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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.
What makes the CubeInfo system valuable is not just the elimination of paperwork and human error, but also the ability to track data. BuildNow's Tan hopes that over time, CubeInfo will develop a deep database of information on concrete suppliers and the ability to analyze the data for suppliers.

A testing station
The data could also be of great importance to the construction firms. Often when a building develops cracks in it superstructure, there is no way to trace back who the concrete supplier was. CubeInfo will store data for five years and then burn it onto a CD-ROM so the construction company can have a permanent record of concrete deliveries for each project. The test results are linked back to a specific batch of concrete and even which suppliers provided the raw materials to the ready-mix concrete maker. So if there is a problem with a building's concrete in ten year that results in a lawsuit, there's a chance that the data will provide clues to who's at fault.

Tan wants to take the CubeInfo system global. He's in talks with groups in the United States, Germany and Australia. The Mass Transit Railway System in Hong Kong, which develops property around subway terminals, is now evaluating the system. He may have an uphill battle on his hands.

Even though the CubeInfo system is clearly superior to the old way of doing things, convincing companies in Singapore to use the system hasn't been easy. Other than RDC, only two concrete suppliers have signed on to use it, TMC and Hanson. "Last year, we did a lot of marketing," says Tan. "We are talking to all the concrete suppliers to enable them to use the system. But there is a lot of education that we need to do. That is one hurdle we need to overcome."

One issue is that everyone in the construction industry is used to doing everything on paper. Tan says some concrete suppliers ask if they can print out the test results from the Web site, even though it would be more efficient to download the results right into their systems. And the other labs have been reluctant to invest in the hardware and integration needed to enable their test equipment to read the tags. Only one, SETSCO, has agreed to use the CubeInfo system.

About 150,000 of Singapore's 1 million test cubes are tracked using the CubeInfo system. But the effort is beginning to catch on. CubeInfo won a prestigious merit award last year, and the Singapore government's Building Construction Authority has embraced the technology. CubeInfo is working with the government's Land Transport Authority to test cubes on a number of projects. And the all-important consultants are slowly being won over.

"The consultants like the system because they know results are accurate and they get them quickly," says Tan. "Sometimes they are working on a key column in a building. They want to get the results quickly so work doesn't slow down."

CubeInfo makes money by reselling the tags and readers to concrete suppliers, and by providing integration services to the labs. It also charges the labs a fee for each test that is done using the system. BuildNow built the CubeInfo system, including the Web portal, in about six months with a team of four IT people and two quality assurance professionals who provided insights on how the testing systems should work. Tan says the biggest challenges weren't technical in nature.

"The most challenging part was stringing all the processes together and ensuring the integrity of the system," he says. "We had to make sure the information couldn't be manipulated."

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