RFID Helps U.K. Tool-Rental Company Better Serve Customers

By Bob Violino

Speedy Services' on-site solution provides continuous access to equipment, to meet work crew schedules.

Speedy Services, a U.K provider of equipment rental and support services to the construction, infrastructure, rail and industrial sectors, faced a problem. Although customers can have equipment delivered to their sites—Speedy maintains a fleet of 1,200 vehicles—or collect the equipment from one of the firm's 320 nationwide depots, some of its clients wanted a more specialized level of service: an on-site depot offering flexible hours to accommodate their work crews' schedules.

Some of these clients included the United Kingdom's largest construction and industrial services companies, and Speedy knew it had to meet their demands or risk losing them as customers. But providing such a service would require a delivery van containing a large stock of tools and equipment, as well as a Speedy employee dispatched to each customer's site to conduct transactions. That amounted to a costly service, says Glyn Matthews, Speedy's senior IT project manager.

Speedy's managers envisioned a mobile equipment "pod" that could be installed within a standard Euro shipping container, or in a preexisting building.

In September 2010, Speedy began seeking a better method of serving customers on-site. Managers believed that if they could create a self-service equipment storage and rental system, it would be a cost-effective way to provide the continuous access that clients needed to meet work crew requirements. It would also enable Speedy to service clients lacking geographical access to its depots.

Speedy's managers envisioned a mobile equipment "pod" that could be installed within a standard Euro shipping container, or in a preexisting building. Such a solution would require an automatic method for tracking equipment and managing rental fees. The managers had read case studies about the use of RFID in other industries, and thought the technology might be a viable option.

While developing the concept, they thought damaged items could be placed within a designated area, and the RFID system could automatically notify Speedy when the tools required replacement. They also hoped to develop an extranet, dubbed "My Speedy," to offer customers complete visibility into their current usage of equipment and incurred charges. "Customers would also benefit by paying rental fees only when the equipment is actually in use, reducing their costs," Matthews explains.

The extranet could benefit Speedy as well. By having all transactions instantly visible to customers via My Speedy, it would reduce paperwork and customer service calls related to deliveries and charges. There was another potential benefit to the self-service solution, the company notes: it would require fewer equipment drops at each site, thereby reducing delivery fleet mileage. And that, in turn, would help to keep CO2 emissions in line with the company's ongoing commitment to improving the environment.

Building the Solution

To help create an RFID-based self-service pod, Speedy brought in a consultant and a systems integrator specializing in the technology. But neither succeeded in demonstrating that RFID tags were readable within construction environments. "They were ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) tags," Matthews says, "but not particularly good around metal, and didn't give the read range required to allow the solution to work."

According to Matthews, Speedy wanted the tags to be fitted inside the tools and equipment, making them unobtrusive and less likely to be in the way during use, damaged by the user or removed. To determine if such a solution could work, he attended the RFID Journal LIVE! 2010 conference and exhibition, held in Darmstadt, Germany, in order to consult with other RFID experts. He then contacted multiple tag manufacturers worldwide to obtain sample tags, and worked with Codegate—a systems integrator with which Speedy had previously worked on successful mobility installations—to conduct tests on tags using a new Motorola fixed FX9500 reader, designed for industrial environments.

Speedy identified RFID tags for the wide variety of equipment that would be housed within each pod.

The tests proved that the Motorola readers could accurately capture data in customers' demanding environments, Matthews says, so Speedy turned its attention to identifying RFID tags for the wide variety of equipment that would be housed within each pod. A variety of UHF tags provided by Omni-ID were fitted inside Speedy equipment, and were tested at the vendor's U.K. office. Technicians then tested numerous reader configurations and used an anechoic chamber—a room designed to halt reflections of sound or electromagnetic waves—in order to determine the best read rates for the tags.

Some tags were standard models, while others were customized. Omni-ID's Max SQ tags, which have tamper-proof self-tapping bolts, were chosen for large electrical items and transformers with a plastic housing. Prox Fi tags were customized for use on Speedy's small portable electric and pneumatic hand tools. For cables and scaffolding sections, Omni-ID developed a Grip tag, which is fitted using zip-ties. The Grip tag is based on the company's Flex tag, designed to be flexible enough to be affixed to rolled cables, as well as sufficiently rugged to withstand the shock, vibration and impact associated with the standard loading, unloading and use of scaffold sections.

