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RFID Is the Alaska Gas Pipeline's Strongest Link

A construction project this huge, and in such a hostile environment, faces some unique challenges, which RFID can help address.
By Oliver Hedgepeth Sr., Morgan Henrie and Oliver Hedgepeth Jr.
Nov 06, 2006Alaska is a remote area, its boundaries sharply defined by few transportation points using ships, aircraft and limited road infrastructures. One land road connects Alaska to the Outside (the word Outside is a proper noun in the Alaskan vocabulary). This road, the Alcan Highway, passes through Canada, then down to the United States—the only land route between the nation's 49th state and the others to the south. And yet despite its remoteness, Alaska is positioned to be a first frontier for RFID.

The Trans-Alaska oil pipeline stretches 800 miles from the top of Alaska to its bottom, crossing more than 800 rivers and streams, torturous mountains and valleys. One road parallels this pipeline for daily logistics support by commercial carriers hauling logistics supplies and project management materials, as well as for daily operation and maintenance activities. The Alaskan pipeline development stories, more than 30 years ago, are part of the history books for today's young logistics managers and project managers to peruse, and part of today's news stories as sections of the pipeline wear out. But a new world-class pipeline is coming, and RFID will play a key role to show how a small computer chip can save millions of dollars. The Alaska Gas Pipeline will connect Alaska's North Slope to the Lower 48, stretching 2,140 miles.

Oliver Hedgepath, Sr.
When work started on the oil pipeline in April 1974, the initial equipment required weighed nearly 40,000 tons. Each ounce of this material was shipped in by air, and trucked across roads made of ice, in the winter. By the end, transporters had moved more than 3 million tons of material into the pipeline construction area, and each item had been hand-counted. Millions of cubic yards of gravel had to be mined, stockpiled and hauled, and thousands of individuals had to be moved, housed, fed and kept safe within a hostile environment.

Putting aside any political issues, the pipeline took three years to complete and used a workforce of more than 70,000 people, with a surge capacity of nearly 30,000 people one year. The physics of building of the crude-oil pipeline was more than just connecting pipes, however—it involved conducting more than 300 archaeological surveys, drilling nearly 4,000 boreholes, examining in excess of 15,000 soil samples and building 29 construction camps.

aintaining an inventory of the material's location, where it needed to be and where it was finally installed was, essentially, a manual process. Warehouse personnel, logistics personnel, construction crews and a small army of support personnel kept track of the material as it moved through the supply chain. In the process, databases were developed and maintained, inventories taken, mistakes made, reorders required, material lost, and emergency shipping and costs incurred. And throughout it all, constant communications were essential to keeping things moving. The final project costs exceeded original estimates, in part attributable to the challenges of manually maintaining a supply chain. While supply-chain challenges did occur, the crude-oil pipeline achieved its unique mission of bridging the need to move crude oil from the north slope of Alaska to the rest of the world.

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