Tracking your kit: How to use RFID technology on construction sites

RFID can help construction firms manage assets more efficiently

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As many in the construction industry can probably attest, keeping track of building materials, equipment and work tools on-site can come with its fair share of challenges. Radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology, however, can offer a solution to this problem, enabling contractors and site managers to better track and manage their assets, many of which are considerably high-value items.

Canada-based Intelliwave Technologies saw an opportunity in the market when major engineering, procuring and construction (EPC) firms often faced issues keeping track of materials required to build facilities they were working on.

“If you don’t have your materials, you can’t build your facility according to the schedule,” says Dale Beard, CEO and co-founder of the Alberta-based firm, which specialises in providing RFID and GPS materials tracking solutions for large industrial construction projects.

Delays cost time and money, and therefore incentivise firms to try to find an alternative that helps them manage assets more efficiently. Enter SiteSense, a solution offered by the firm that combines sensor tags (barcode, RFID and GPS), readers, mobile devices and web-based software and support services. SiteSense provides construction firms visibility of their assets, like materials or equipment, from suppliers to project-site warehouse and finally into installation.

Typically, Intelliwave Technologies works with suppliers, vendors or fabricators and attaches sensors to the equipment or the fabricated goods, Beard says. “As soon as it becomes visible on our system, we start tracking it and tracing it. When it gets to the project site, we usually have automated infrastructure to track materials as they move from one location to another.”

Materials tracked could be anything from pipe spools to structural steel. “In some cases, we track consumables or some of the bulk items as well, depending on what they are.”

As far as equipment tracking is concerned, Beard says there are normally two categories of machinery: manned and non-manned. Non-manned typically refers to equipment like light stands, generators and welders, while manned equipment includes cranes, trucks and so on.

Understandably, non-manned and smaller equipment is much harder to keep track of, and is usually tracked with RFID or in some cases GPS, he explains. Manned equipment, on the other hand, is tracked more for maintenance or safety purposes, and not generally for improving efficiency and productivity on-site.

US-based Trimble also offers a solution to enable construction firms to quickly and easily track and locate equipment in real time. The RFID tracking solution was introduced about 12-18 months ago and is yet to come to the Middle East, says Andrew Caldwell, regional manager, Trimble Civil Engineering and Construction Division – UK, Ireland, Africa and Middle East. The firm, however, plans to bring it to the region over the next few months, likely by the first quarter of next year.

It goes without saying that the most obvious benefit for contractors and equipment managers is inventory management, notes John Taylor, chief operating officer at Sitech Gulf – the distributor for Trimble machine control systems for heavy equipment, operating in all of the GCC except Saudi Arabia.

“Quite often, if you talk to a plant manager, he’ll think he has three excavator buckets sitting in his yard. But when he goes out and checks, those buckets won’t be there yet, and he’ll have no idea where they are.”

This issue can be resolved by installing sensors on the machinery or tools to be tracked, as well as on the gate of the site, so that a plant owner can locate pieces of equipment when required, and also know when they enter or leave the yard, Taylor explains. In case a piece of equipment is misplaced, a site manager can walk around with a handheld reader that can help him locate it. “It’s a good control method for lost assets.”

Another key advantage of using RFID solutions is in maintaining assets, Caldwell notes. Trimble offers inspection software that works in conjunction with RFID, and can be installed on a tablet, iPhone or Android and given to a maintenance inspection team. “You can have pre-designed inspection checks on the device, so that when an engineer goes out to do a test on a multi-grader or a bulldozer, he has a readymade checklist that he goes through and he ticks it off.”

The maintenance team can visually inspect assets, take photographs to document issues, store inspection data and create reports with the software. This helps ensure equipment and maintenance managers have current information for health and safety standards, auditing purposes and scheduling preventative maintenance. The inspection data can be stored in a centralised database and accessed across multiple sites, reducing reliance on paperwork.

Although RFID has been around for a long time, its use in construction applications has been relatively recent. But even with the potential benefits it offers, there is still a long way to go in terms of educating the market, Caldwell and Taylor note.

“There will be a certain amount of education that’s required to actually justify the investment, but it’s a very simple calculation,” Caldwell says. “Most organisations have experienced first-hand how much kit goes astray. They need it urgently for another project and they end up not knowing where to find it, so they have to go purchase another one. Therefore, it’s really a cost-saving exercise in inventory management.”

Considering that the construction industry in the Middle East is usually slow to catch on to technology in general, Taylor anticipates that it will take a while for the market to warm up to the idea of using RFID on projects.

There is also the issue of up-front cost versus long-term savings, where customers only think about the initial investment and don’t consider the time and money they could save by not having to manually locate assets. “If you install either an RFID or GPS tracker on some of these large assets, you know exactly where it is at any time. If you lost a gen-set because it’s sitting on a project you did two years ago and nobody went and picked it up, you have no idea where it is.”

For a concrete example of how time can be saved with RFID solutions, Beard recounts a case study where such savings were calculated. “It took 36 minutes on average to find each piece that was not tracked with RFID. The ones that were tracked with RFID were about four minutes per piece.”

Factoring in the thousands of tools or pieces of equipment that may be required on a job-site, the potential for savings is enormous, he notes.

Even though there’s an up-front cost associated with deploying RFID, it’s not that large compared to how expensive the equipment on-site usually is, Taylor says. “You lose so many tools every year on job-sites. Overcoming the technology roadblocks here in this region is simply just an education process, and that’s what we’re trying to do here at Sitech.”

RFID: How to go about it

If a contractor does decide to deploy asset tracking solutions on a project, Sitech would first have a discussion with his team to determine issues which frequently recur, such as whether equipment is frequently misplaced, and if so, what kind of equipment.

For instance, a firm that uses large excavators for port work may not have problems with their big machines but may have a hard time keeping track of their excavator buckets. “In this case, they can put an RFID tag on each one of those buckets. They can create geo-fences around their project and the yard where the equipment is stored, and then they’ll be able to track these assets wherever they’re actually at.”

While Sitech will offer support and recommendations on what kind of asset tracking solution would serve the customer’s needs best, a customer is free to set it up the way it would like. “We would recommend assigning a name to each asset. So you can scroll through a list of assets that you’re looking for, select it, and then it will tell you the location of it, or help you find it if you’re in the yard itself.”

RFID tags are available for machinery from smaller, handheld tools like impact wrenches all the way up to the bigger machinery. “It really depends on the customer’s needs, what issues they’re having, what kind of equipment, etc, and then we can assess and see if the RFID solution is better, or maybe they need to go for an asset-tracking GPS solution.”

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