RFID in Maintenance and Field Services

A tragedy in New York City highlights the need to confirm that inspectors are doing their job.
Published: April 1, 2008

Each day that I work at our Manhattan office, I take a subway to 53rd Street and exit at the corner of Third Avenue. When I hit Second Avenue, I make a right and zigzag down to our office at the corner of 49th Street and First Avenue, often passing a construction site on 51st Street and Second Avenue. On March 14, a 15-story crane on that site fell while being extended, killing seven people.

Last week, a city inspector was arrested for falsifying paperwork. This inspector claimed he’d inspected the crane 10 days prior to the collapse, but police allege he never went to the site. No one is suggesting the tragedy would have been averted had the inspector done his job properly, but the inspector’s failure is certainly going to cost New York City money—at least one relative of one of the dead is suing the city for $30 million. And the failure to inspect the site will certainly come up during the case, making it harder for the city to claim it did everything possible to ensure the crane’s safety.

This tragedy brings to mind an article we published a couple of years ago, regarding how Frankfurt Airport is using RFID to confirm that inspections of fire safety equipment are conducted properly (see RFID Lands at Frankfurt Airport). Fraport, the company that runs the airport, started using RFID in 2003 to manage and document the federally mandated maintenance of fire shutters in its air-conditioning and heating ducts.

Fire shutters within an HVAC system are designed to close automatically to keep fire and smoke from spreading throughout a building’s ducts. Passive 13.56 MHz tags were added to individual fire shutters, and maintenance engineers use handheld computers equipped with RFID interrogators to identify each shutter and document any inspections, maintenance work and repairs.

To date, the airport has tagged more than 50,000 shutters within the 440-building complex. The system worked so well that Fraport also tagged 80,000 fire doors, smoke detectors and emergency lights, making RFID integral to the airport’s facilities management.

“We’re not really working on RFID in terms of ‘projects’ anymore,” Werner Breitwieser, technical project manager at Fraport, told our reporter. “Now, RFID applications are simply part of doing business.” Fraport’s use of RFID provides a clear example of how the technology can be used to ensure inspections are carried out. The system also increases productivity and accuracy.

Prior to RFID deployment, Fraport utilized its ERP system to flag equipment that needed checking. Maintenance engineers received paper forms describing the equipment that required maintenance, as well as maps marked with individual items’ locations. Each piece of equipment had a unique number assigned to it, and to its location. After completing any work, engineers had to fill out paper forms by hand, detailing any work carried out. Those forms had to be entered manually into a maintenance management application, provided by SAP.

Now, a handheld computer with an RFID interrogator links the maintenance engineers’ on-site work with the SAP software, which has greatly reduced paperwork and manual errors. The system isn’t foolproof—no system is—but RFID maintenance systems could help ensure that people do their jobs and equipment is inspected regularly, which could reduce liabilities greatly.