tags on each truck. "As the tags are being read, they're coming off the screen," Kostis states. "Whatever hasn't come off the screen, that's the item that's missing." The team also periodically takes inventory in the company's warehouse, albeit not as frequently as before.

Confidex Ironside tag

McGrady figures the RFID asset-management solution paid for itself within just over the three months originally projected. His estimate is based on the savings from not having to replace missing tools, as well as a reduction in the man-hours required to conduct inventory.

These days, McGrady can identify missing items on the day they are lost. Often, finding them is as simple as tracking them down their last known locations. Occasionally, missing items have been stolen from a job site. In such cases, the asset-management solution enables crew chiefs to identify which items have been pilfered before they even leave the scene. That makes it easy for McGrady to identify them for police and the pawn shops with which he has established relationships. "As long as we can identify it," he says, "then we get it back."

EMI is considering adding SPT's GPS-enabled fleet-tracking hardware and software solution to the mix, to enable managers to keep tabs on the whereabouts of their trucks at all times. For now, though, the asset-management solution is more than earning its keep, and is helping the company to grow by making operations more efficient.