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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
The test team also found the best way to connect a tag to a spool. Mounting the tag either inside the pipe or on the underside of a bracket welded to the pipe would hamper the ability to get a reading. Instead, the tag had to be mounted flat on the outside of the pipe surface. But an even better reading was gained by letting the tag hang loose from the spool. “Most consistent readings came when tags were not attached,” says Wadephul. “With a hole in the tag, we can use a plastic tie or wire and let the tag swing free.”

Given the size and weight of the items being shipped, damage to the tags in the shipping process could be an issue. For the trial, the spools were tagged after placement on the truck, so that issue has not yet been addressed. But there is little concern among the trial organizers. “Tags are somewhat ruggedized, and I am sure there is technology out there to protect tags,” says Wood. “It's not a big issue.”

While the first two stages of the testing have proved that RFID can be used in such an environment, questions still remain about the potential benefits and costs of deploying the technology in the construction industry.

The third phase of the trial—tentatively scheduled for early 2004—will expand both the numbers of spools tagged as well as the number of trucks that will be carrying the spools out of the fabrication plant. “We are looking to run three or four trucks loaded with spools through a portal and make sure we get 100 percent read with different load configurations and with different spools,” says Wadephul.

This trial phase will also help the company understand how much data to store on the tags. So far, each tag has held the same information that Shaw stores on the standard bar-coded labels it currently uses. This information includes details such as the project number, the client number and the drawing number that the unique piece relates to.

“With tags coming with more and more memory, there are possibilities to store more information,” says Wadephul. “But we have seen that more information slows down read times, so we will also look at putting less information on the tag and tying that to data on a central database.”

Even if the third phase of the trial goes well and RFID proves to be a viable technology in the construction arena, the team that put together the trial maintains that RFID deployment in the building industry will still face some serious business hurdles. “The [construction] industry has a history of being very difficult to set standards. We've seen this with other technologies,” says Wood.

Agreeing upon a standard would be essential, according to Fluor, in order to make deploying tags at the fabrication plant a feasible option. “If there are a number of construction companies that decide to use different tags, there will be protocol problems in the fabrication plant and those plants will have to deploy different readers for different customers,” says Wadephul. If different customers were to use different readers, that would greatly increase the cost and complexity of any RFID deployment and probably stifle any deployment plans.

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