Speedy created a team to oversee the implementation project. This group included Matthews, who handled product research and system design, along with other Speedy representatives who handled commercial design requirements and funding. Representatives from Codegate, Motorola and Omni-ID were also part of the team.

In May 2011, the first concept unit was constructed. "Initially, it was thought that [the pod] would be permanently installed into a storage container," Matthews says. "But during the initial design stage, I could quickly see how the technology could be self-contained into a small area, and came up with the mobile portal. This opened up so many application possibilities moving forward."

Initially, the pod was intended to be permanently installed into a storage container, but the company realized the technology could be self-contained into a small area, and instead designed a mobile portal.

Speedy and its partners spent several months testing the concept unit, making necessary modifications (including revising software, custom-developed by Codegate, to help users proceed through the process of checking equipment in and out, via voice prompts). The concept unit was then used to fine-tune the hardware and software, and to demonstrate proof of concept. The Motorola hardware, including fixed readers and high-performance antennas to be mounted in the entrance portal and damage store area of each pod, was programmed and tested to make sure it functioned properly.

After refining the RFID technology, Speedy designed and built a pod prototype. This prototype was tested and amended before being demonstrated to some of the company's largest customers.

Successful Rollout

Once customers approved the design, Speedy moved ahead with production, and the first "ePod" units were deployed at customer sites during the first half of 2012. Five units have been built to date, with more expected by the end of this year. A number of major contractors have shown interest in using the pods for large construction projects, Matthews reports.

The ePod is a self-contained unit that works as a portal to scan and record assets' movements into and out of a storage area. It can be quickly installed using a forklift and four securing bolts.

The ePod, a self-contained unit that works as a portal to scan and record assets' movements into and out of a storage area, can be quickly installed using a forklift and four securing bolts.

Once an ePod is installed at a customer site, that customer can issue RFID entry tags—provided by Speedy—to authorized users. To gain access to the ePod, a user can swipe the entry tag against a panel, and the external door lock will be released. Upon entering the unit, the user will then be greeted by an audible welcome message, and will be talked through how to utilize the unit.

The walk-through portal contains three Motorola AN400 antennas. While standing in the walk-through portal area, the user is scanned to determine whether any tools are being returned to stock. The scanner antennas are hidden from view, but lights in the pod signal that he or she is being scanned. Once scanning is complete, lights near the storage-area door indicate that the individual can leave the portal area and enter the returns storage area, where equipment can be placed on the custom-designed racking. If any equipment is damaged, the user can place those items in the "damage returns" store cupboard, which has two Motorola AN480 antennas.

If removing equipment from the ePod, after selecting items from the storage area, the user presses a door-release button and re-enters the portal, where he or she is then scanned for assets being taken out. After the scan is complete, the user is advised by an audible message to leave the ePod. (The unit has a panic button and a backup power supply.)

All asset movements and ePod status reports are transmitted to Speedy via the mobile phone network, and equipment movement data is available to customers through the company's extranet Web portal. The information is also forwarded to Speedy's Microsoft Dynamic AX enterprise resource planning (ERP) platform, which the firm uses to automatically generate invoices for customers.

Company and Customer Benefits

The RFID-equipped pods provide benefits to both Speedy and its customers, Matthews says, including "significant operational improvements and cost savings." But quantifiable return-on-investment results are not yet available, he notes.

Customers now have continuous access to Speedy equipment, Matthews says, which means fewer work delays. They can have more cost-effective use of equipment, since they pay for items only when actually using them. In addition, they have improved visibility of assets moving from storage to usage and back, instant reporting of tool usage and rates, lower administration costs (due to reduced paperwork) and less need to contact Speedy for customer support.

Once an ePod is installed at a customer site, that customer can issue RFID entry tags to authorized users.

For Speedy, benefits include improved equipment utilization and asset management, reduced transport costs and decreased CO2 emissions, Matthews says, though he is unable to provide estimates of expected savings. Other benefits, he adds, include better geographical coverage, just-in-time equipment servicing, reduced paperwork and fewer phone calls for customer service and delivery requests.

The project is the first phase of a potential RFID rollout across all processes within Speedy's business, Matthews reports. For example, he says, the company is considering using RFID to manage assets within its depot network. "We are always looking for innovative ways to improve the service we offer our customers," he states, noting that the ePod project "paves the way for the company to provide more RFID integration in the future."