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RFID Automates A-Plant's Tool-Rental Trailers

The British company has adopted an RFID system from 4hSolutions that tracks the drills, grinders, saws and other equipment it provides to construction workers.
By Claire Swedberg
Aug 06, 2010In early 2010, British construction equipment rental supplier Ashtead Plant Hire Co. (A-Plant) sought a way to automate its new onsite tool-rental trailers. The new 27-foot trailers would come loaded with drills, grinders, saws and other tools required for a specific job site, and construction workers would then rent the equipment they needed, while unused tools would remain in the trailer. To manage the trailers, A-Plant wanted a system that would minimize the number of visits its own staff needed to make to construction sites, while eliminating the need to station one of its employees at the trailer to monitor the loaning of equipment, and simultaneously offering better, more affordable service to its customers by ensuring that they only pay for the tools and equipment they actually used.

"We were seeking to develop a fully automated system that would provide 24-7 access to the exact equipment needed," says Asif Latief, A-Plant's marketing director. "The whole premise was around providing remote locations for our customers, while reducing environmental impact" resulting from driving to and from stores for tool rentals. A-Plant has approximately 100 stores, located throughout the United Kingdom, where their 40,000 customers can access the equipment they need, or have it delivered to their construction sites. With a trailer (known as an Auto Hire Unit) loaded with the necessary equipment on a job site, the need to transport tools back and forth from a store would be eliminated.

Asif Latief, A-Plant's marketing director
U.K. firm 4hSolutions provides RFID-based solutions for tracking equipment use on construction sites, but the application A-Plant required was different. "They had a concept of what they wanted to do, and wanted to know what technology could do to make that happen," says Andrew Davies, 4hSolutions' sales director. A-Plant's executives not only wanted to know about each item that was removed from the trailer, and by whom, but also when something needed to be serviced. The system developed by 4hSolutions involves a passive low-frequency (LF) RFID tag attached permanently to each tool kit (a box that typically contains one tool and its associated attachments), as well as an RFID reader that snaps onto and off of the kit.

Upon arriving at the trailer, each construction worker is assigned an ID card from Paxton, containing an LF 125 kHz RFID tag. That individual swipes his or her card near a Paxton access-control RFID reader at the trailer's entrance, and the ID number is captured and sent to a PC in the trailer. Assettagz software, provided by 4hSolutions, links that ID with the individual carrying it, and that data is then transmitted to a server hosted by 4hSolutions, thereby indicating that a specific person has entered the trailer. The information is then forwarded onto A-Plant's back-end system. At the same time, the scan of the Paxton ID card at the initial door also prompts the closed-circuit television (CCTV) positioned at that spot to begin filming. Once the individual enters and the door closes and latches, he or she then scans his or her ID card at a second reader attached to the wall beside a second doorway entering into the storage area.

The trailer is lined with shelves from which 100 plastic power strips extend, each with a snap and an LF 125 kHz RFID reader, manufactured by Elatec, attached at the end of it. Each tool kit comes with its own snap, as well as an RFID tag. When the kit is snapped into the plastic strip, the reader captures its unique ID number and sends that information to the Assettagz software running on the PC in the trailer. If the item is taken off the shelf, it must first be unsnapped from the strip. The interrogator no longer detects an ID number, and the software is thus updated to indicate that the kit has been removed. The system then knows, based on the ID card presented by that staff member when he or she entered, who has taken that tool kit.

By requiring each tool kit to be snapped into the reader, Davies says, the company ensures that the each staff member is personally responsible for the return and proper storage of that kit, rather than simply placing it on a shelf or near the trailer and assuming the system will detect it. The individual must then have his or her own tag read once more in order to exit the trailer. In the case of an emergency—there is an emergency exit that is unlocked—an audible alert is sounded if the door is opened. The Assettagz system also receives an alert if the emergency exit is opened.

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