Author: Yuko Takeo, Bloomberg
A fleet of excavators, bulldozers and dump trucks spread out across the globe provides an early peek at what's happening in construction, mining, and the broader economy.
The 470,000 machines sold by Komatsu Ltd. almost continuously transmit their position and other key information back to the company in Japan.
Komatsu makes this available to its individual customers via the Internet or an iPhone app, so they can see where all their machines are, how much they've been used, and when they may need maintenance.
The company combines all this information and posts it free on its website, producing a powerful tool for tracking what's happening in the global economy. The data show the average number of hours Komatsu's equipment is used in Japan, China, North America and Europe.
"We're essentially releasing raw data," said Fumio Muto, general manager in charge of the program, called Komtrax. "Whenever the data is good, there's no doubt that both our company and our clients are moving in a positive direction."
It's released around the tenth of each month, faster than almost any other economic data. For Japan, the figures have a good correlation with industrial production data, which shows the output and sales of the nation's industrial giants like Toyota Motor Corp., Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd., and Komatsu itself.
When Komatsu, the world's No. 2 construction equipment maker, first introduced GPS into construction machinery in the late 1990s, it was partly a way to discourage thieves who stole the machines to bust into ATMs. The use of the technology has expanded since then, and is now used to anticipate demand, plan sales and extend vehicle life.
The company collects data from about 140,000 machines in operation in Japan, 110,000 in China, 50,000 in Europe and 70,000 in North America. Rival Caterpillar Inc collects the same kind of data but doesn't disclose it due to its customer contracts, according to a company spokesperson in Japan.
"It does work as a reference point," said Yoshikazu Shimada, an analyst at Tachibana Securities Co. in Tokyo who covers Komatsu. "It shows data on public sector works, and data on China especially affects the global economic overview. Komtrax is part of the data that shows you what state the world economy is in."