Skyscraper Panels Tracked via RFID

Permasteelisa North America is tracking its glass and steel panels as they are installed in new city buildings, while enabling a history of each panel, along with its warranty and maintenance records, so they can be easily accessed using a handheld reader.
Published: March 29, 2019

Building envelope company Permasteelisa North America (PNA) is using RFID technology in its North American construction projects to manage the locations of its curtain wall window panels as they are built into customers’ structures. The technology enables workers to easily identify each panel and its history simply by reading tags via a handheld device.

The solution, provided by Vizinex RFID and using the company’s customized tags, enables PNA to link an RFID tag ID to data about the production time and materials, as well as any damage or rework conducted on a particular item. This information is then stored in the company’s software. The system not only creates an automated record of the product, but enables easy access to records about it, along with the bill of materials, thereby reducing the need for employees to search through paperwork.

Robert Skowyra

PNA is a part of the Permasteelisa Group, a global contractor that engineers, manufactures and installs architectural envelopes. These all-metal and -glass curtain walls serve as building exteriors, while the company also provides supportive interior systems. The units are valued at many thousands of dollars apiece and can be hung in buildings by the thousands. Having accurate, timely data regarding each of the firm’s products is paramount, says Robert Skowyra, Permasteelisa’s senior supply chain and logistics manager—not only during a project, but also many years after it is completed.

Prior to deploying RFID, the company faced several challenges. A window panel can be difficult to identify, and the only way to view information about any panel traditionally required searching through paperwork. While bar-code labels can be used during construction, these can be time-consuming to scan and usually need to be removed once construction is accomplished. Because the location of each unit being installed can be decided during construction, there is no automatic record of where that item is located. “The accuracy of the unit’s location is vulnerable to misidentification,” Skowyra says.

Tracking the unit after installation is important not only for PNA, but for its customers as well. PNA offers extensive warranties, and the company then negotiates warranties with its suppliers. Those warranties vary widely, making it highly complicated to keep track of the relevant information. To provide a warranty, companies need to know when a given window panel was made, as well as other information that can be useful for both warranties and maintenance, such as the sealants and materials.

With the RFID system in place, Permasteelisa can track the location and condition of each window panel it installs. This information is then stored in its own software, and unlike bar codes, passive UHF RFID tags could be hidden from view, and could be easily accessed via a handheld reader. However, the company had trialed several RFID tags and found that it was difficult to find a tag that would meet its functionality requirements. After five months of testing technology that failed to meet its needs, the firm began working with Vizinex, according to Ken Horton, the company’s CEO. “There are challenges in ensuring an RFID tag operates properly in this environment,” Horton says.

PNA sent Vizinex a mockup panel unit, and the RFID company spent two weeks testing the technology and modifying its existing RFID tags in order to solve PNA’s problem. The resulting tag can be embedded in the glass and metal panels at the frame, where they will be invisible to the human eye but can be read with the same effectiveness as UHF tags on less challenging materials. PNA was able to use a handheld reader to interrogate each tag and thereby automatically access data regarding the corresponding panel, as well as the bill of materials for the construction project and inspection records, maintenance requirements and warranties. The company then began building the new RFID tags into the units that are being built into a structure near Manhattan’s Grand Central Station.

Once a tag is applied to a window at the point of manufacture, the company uses a handheld reader to create a record of that product and its materials, as well as the date and time of its production. “The assembly quality documents are linked to the unique ID and are accessible in the database,” Skowyra explains. So when tag IDs are read before items are moved to a worksite, any necessary quality documents can be printed to accompany those items. Workers at the construction site can use handheld readers to capture each panel’s tag ID as it is installed, thereby creating a record of what was built into the structure.

Ken Horton

Later, during maintenance and inspection, workers can carry a handheld reader around a building’s interior and thus capture each panel’s tag ID in order to view information about its history, and they can create a record of any maintenance or repair work carried out by inputting that data into the handheld reader. PNA created its own software to manage the RFID data that is captured and stored about each item. The company began working with Vizinex in 2017 and was building UHF RFID tags into its products within six months.

Vizinex specializes in custom solutions, Horton says, such as the RFID tags modified for PNA’s deployment. “For us, we have a product that’s relatively easy to tweak,” Horton states, “so that it can work with different sets of materials.” In fact, he adds, modification to the tag was accomplished within about two weeks, to meet Permasteelisa’s tight schedule.

Thus far, Skowyra says, the tagged panels are being installed for two New York City construction projects, for a total of approximately 5,000 units. The company has installed RFID tags into 10,000 units altogether, which may be used in other North American building projects. Without the technology, he says, PNA’s workers had to manually sort through reams of paper or electronic documentation to learn everything from fabrication information to purchase orders. “The result of the RFID tag is saved time, money and loads of work,” he states.

The Permasteelisa project is a finalist for best RFID Use of RFID in this year’s RFID Journal Awards. The awards will be given out at next week’s RFID Journal LIVE! 2019 conference and exhibition.