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Asphalt Company Uses RFID to Manage Safety Equipment

Passive high-frequency RFID tags and readers track the inspections of eyewash stations, fire extinguishers and other pieces of equipment at its 16 plants.
By Claire Swedberg
Inspectors now carry one of the company's 70 tablet PCs to capture tag ID numbers, McKane says—or, alternatively, they can carry one of 45 Tracient RFID interrogators, which can transmit via Bluetooth to a PC tablet assigned to that inspector. Before beginning their work, inspectors input their own ID number into the reader or tablet PC, indicating they will conduct all inspections to follow. The Motion Computing PCs with built-in RFID interrogators can be used to capture the ID number on the tag attached to an item to be inspected, and CASE software installed on the tablet then displays a series of yes/no questions that the inspector must answer, as well as other questions requiring numerical responses. Those answers are saved in the tablet PC and transmitted to the company's Microsoft SQL back-end system via a Wi-Fi or cable connection.

For situations in which the RFID tags may be difficult to access, such as the back of a pump housing, an inspector can utilize the Tracient PadlR RFID reader, which has a wand-like shape that fits better in small places, thus enabling the inspector to get close enough to the tags—which have a read range of no more than 1 inch. Because the interrogator has a Bluetooth connection to the tablet PC, all inspection data—such as the condition of a particular piece of equipment—can be updated on the Tracient reader and stored on the tablet PC, then sent from there back to the SQL server. That server is accessible to managers in separate plants or offices, via the company's intranet.

While the PadlR reader's advantage is its ability to capture reads in difficult places, the tablet PC contains a camera that inspectors can use, if necessary, to photograph the device being inspected, as well as a Wi-Fi network card. This, McKane says, makes the two devices together a complete solution.

The asphalt company first began discussing an RFID solution and testing hardware with CASE in 2008. It sought an off-the-shelf solution, but bar codes were deemed insufficient as a solution because the tags would be worn or damaged and require replacement. The firm first conducted a pilot of the RFID system it currently uses in November, with approximately 50 tags at one of the company's locations. It was then deployed in other facilities by March of this year, with more than 7,000 tags now in use for thousands of fire extinguishers and other equipment.

The deployment is 90 percent complete, McKane says, and there are plans in place for expanding the system to include other preventative-maintenance tasks. Eventually, he adds, CASE intends to offer similar solutions to other companies as well.

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