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Tracking Concrete Cubes for QA

More than 1 million concrete samples are tested in Singapore each year. BuildNow's CubeInfo system uses RFID to dramatically improve the process.
Aug 18, 2002Aug. 18, 2002 - The construction industry is hardly known as a leader in the use of new technologies to booster efficiency. But a Singaporean company called BuildNow has devised an innovative new way to track cubes of concrete, which must be tested to ensure the safety of buildings and infrastructure. The system, called CubeInfo, uses RFID tags that are inserted into the blocks of concrete after they are poured at the construction site. The system eliminates paperwork, reduces human error and makes it possible to disseminate test results almost immediately over the Internet.

Tagging a cube
In Singapore, a sample must be drawn from every six truckloads of ready-mixed concrete delivered to a construction site. The samples are poured into cubes and sent to labs for testing. In this tiny island nation alone, six million cubes are made and tested each year. Each is cured in water, weighed and tested for quality and strength at accredited laboratories at pre-set times, usually three, seven and 28 days.

In the past, a paper form was attached to the cube. Workers would jot down where the cube was poured, the supplier, batch number, date and so on. Often the paper would fall off the cube, or be torn, or the handwriting would be illegible. When the cubes arrived at the test center, there is also plenty of opportunity for human error. "The cubes all look alike," says Tommy Tan, BuildNow's COO. "The technician could test a seven-day cube, thinking it is a 27-day cube, so the strength wouldn't be there. You could end up slowing down a construction project because of a mistake by a technician."

After the tests are completed, the results would be faxed to the quality assurance consultant working on the construction site. Sometimes the faxes would be sent to the wrong number or get mislaid, slowing down construction work.

BuildNow is the IT arm of RDC Holdings, which owns RDC Concrete. Chew Song Kim, whos RDC Holdings' group general manager and chairman of BuildNow, suggested in January 2000 that BuildNow look into ways of improving the way RDC Concrete's cubes were tested. BuildNow evaluated a number of technologies, including bar codes, but each had its problems. Bar codes, for instance, sometimes got torn when the cubes were shifted around while being transported to the test center, and they usually came off when the cubes were submerged in water.

Finally, BuildNow came across a company called TrackWave Technologies, a subsidiary of the German RFID company EuroIQ AG. TrackWave is a value-added reseller and integrator for RFID and other wireless technologies. After much consideration, BuildNow decided that RFID was the right way to go. Not only could each cube be uniquely identified, but all the necessary information about the casting date, project name, concrete supplier and so on could be written to the tag using a handheld device at the site. And although the tags would cost up to $5 each, they could be encased in protective plastic so they wouldn't be damaged and could be reused 20 times or more.

BuildNow began developing a Web portal that would enable the test results to be published on the Web immediately, so a construction company, concrete supplier and relevant government agencies could all review them. In August 2000, BuildNow began testing the system in an internal pilot project. The results were so encouraging that the company realized that the CubeInfo system would not only improve RDC's operations, but it could also be turned into a value-added service for the worldwide construction industry.

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