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RFID Helps Fuel an Oil Boom

Bantrel deployed a material-tracking solution to locate 70,000 parts during the construction of a multibillion-dollar tar-sands project in northern Canada.
By Michael Belfiore
Mar 29, 2015

The oil (or tar) sands in northern Alberta, Canada, contain large deposits of bitumen, a crude form of petroleum. It is estimated that these sands will yield 170 million barrels, worth $1 trillion. But building the structures, steam generators and pipelines required to extract bitumen from deep below the ground is a time-consuming, labor-intensive and expensive process. Workers armed with little more than paper lists generated from a material-procurement database and maps accept deliveries of the miles of pipe and tens of thousands of parts needed for construction. Weeks or months later, they must then locate the materials to assemble them. It's particularly challenging when the laydown yards become covered with snow during the long winter months.

In 2011, Bantrel, a Canadian subsidiary of U.S. construction giant Bechtel, decided to try a different approach for a new tar-sands project it was building in northern Alberta: RFID tracking and GPS mapping for placing and locating parts. Bantrel wanted to bring construction material management for the new facility technologically up to date, in order to shave costs and get the oil flowing as soon as possible.

Several spools in the snow
Parent company Bechtel had previously facilitated a pilot study to research the use of RFID technology to track material during the construction of a two-unit power plant with good results. During the pilot, which took place in 2007, Bachtel erected the steel for one unit using the old-fashioned, paper-intensive method, and built the other using RFID to track the steel pieces needed for construction. The unit employing RFID-enabled tracking went up faster due to increased worker productivity. "After that project, we continued use of the technology on other projects," says Ed Koch, a product manager at Bechtel who assisted during the pre-deployment phase of the Bantrel oil-field project.

John Walker
RFID seemed like a natural fit for countering the unique challenges of building out a new oil field so far north, Koch says. "They were going to not want to have their construction resources exposed to the elements any longer than they needed to," he explains. "They wanted to be able to find the material quickly." Time there is at a premium, because most construction must be completed before the winter hits, with its sub-zero-Fahrenheit temperatures and long-lasting snow cover.

Bantrel contracted with Atlas RFID Solutions, based in Birmingham, Ala., to develop and implement an RFID material-tracking solution. Currently, the company says, with construction nearly complete, the RFID system has more than proven its worth. Project managers estimate that the solution has helped avoid up to $11.7 million in construction costs for the multibillion-dollar project.

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