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Case Builds for RFID in Construction

Fluor Construction found that active RFID tags could track large metal pipes stacked on a truck with 100 percent accuracy. But there are issues to overcome before the technology is widely used in the construction industry.
By Jonathan Collins
Jan 05, 2004In September, an RFID trial was conducted at a pipe fabrication plant in Houston, Tex., to determine whether RFID could help automate the shipment and delivery of key materials from fabrication plants to construction sites. One key goal was to see if the technology could stand up to the rigors of harsh construction industry environments.

The three-phase trial was hosted by Fluor Construction, one of the world's largest, publicly owned engineering, procurement, construction and maintenance companies. Fluor turned to one of its materials fabricators, Shaw Industries, to help deploy the RFID trial at Shaw's plant.

Also overseeing the project was Fiatech, a nonprofit consortium of construction companies, material suppliers and academics focused on speeding the development and deployment of technologies in the construction industry. Fiatech was formed by the Construction Industry Institute, the University of Texas and the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Building and Fire Research Laboratory.

In addition to providing expertise, “Fiatech brings other construction companies, fabricators and clients into the examination of the potential for RFID in the construction industry,” says John Wadephul, supervisor of field materials management at Fluor, which is based in Aliso Viejo, Calif., and has offices in more than 25 countries across six continents.

Fiatech was cautious regarding the technology. “We had heard of trials years ago where passive RFID failed to demonstrate any advantage over bar codes,” says Charles Wood, project manager at Fiatech. “RFID readers had to be so close to the tags to get a reading that they required the same kind of manpower and line of sight as bar codes.”

For the trial, Fluor wanted to tag spools. A spool is a unique section of steel or carbon steel piping that is later welded to other spools on the construction site to create pipes that meet exact design specifications. Spools can range from two inches to eight inches in diameter and be up to 40 feet in length.

“We wanted to tag the items that we have a hard time keeping track of,” says Wadephul. “These pieces stand on top of each other. There is no line of sight.”

At present, spools are bar-coded at the fabrication plant and then shipped to the construction site, where the delivery is checked. But that process is far from perfect. “Most spools have a bar-coded label on the spool and one on the packing list, but rather than locate the label [on each spool], it is usually easier to identify each spool visually and later, inside the office, use the bar code on the packing list to record the delivery,” says Wadephul.

The potential advantage of RFID is to automate and speed up the delivery and inventory identification process and eliminate the need for visual checking or line-of-sight reading that bar codes require—especially given that these pieces are not neatly stacked when they are transported. If RFID technology worked on spools, the potential market would be significant. “A single project can use between 1,000 and 10,000 spool pieces,” says Wadephul.

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