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Westar Energy Tracks Power Poles, Transformers With RFID

The Kansas utility company uses the technology to automatically identify when each pole and transformer is removed from storage yards, by whom, and when unused items are returned.
By Claire Swedberg
Aug 21, 2015

For utility companies, the management of assets like wooden poles, transformers and wire is complex and labor-intensive. The movement of these large, high-value items can take place at all hours, often involving multiple employees and contractors. During storms and resulting clean-up work, the tracking of inventory can become even more challenging, but it's also more important, since knowing how many of the items are on hand is critical to restoring power.

Westar Energy, in Kansas, has adopted an automated system that employs radio frequency identification technology to track its pole and transformer inventory. The company's suppliers attach passive EPC Gen 2 ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) RFID tags to all poles and transformers that they ship to three storage yards, where RFID readers are installed at the gates. Contractors' and Westar's vehicles that come and go from the yards have passive EPC Gen 2 UHF RFID tags attached to them as well, so that Westar Energy knows who takes which pole or transformer, when this occurs and when any items are returned. This data, along with daily inventory counts conducted by means of a handheld reader in each yard, ensures that the firm knows what assets it has on hand at any given time, as well as when reordering is necessary. It also saves labor time that workers previously spent manually counting assets within each yard, or making phone calls trying to locate specific items.

Customized UHF tags are screwed to the ends of poles.
Westar Energy is the largest electric utility provider in Kansas. The company delivers power to approximately 690,000 residential and business customers across 55 counties, and holds ownership of 13 power plants and wind farms. It maintains 6,300 miles of transmission lines and 28,000 miles of distribution lines. More than a decade ago, the firm looked into adopting an RFID solution to help track the movements of goods into and out of its laydown yards, but found that the technology was not yet mature enough to provide what it needed at an affordable price. About four years ago, says Rick Boswell, Westar Energy's director of supply chain inventory and distribution, the company reexamined the technology and selected a system supplied by American RFID Solutions.

Westar Energy's Rick Boswell
The solution was installed in 2013 at three storage yards: two for housing poles and transformers at distribution centers servicing the largest cities Westar serves (Topeka and Wichita), and a pole-collection yard located near a substation outside Wichita. Although the energy company must also track a variety of tools and materials, it opted to start with monitoring poles and transformers since they proved to be the most challenging for RFID technology. Hundreds of poles and transformers are stored at each site.

At any time of the day or night, workers may have to collect poles or transformers for repair work on power lines. Prior to the RFID system's installation, Westar's only process for tracking these assets was to have workers fill out a form as they left the yard, indicating who they were and what they took. If they returned something that wasn't used, they had to fill out another form.

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