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RFID Cements Its Place in the Construction Industry

Real-world deployments show how manufacturers, engineering firms and builders can use the technology to fight counterfeiting, complete projects on time and within budget, and improve on-site safety.
By Elizabeth Wasserman
Aug 01, 2010Newmans Valve doesn't make designer handbags, new-release DVDs or prescription narcotics, but the Stafford, Texas-based company's products were the victim of counterfeiting one too many times. Newmans manufactures specialty valves for use in oil refineries, chemical factories, desalinization facilities and a host of other industrial plants. The valves range from a half-inch in diameter to one large enough for an adult to walk through upright; they cost $20 to $250,000 apiece.

Three years ago, a refinery in Chile accused Newmans of selling defective valves and threatened to have the company removed from a list of industry-approved vendors. Newmans sent a representative to Chile to investigate. "We didn't even know we did any business with this refinery," recalls Ginger Restovic, Newmans' COO. It turns out, the firm didn't. Newmans brands the name "NEWCO" in raised lettering on each valve it produces. The defective valves at the Chilean refinery were branded "ANEWCOR"—but the letters "A" and "R" had been ground down to make the valve look like a NEWCO.

Illustration: iStockphoto, Dreamstime

That was the last straw—Newmans decided to fight back, Restovic says. The company's weapon of choice? Radio frequency identification.

In 2009, Newmans began RFID-tagging valves produced at its factory in Yangchen, China. Passive RFID tags, encased in plastic, are riveted to the outside of completed valves. Each tag has a serial number tied in a database to a wealth of information about the valve—materials, internal parts, maintenance manual and results of performance tests required by industry groups, such as the American Petroleum Institute. Most importantly, it assures customers they are buying authentic Newmans valves, not counterfeits.

Counterfeiting is a growing problem in the construction sector. The Construction Industry Institute (CII), an industry consortium based at The University of Texas at Austin, has commissioned a study to examine the impact of counterfeiting on the industry. CII says known counterfeit products include alloy pipes, flanges, control valves, construction tools, castings, construction equipment and parts, and fasteners. More worrisome are the sophisticated counterfeit products that sometimes elude detection by the industry's quality assurance processes. Ironically, industry standards specifications for products used in industrial construction projects, such as required manufacturing materials and end-to-end dimensions, have made it easier for counterfeiters, particularly in Asia, where many of these products are now made, to replicate brand-name products.
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