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RFID Cures Concrete

Construction crews that use RFID to test when concrete has cured, or hardened, could complete projects days or weeks ahead of schedule.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Oct 30, 2006—Workplace stress can make people do desperate things. Five years ago, Tim Stallard, a concrete engineer with the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT), was so frustrated by the poor performance of a wired temperature sensor he was using to track the hardness of curing concrete that he snagged a wireless indoor-outdoor temperature-monitoring system from his house, buried one of the sensors in a slab of freshly poured concrete and tested how far from the device he could walk before losing the signal. When the signal held for a good 30 feet, he knew he was onto something.

Stallard decided to search for an RFID vendor able to develop a wireless version of the wired sensors used conventionally to track the rate at which concrete cures. "The first few [RFID] companies I called thought I was nuts," Stallard recalls. "But when I called Identec Solutions, vice president of engineering Barry Allen responded by saying, 'Gee, I don't know, maybe it could work.'"

Allen sent a test kit to Stallard that included some Identec Solutions i-Q tags and a handheld interrogator to program and read the tags. These were battery-powered, came with an integrated temperature sensor and could operate in the ultrahigh-frequency (915 MHz) range. Stillard buried the tags and found that they worked. He could track them individually and take periodic temperature readings. He could even write data directly to the tags, such as assigning tag numbers or noting their location or depth within a slab of concrete.

To develop an entire solution for tracking concrete maturity based on the i-Q tags, Identec turned to International Road Dynamics (IRD), a Canadian firm specializing in data-collection software for traffic- and transportation-related applications. The company needed to find a way to detect the concrete's temperature and estimate its strength without having to wait as long as conventional testing methods require.

Construction crews must wait until poured concrete matures—that is, hardens or cures—before they can safely remove the forms holding it in place and move on to the next phase of construction. (Removing forms or other structures used to support curing concrete too early could be dangerous, especially in building construction, when the concrete hasn't hardened enough to support the weight of the structure.) Concrete typically hardens fully in 28 hours, but depending on the temperature and volume of the concrete poured, it can cure much faster. By determining the poured concrete's maturity as quickly as possible, construction crews can shave hours of waiting time off each day's workload, enabling them to complete projects days, or even weeks, ahead of schedule.

The wired temperature-sensor test Stallard was using to predict the maturity of poured concrete tracks the temperature inside a section of poured concrete, using an algorithm that compares the temperature with the amount of time it has been curing to estimate the maximum pounds of force per square inch it can withstand. But Stallard says the wired temperature monitors perform inconsistently because if two sensor wires touch each other, they short out and throw off the readings. "I really got fed up with this," he says. He also wanted a solution that would automate the mathematical step of determining the concrete's hardness.
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