Next Generation Security: Advancing Electronic Access in Off-Highway Equipment

November 18, 2016 Rachel Pilgren-Kane

Bob Straka, Business Development Manager, Transportation, Southco, Inc.

Incidents of construction equipment theft are on the rise in North America, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB). As off-highway OEMs continue to incorporate cutting edge technologies into newer equipment models, the owner faces new challenges in securing this equipment against the threat of vandalism or theft on the job site.

With progressive designs and upgraded features, newer heavy-duty equipment models not only allow for longer runtime and improved productivity, they also contain expensive sub-systems and components that make these machines highly sought after targets for theft. Because equipment is generally stored on site during a job, security can be a challenge for the equipment owner, who often relies on traditional lock-and-key mechanisms to secure their fleet.

This growing problem has triggered a greater sense of urgency among off-highway OEMs to incorporate new security methods into their designs to make equipment less vulnerable to theft and vandalism. As a result, there has been a steady increase in inquiries regarding intelligent electronic locking and access control – not only to prevent equipment theft, but to protect tools, expensive components and operators.

Current Security Solutions

Off-highway OEMs have long relied on traditional mechanical locks to keep their equipment secure. Considering that numerous copies of a master key are often made and assigned to multiple users, it can be hard to keep track of who has access to the fleet and when.

For example, if a contractor is fired but doesn’t return the key, the equipment owner must consider having an entire fleet re-keyed, which can add significant cost over time – especially if this happens more than once.

To address this issue, many OEMs have turned to independent vendors to provide separate padlocks in addition to factory installed key locks to protect access to cab doors and toolboxes. Unfortunately, this added layer of security also comes at an additional cost to the buyer.

Despite these efforts, the total value of construction equipment stolen annually is between $300 million and $1 billion according to the National Equipment Registry (NER) 2011 Theft Report. Buyers are looking to off-highway equipment OEMs for more secure solutions, and in turn, OEMs are investigating security methods used in other industries for inspiration.

Inspired by the Automotive Industry

Many off-highway equipment OEMs are benchmarking their solutions against those already used in the automotive industry, which has made significant advances not only in security, but in safety as well.

Automotive trends often set expectations that ripple through other industries, such as the ability to unlock a door remotely. The automotive industry adopted remote control locking/unlocking over 30 years ago, and keyless entry is standard across most automobiles today. The technology most commonly used is radio frequency (RF), whereby the user presses a switch on an RF transmitter (usually a key fob), which sends a wireless signal to a receiver mounted on the vehicle. The receiver, which has been previously “paired” with the transmitter upon receiving a valid RF signal, actuates relays which operate the electronic power door locks installed throughout the vehicle.

Some automobiles have also adopted digital keypads, which are mounted to the vehicle and send a signal to lock and unlock power door locks. Others have adopted passive RF systems that unlock the doors as soon as the transmitter is within a specific proximity of the receiver. More recent trends include Bluetooth based access where the user provides the unlock signal via wireless communication using any Bluetooth-enabled device, such as a smartphone.

Like the many consumers who expect their personal vehicles to have these features, heavy equipment operators may also come to work with the same expectations of the machines they use on the job. An electronically operated locking mechanism for example, provides intelligence not available with a mechanical key locking solution. The electronic access solution can incorporate logic to control auxiliary functions such as lighting, alarms and audit trail data for tracking access attempts over time. And of course, electronic locking provides the added intelligence to easily add, delete and remotely control valid digital “keys” or credentials – a major improvement over mechanical key management. These electronic mechanisms add an additional layer of both security and flexibility to off-highway equipment applications by helping to improve access and control.

Recognizing the potential for this technology in the off-highway market, OEMs are beginning to incorporate remote locking devices into their equipment. However, traditional automotive-grade electronic locking systems may not be directly adaptable to off-highway equipment, but more robust variations of these systems exist.

Benefits of Electronic Access for Off-Highway Equipment

Off-highway equipment that has been outfitted with electronic locks and latches allows the equipment owner to remotely lock and unlock vehicles via a signal through a connected key fob, keypad or Bluetooth enabled device. These electronic access solutions record a digital record of activity, allowing the equipment owner to view the status of each access point, such as when an engine hood or toolbox was opened and by whom.

Off-highway equipment that has been outfitted with electronic locks like the R4-EM Outdoor allows the equipment owner to remotely lock and unlock vehicles via a signal through a connected keypad.

This information is available remotely and can be networked with other security systems. For example, if a machine is stolen from the job site, the owner can contact their security service, which can then locate and lock out that piece of equipment.

This remote lock/unlock feature can also be used in situations where ensuring operator safety is a challenge. For example, when an operator must climb a ladder to access the cab door on a large piece of construction equipment. To access the cab, the operator must remove a hand from the ladder to open the door, shifting from four points of contact with the ladder to three. 

Reduced contact with the ladder increases the operator’s chance of injury caused by inadvertently slipping or falling from the vehicle. Integrating electronic access such as a RF proximity system into the cab door design can provide a safe means of opening the door remotely before the operator starts the climb, allowing four points of contact all the way into the cab.

The Evolution of Electronic Access

When incorporating electronic access solutions into off-highway equipment designs, a common practice is to piece mechanisms together using different components from different suppliers. While purchasing parts separately from various supplier catalogs and building the system in-house can seem like a cost-effective solution at first, it can actually lead to longer development times, extended troubleshooting and quality issues, all of which increase costs over time.

As a result, a trend is developing among industry-leading off-highway OEMs – many are working with experienced suppliers to design complete electronic access solutions into their equipment. Integrating a validated, complete solution at the beginning of the design process is more cost-effective over time, because it reduces the likelihood that additional engineering resources are needed for system design integration and product validation.

For over 25 years, Southco has provided engineering expertise to the off-highway industry, offering proven mechanical solutions as well as intelligent electronic locking mechanisms, such as the R4-EM Electronic Rotary Latch. This electronic latch provides secure, concealed latching and can be networked with access control devices including remote control key fobs, pin pads and electronic keys.

With its moisture-resistant actuator, the R4-EM Outdoor latching mechanism provides reliable electronic access for engine hoods, toolboxes and cab entry applications.

Southco’s latest evolution is the R4-EM Outdoor Electronic Rotary Latch, which can withstand dust, humidity, extreme temperatures and other environmental conditions that can be damaging to a system. The R4-EM Outdoor latching mechanism is sealed against moisture and dust, has a high working load and can be easily integrated into engine hoods, toolboxes and cab entry applications where enhanced security and rugged electronic access is required.


Ensuring the security and safety of off-highway vehicles and machinery continues to be a challenge for owners and operators of this equipment. While new technologies used in the automotive industry are a source of inspiration for off-highway OEMs, integrating these cutting edge technologies into their equipment often depends on industry demand.

Making the move to incorporate proven, robust electronic access solutions into equipment designs early in the engineering process enables a significant improvement over traditional security and safety measures that can’t always provide enough protection in every application.

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