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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
Finding the budget to deploy RFID on a project-by-project basis would be another hurdle. “Construction is a very cost-sensitive industry. It is project-oriented, and the lowest bidder for a project usually wins the contract,” says Wood. With wider industry acceptance of RFID, however, spreading the additional cost across contractors might offset the expense of RFID.

Fluor maintains that much of its own work is not project-based, but is charged to the client on a time and materials basis. If deploying RFID can be shown to bring savings either in construction time or cost, clients could lead the push to demanding RFID be used on a contract.

“To get going on RFID deployment, we would need a little driving by our clients,” says Wadephul. “If our oil, gas and chemical clients' plants see any advantage in RFID, they will be telling us to use it.”

Measuring the savings from RFID deployment is another task yet to be carried out. “But we do know that when the materials are in front of a worker, then he can work quicker,” says Wadephul. No matter who deploys the RFID technology, Fiatech and Fluor agree that the cost of RFID remains an issue.

“I'm very concerned with active tag costs, although they are coming down in price. Every vendor I have talked to so far is charging above $50 per tag. With a single job potentially using 10,000 tags a shot, the economics is not inconsiderable,” says Wadephul.

He says that there are ways to offset much of that outlay. Active tag batteries can last up to 10 years, so Fluor is looking into recycling tags and using them on multiple projects. “As projects last one to two years, we could get five projects from a single tag,” says Wadephul.

This recycling could also help generate new business. For example, fabrication plants and material suppliers could attach tags to their wares and then charge an additional ongoing fee until the project no longer needs the tags and the project manager returns them. But this could only be possible if the hoped-for construction-industry RFID standard emerges.

“With a single RFID standard deployed across the construction industry, a fabrication plant could install the tags, and construction companies would pay a rental fee for each tag for the length of the project,” says Wadephul.

Despite the active tags' ability to perform successfully in the trial, both Fiatech and Fluor say that if passive tags can ever be shown to perform as well as or better than the active tags, then passive tags—which cost far less than active tags—might be used instead. But there are no plans to run similar tests with passive RFID.

Wood says that during an upcoming February meeting in Houston, Fiatech plans to present its members with academic papers on the RFID trials. Fluor hopes that the greater exposure of the trial’s findings will generate wider interest in deploying the technology across the construction industry.

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