It’s official — the wrecking ball is joining the Internet of Things. On any given day, Caterpillar, the 90-year-old industrial equipment giant, has more than three million machines in the field around the world. But the biggest and baddest industrial Cats — bulldozers, excavators, backhoes and loaders — aren’t just moving mountains of dirt and digging tunnels. They’re beginning to move mountains of critical machine data from onboard sensors and other IoT gear, enabling new services and capabilities for equipment owners, customers, yard managers, service technicians and everyone tied into the big business behind the hard labor.

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As part of Caterpillar’s recent minority investment in data analytics platform Uptake (founded by Groupon co-founder Brad Keywell), the company is aiming to bring its physical product line online — enmeshed into what its bigger rival, GE, calls the Industrial Internet. As Caterpillar CEO Douglas Oberhelman recently explained, sensors on a Caterpillar dozer working in the Arctic might soon be able to diagnose a mechanical problem, relay an alert back to the equipment owner and “maybe even back to the actual engineer who designed the product.”

Here’s a broader look at how Caterpillar is looking to modernize its fleet and make IT a critical part of running an industrial-equipment business:

  • IoT 101 tech on board. Caterpillar already has sensor-outfitted equipment that can measure fuel, idle times and other inputs, and an internal data team has been working on job-site optimization and equipment utilization for several years.
  • Data R&D underway. In February, the 90 year-old company launched a data innovation lab at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign that brings together its R&D resources in computer science, engineering and operations. The lab is focused on “emerging and disruptive data-based technologies.”
  • Uptake-powered analytics and services. According to Greg Folley, vice president of Caterpillar’s analytics & innovation division, Uptake will help Caterpillar co-develop a platform that collects and analyzes equipment data to give customers real-time assessment of machine health and predictive diagnostics. Ultimately, the new platform will be rolled out globally, and accessible via smartphones, tablets and laptops. As Folley says, “We must think outside the machine.”

ABOUT Lauren Zanolli

Avatar photoLauren is a freelance journalist most interested in what happens at the intersection of technology, business and society. She has covered economic development in the Middle East from Istanbul, microfinance and social entrepreneurship from Mumbai, and worked in the solar energy business while in San Francisco. She is currently based in New Orleans. Find her on Twitter @LaurenZanolli