RFID Helps Refinery Project Manage Materials for Multiple Contractors

By Michael Belfiore

North West Redwater Partnership is using a materials-management solution that allows construction contractors to manage their own materials and NWR managers to oversee the process.

The North West Redwater Partnership (NWR) Sturgeon refinery project, being built in Alberta, Canada, promises to be one of the most advanced facilities of its kind in the world. Gasification technology, selected by NWR as an integral part of its refining process, will enable it to produce CO2 along with diesel fuel and other products. The CO2 will be pumped into old or marginally productive oil reservoirs by a third party to recover light oil that would have otherwise gone untouched—permanently sequestering the CO2 in the process. NWR—jointly owned by North West Upgrading and Canadian Natural Upgrading—says this process yields environmental benefits. It estimates the 1.2 million tons of CO2 that phase one will capture every year is equivalent to taking nearly 300,000 cars off our roads. NWR has regulatory approval for three phases totaling 150,000 barrels a day of bitumen processing capacity, but only the first phase is sanctioned for construction at this time, and is scheduled for completion in September 2017.

Plans for building the advanced refinery involved five major contractors and a number of subcontractors purchasing, fabricating, delivering, staging, assembling and finally installing tens of thousands of unique sections of pipe and other parts. Before Victor Mah joined the project as manager of supply-chain operations in April 2014, the plan called for consolidating incoming materials at a central warehouse. This meant NWR would have to reissue materials and equipment back to the contractors when it came time to pick for fabrication or installation.

A 3D model of the site

Mah and his colleagues realized that while centralized control of materials offered greater oversight, it would also create a potential bottleneck as multiple contractors attempted to retrieve materials from the warehouse at the same time. The team believed a better and less risky approach would be to keep the contractors responsible for their own materials throughout the fabrication, storage and construction process.

"What was recognized is that NWR needed a materials-management system for its own requirements, but also a system that provided some visibility over the contractors' materials-management program," Mah says. "Contractors have a wide, high degree of variability in their materials-management capability and discipline." In other words, some do it better than others.

In August 2014, NWR enacted a new materials-management strategy and adopted an active RFID-based materials-management system from Atlas RFID Solutions that, according to Mah, enhances the contractors' existing materials-management programs. The Atlas solution also provides centralized visibility, so NWR can monitor all materials-management activities. The RFID solution saves money, he explains, by reducing the amount of time workers spend searching for and managing materials, as well as by reducing the number of lost materials that must to be reordered.

Getting Buy-In
RFID technology was an obvious solution for Mah, who was familiar with Atlas RFID from working on a previous oil sands project (see RFID Helps Fuel an Oil Boom). From his point of view, RFID meant the difference between spending hours or even days manually hunting for parts in acres of laydown yards that could be blanketed with snow, and locating parts almost immediately. "There's a huge benefit to tagging material," Mah states. "RFID tagging technology can take you within 18 inches of a given item." And he knew RFID could also provide the centralized visibility that NWR needed.

But to get RFID materials management in place, Mah had to obtain buy-in from senior project managers. These included the project directors responsible for the different areas of the refinery, the VP of supply chain management, the senior VP for engineering construction and, ultimately, NWR's president. As part of the evaluation process, which included one other potential vendor, Mah had Atlas present a detailed proposal, which ultimately received the green light.

In May 2014, NWR brought materials-management expert David Beaton on board to help guide the process of implementing the RFID solution. "While I initiated and formalized the overarching materials-management strategy for NWR," Mah says, "it was Beaton, as manager of materials for NWR, who developed and continues to refine the program in the field as activities continues to evolve." A year later, NWR hired materials-management database specialist Sonny Velasco to oversee the optimization of the data flow from the contractors into the materials-management system.

Atlas RFID Picks Up the Load
Atlas RFID, based in Birmingham, Ala., specializes in RFID-enabled materials-management solutions for industrial capital assets—including for oil and gas construction projects—and so the broad outlines of the project were familiar. But the NWR project added a new wrinkle: multiple contractors that all had to report data back to the central organization.

