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Construction's Building Blocks: RFID

Tracking supplies, tools, equipment and even workers could help construction companies increase the efficiency of operation schedules. It is an industry in which each day saved can translate into millions of dollars.
By Elizabeth Wasserman
Dec 01, 2006—While the construction industry is busy erecting awe-inspiring modern skyscrapers, museums, bridges and manufacturing facilities, the sector has not kept up with other industries, such as manufacturing and aerospace, that have used information technology to increase productivity over the past 30 years, according to research studies. Cost overruns, safety troubles, delays and quality issues continue to curse the sector—just look at the $1.4 billion in cost overruns at Boston's Big Dig site or the $3 billion overrun and 16-month delay in constructing Denver's International Airport.

A construction project—whether it's an office building, factory, bridge, airport or other facility—is a highly coordinated, complex operation that must run according to schedule. Easier said than done. To maintain the schedule, the right supplies, tools, equipment and workers need to be in the right place at the right time. But supplies aren't always delivered in the right order so they can be installed in the proper sequence, and construction sites are often vast locations where supplies, tools and other equipment can be misplaced or stolen. Any delay in a construction schedule can be costly to the contractor in terms of salaries, leased equipment and maintaining security at a job site for longer than was budgeted. Delays also impact clients by denying them immediate use of a building, tunnel or plant.

Some in the construction industry believe RFID can help track the shipping and receipt of supplies, to realize significant efficiency gains. RFID is being tested on construction sites from Texas to London to track tools—from hammers and screwdrivers to the more expensive jackhammers and welding supplies—to reduce loss and theft. Heavy equipment providers that lease cranes, bulldozers and other machinery are testing or deploying RFID to keep track of assets and monitor their use, to maximize lease revenues and prevent equipment from sitting unused on a construction site for lengthy stretches. In addition, companies are testing RFID to keep tabs on workers, ensuring both their safety and productivity.

To spur further testing and deployment of RFID in the United Kingdom, in July the RFID Centre formed a strategic partnership with the Construction Industry Computing Association, an organization that promotes the use of information technology in the construction industry. The groups have been holding seminars to help educate and advise companies about RFID and other wireless technologies and their potential uses in construction.

In the United States, the move to understand how RFID technology can make construction sites more productive and safer got started a few years ago. In 2003, FIATECH (Fully Integrated and Automated Technology)—a group of construction-industry leaders who have organized to accelerate the implementation of technologies that improve their bottom line—undertook a series of RFID pilots. The results of the pilots—which included some of the biggest U.S. construction firms, such as Bechtel, Fluor, KBR (Halliburton) and Zachry Construction Co.—were promising.

"People in the construction industry see EZ Passes in use where you don't even pause when going past a reader. And they say, 'We can do this with cars and overnight packages, why aren't we doing it with construction?'" says Richard Jackson, director of FIATECH. "They ask whether they should use these things when they can cost thousands or tens of thousands. My answer is, 'Absolutely.' Don't even think about it if it costs $25,000. You can realize millions of dollars in savings when you save days on the schedule."
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