Stop heavy equipment theft in its tracks

June 1, 2009
Sophisticated tool- and equipment-tracking systems automate and dramatically simplify the process of tracking and managing a construction company's business-critical resources, including expensive and hard-to-secure equipment like loaders, backhoes and dozers.

Theft of equipment from construction sites amounts to as much as $1 billion annually, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, and it estimates the dollar value of equipment theft rises by 20% every year. And that's just the equipment itself.

The time spent filling out theft reports, waiting for equipment to be replaced and scheduling conflicts to be resolved, and the expense of short-term rental costs and the penalties that can result from not finishing projects on time, not to mention the loss of client trust and loyalty that comes from poor project performance, increases losses exponentially.

The National Equipment Register, a database of heavy equipment ownership and theft information, cites five reasons why construction sites are such attractive targets for thieves: high value of heavy equipment, poor security, ease of selling stolen equipment in the used-equipment market, low risk of detection and arrest, and low penalties if prosecuted.

Probably less than 10% of stolen equipment is ever recovered, the NER states, because of the delay in theft discovery and reporting, inaccurate or nonexistent owner records, complex and inconsistent equipment identification systems that hinder theft investigations, lack of pre-purchase checks in the used-equipment market and limited law-enforcement resources for equipment-theft investigations. Except for the last item, each of these factors relates directly to the absence of effective equipment management throughout the construction industry.

Heavy equipment theft is big business, conducted by professionals who know how to break into a jobsite and make off with equipment under cover of darkness. By the time the theft is discovered, the thieves have either delivered the equipment to a waiting buyer or taken it to a “chop shop.” Equipment is then stripped of any identifying markings, taken apart, reassembled with parts of other stolen equipment and sold in the used-equipment market or shipped overseas. Without 21st century equipment management, tracking and identification mechanisms, including RFID and GPS systems, owners and law enforcement have little chance to locate, much less recover, stolen equipment.

Until recently, construction equipment, tools and supplies were managed by various home-grown methods, ranging from hand-written logs and card files to computer spreadsheets. Some proprietary resource management systems designed by accounting software companies were designed to track the financial aspects of assets and overlooked the logistical and practical considerations needed by shop and field employees and supervisors.

Today, technology is advancing at a rapid pace as sophisticated tool- and equipment-tracking systems automate and dramatically simplify the process of tracking and managing a construction company's business-critical resources, including expensive and hard-to-secure equipment like loaders, backhoes and dozers.

Combining assets and materials data into one, easily accessible, centralized database provides detailed information every department needs to ensure that all physical construction resources, not just equipment, yield the maximum value possible. Tool- and equipment-tracking systems have been built to fully address today's complex resource management challenge while placing useful software and devices into the hands of the people who need them most: warehouse, shop and field personnel.

A best-of-breed solution employs a combination of software, hardware and some kind of unique identifier, such as the uniform worldwide 17-digit product identification number adopted in 2000 on a bar code label, which withstands abrasion, corrosion, moisture, high temperatures, solvents, harsh chemicals and UV light, attached to equipment and parts. The coded information is transferred to the main database through a docking station, USB port or even through a wireless connection.

A recent addition to the world of equipment management is the advent of radio frequency identification to manage equipment and tool inventories. This technology works similarly to bar code labeling, but the RFID tag is inserted into the equipment rather than applied to its exterior. This makes the identification tag difficult to remove. The RFID tag holds an identifying number that can be read with a RFID-reading tool.

Radio frequency identification can be integrated into a bar code scanning system, allowing the company to choose which option is appropriate for which tool or equipment. Most vendors offer scanning tools that can read both RFID tags and bar code labels, making it easy to use both technologies side by side.

GPS systems have become ubiquitous over the last few years with inexpensive units available to anyone. But for construction companies, GPS is a necessity, not a consumer gadget. GPS helps counter loss and theft, especially with big-ticket heavy equipment. With GPS, law enforcement can find the equipment faster, usually with less damage.

The most advanced systems use forensic tagging to prevent equipment loss. By blending technology and psychology, forensic tagging enables companies to prove ownership of their tools and equipment beyond the shadow of a doubt anywhere in the world.

In short, equipment bandits are getting more sophisticated and audacious every day. An effective tool- and equipment-tracking system can keep them away from your most expensive assets.

Don Kafka, a pioneer in the field of construction management software, is the president of Denver-based ToolWatch Corp., a technology company offering tool and equipment-tracking systems. Its applications use the most current and reliable technology to manage resources, including tools, equipment, materials and consumables. For more information, visit or call 1-800-676-4034.

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