"It's one of the more complicated projects that we've ever had," says Casey Turner, Atlas RFID's program manager, "and it's the most complicated project that I've ever had."

The dashboards are customizable for various contractors.

To get the system up and keep it running smoothly, Atlas sent a dedicated coordinator to each contractor's worksite in Sturgeon County, near Edmonton, Alberta. The coordinators will remain there for up to 12 months. Besides setting up the solution, their job is to ensure that the contractors' employees are properly trained in the system's use. In addition, two NWR staff members oversee the materials-management process on a full-time basis, and will do so throughout the refinery's construction.

Each contractor has slightly different reporting requirements, depending on the terms of its agreement with NWR. Accordingly, workers for each main contractor see different widgets on the dashboard of the Web-based interface for Jovix, the Atlas materials-management software. Different widgets are being developed for subcontractors as well. "It's very customizable," Turner says. Workers see a combination of standardized fields, such as Required at Site Date, Shipping Date, and Receipt Date, as well as customizable fields, such as those for tracking the comings and goings of trailers. The software can also display a photograph.

Depending on NWR's agreement with each contractor (which is responsible for its own subcontractors), materials can either be tagged where they are fabricated, or after their arrival at the jobsite. Most of the material and equipment will be tagged upon arrival as part of the receiving process. "There is only one shop where we are tagging offsite," Mah says. "That fabrication facility has sent a representative to be trained at site."

Tags are attached to pipe spools and other materials using zip ties. "Essentially, anything unique with a high degree of movement onsite will be tagged," Mah explains. "This includes all pipe spools, instruments, crates and the like." NWR has purchased 50,000 ruggedized, specially developed Omni-ID Power 1 active tags with a read range of up 400 meters (1,312 feet). The tags incorporate passive backup tags with a read range of up to 8 meters (26 feet).

Contractors use one of more than 50 MobileDemand T7200 tablet PCs—equipped with Omni-ID RFID readers, cameras, integrated bar-code scanners and built-in GPS technology—to register the tags with the associated materials. Back at a construction office, the workers place the tablets in docking stations to synch the new and updated data within Jovix.

Tagged material or equipment may remain in the field for weeks or even months before a construction foreman requests it through Jovix. To keep locations current, workers periodically drive through the laydown yards to scan and update the locations of tagged materials with vehicle-mounted RFID readers, also supplied by MobileDemand.

To pick requested parts, a worker refers to an Atlas-designed, GPS-enabled function that includes a site map overlay on his or her tablet, which guides that individual to the material's general location. Once within the vicinity, the employee uses a function on the tablet akin to a Geiger counter, which beeps with increasing frequency the closer it gets to a part to be picked.

Tags such as this one are attached to pipe spools and other materials via zip ties.

Once located, the piece can be registered on the tablet as picked, photographed to indicate its current condition, and loaded onto the truck, on which it is then driven to the assembly point. Upon arrival, the tag is removed for reuse.

Saving Time and Money
At the beginning of the RFID project, Mah and Beaton worked with Atlas RFID to produce a business case for deploying the RFID solution. The study concluded that a three-fold return on investment could be realized. NWR has since been tracking key metrics, such as the number of users of the system, how often it is used, and key cycle times, in order to ensure that its return on investment stays on track. NWR will not release specific ROI figures, but for a project of this size, Mah says, it's in the millions of dollars.

The benefits of the system continue to accrue through time saved, says Atlas's Turner. Before the system was installed, he watched contractors spend hours hunting for materials. Now, he adds, just a single worker can easily and quickly find a needed part within minutes.

The NWR refinery project does not have immediate plans to expand the use of RFID, for example, after the refinery begins production. But, Turner says, Atlas is already incorporating lessons learned into product updates.

Mah cites ease of use for the Jovix interface as a major benefit of the new system. "I'm what I would call a casual user," he says. "I haven't any kind of classroom orientation, but I can noodle my way around." That's a big deal, he notes, because for effective use, other systems require much more of that most valuable commodity: time.