When building pipelines or digging oil wells in harsh climates and environmentally sensitive areas, construction crews need temporary roads that will allow them to operate their equipment safely and efficiently, without sinking into the mud. This means they need mats—lots of mats, which are typically made of wood or, sometimes, plastic composite. The mats each measure roughly 8 feet wide, 14 feet long and 6 inches thick, and weigh approximately a ton. They can be assembled to create a road strong enough to keep heavy construction equipment from bogging down, and prevent the ground and plants from being torn up.
"Mats protect things above and below," says Steve Fisher, CEO of Golden Environmental Mat (GEM) Services, in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. The 16-person mat-rental company provides a little-known but vital service to the energy industry.
Before Fisher and his business partner, George Otcenasek, founded GEM Services in 2011, they conducted a market survey and the results confirmed the matting industry faced many problems. "We wanted to enter a business that needed a major improvement," Fisher says, "and we felt certain modern technology could alleviate the problems." Once their company was open for business, they began researching RFID options for tracking their wood mats.
In 2013, Fisher discovered an even bigger problem than miscounted or sunk-in-the-mud mats—misidentified mats. GEM had delivered mats to a job site, which was also using mats from both the client company and another rental service. At the end of the project, GEM was missing CAN$100,000 (US$78,100) worth of mats. Each mat is worth roughly CAN$750 (US$586).
Both the client company and the other mat supplier denied taking any GEM mats, Fisher says. "They said, 'How can you prove this happened?' and we couldn't," he recalls. "All mats look the same once they're covered with mud." GEM had no choice but to write off those mats. "That was a major, major loss," he says. "So that motivated us, as pain does, and got us going on finding a solution."
In 2015, GEM introduced SmartMat, an RFID solution that tracks tagged mats with readers installed in the heavy equipment the company uses to move them. GEM's primary motivation in introducing RFID was to better manage its inventory, and indeed using RFID eliminated both mat abandonment and any conflicts over mat ownership.
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