RFID Saves Man-Hours, Boosts Safety at Middle East Construction Project

By Claire Swedberg

Consolidated Contracting Co. has managed the flow of workers onto and off its Oman and UAE sites for safety and efficiency purposes, using Identec Solutions' active UHF RFID badges, UHF readers at gates and LF exciters installed under speed bumps.

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Consolidated Contracting Co. (CCC), the largest construction and engineering company in the Middle East, has built and tested an active radio frequency identification-based solution to automatically capture data regarding the comings and goings of thousands of workers at several gas-production plants in the region. Initially, the system was used for a project at the Petroleum Development Oman (PDO) refinery, in Oman, to track 4,000 construction workers as they arrived and departed in approximately 50 buses each day.

The construction firm has also been testing other RFID systems for yard and warehouse management, as well as for fuel station management. Next year, the company plans to install the yard and warehouse asset-management and access-control systems during future projects.

CCC’s Hazem Rady

CCC constructs and manages oil and gas plants, refineries, petrochemical facilities and pipelines, as well as airports, road networks and skyscrapers. The firm has approximately 35 projects under way throughout the Middle East and Europe, with as many as 130,000 workers at its various worksites and offices. Its worksites can be complex, with a variety of operations taking place, and with employees and contractors undertaking a variety of tasks while travelling onto and off the sites daily. To track who comes and goes from each site, personnel traditionally must be stationed at the exits and entrances to manually authenticate and record those passing through the gates. With thousands of workers on some sites, this process can be not only time-consuming but vulnerable to errors.

To automate gate access, CCC has been developing and testing RFID-based systems since 2013, seeking a way in which to identify employees arriving at worksites in buses. The company’s primary goal is worker safety, says Hazem Rady, CCC’s head of IT, EAM solutions, for business technology and innovations. If emergency evacuation were required or if an accident occurred, the company would want to know who was onsite. Additionally, the firm intends to use the collected RFID data to better manage how projects onsite are staffed via analytics, and to enable automatic payroll.

CCC wanted the vehicles to be able to enter the worksite without drivers having to stop and provide individual IDs. The company first tested an RFID system with passive RFID badges for workers (see CCC Expands RFID Pilot Projects), but found that while the readers could detect the ID number linked to each employee, and thus knew he or she had passed through a gate, it could not ascertain the direction in which that person was moving. For that reason, the system was initially established with two gates: one dedicated to entering and the other to exiting. But that is not always a convenient use of space, and so CCC sought a solution that could measure directionality without requiring the installation of numerous ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) RFID readers around the facility.

Therefore, CCC approached several vendors before ultimately selecting a system from Identec Solutions consisting of solar-powered, active UHF i-PORT M350 readers with two directional antennas, as well as an active low-frequency (LF) i-MARK 3 reader with antennas installed under two speed bumps. The M350 readers have bidirectional communication, flexible frequency ranging and read-write features to interrogate tags located up to 250 meters away, explains Lee Wagstaffe, Identec’s oil and gas sales VP. The LF reader serves as an exciter—its transmission is received by each tag carried by workers aboard buses and other vehicles, and the tags then forward that data to dedicated readers at the gate. Since vehicles pass over one speed bump and then another, the solution is able to detect the direction in which the tags are moving, based on the sequence of speed bump exciter transmissions received. The data from the RFID reads is managed by CCC’s own software, residing on the company’s own server.

CCC has been testing the technology at its oil and gas project in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, as well as at the PDO refinery in Oman. The active UHF RFID-based system from Identec has been permanently deployed with the completion of the projects in 2016. The RFID-enabled system—which the construction company calls Smart CCC—may also be installed at a new pipeline project in Kazakhstan in 2017, initially for yard-management purposes. CCC is currently looking at future projects for the gate-management technology.

At PDO Oman, each of approximately 4,000 workers carries a badge with a built-in active UHF RFID tag. The tag’s unique ID number is linked to that individual’s name and title in CCC’s software. Most employees arrive in buses, while some come in cars. As each individual arrives at the facility, his or her tag captures the transmission from the LF exciter antenna built into the speed bump, which transmits its own ID, along with that of the exciter, to a UHF reader installed at the gate. As the vehicle then passes over the second speed bump, that information is transmitted to the reader as well. CCC’s software links the read data with the person’s identity and updates the facility status to include that worker. Thus, in the event that an emergency necessitates the plant’s evacuation, CCC could quickly determine who was onsite and who had left.

In the future, CCC could install readers not only at the gate, but also at other locations within a plant or construction site. With the RFID read data, the company can use analytics to better understand what is happening across the entire facility, both in real time and after the fact. For instance, if CCC’s management wanted to know what type of work was taking place within a specific area, the data from the RFID system would provide the ID numbers and work skills of those onsite (based on the tag reads performed as those individuals entered). The company would thus know that a particular project was being carried out. For example, the presence of personnel specializing in underground pipe installation would enable the firm to understand that trenches were being dug or pipes were being laid.

The RFID access-control system could save a plant the size of PDO more than 210,000 man-hours per year, Rady says, that would previously have been dedicated to managing the entry and departure of every individual and checking each person’s ID. More importantly, he adds, with regard to safety in the event of an emergency, “It saves lives.” In addition, the RFID read data could be compared against payroll details in order to confirm that workers were onsite when they claimed to be.

CCC has also been testing active RFID to manage the movements of equipment and tools. The company installed a smart yard-management system from Zebra Technologies at its Abu Dhabi test site, enabling it to manage the locations of spools within the outdoor yard. In so doing, the company can not only find them quickly when needed, but also monitor any unauthorized movements. CCC’s smart warehouse-management system, designed to track tools and materials within the warehouse, consists of an active RFID system provided by Mojix, allowing employees to view, in real time, what stock is available within the warehouse, as well as where it is located, in order to better plan the movement of supplies.

For fuel management, CCC has tested an RFID system it calls Fuel Guard, based on off-the-shelf RFID tags and readers. “We wanted to find a retrofit type of system to fit our antique infrastructure,” Rady explains, “knowing that most of its components are pretty mechanical.” A tag is installed at the opening of each vehicle’s gas tank, with a reader built into each pump. Fuel meters were installed at each mechanical pump to measure how much fuel was being dispensed. When a pump is inserted into a vehicle’s tank opening, the pump reader captures the tag’s ID number and transmits that data back to CCC’s fuel-management software, along with the type and volume of fuel being used. That information could then be stored in the software.

The greatest frustration for CCC, the company reports, has been the lack of standards when it comes to the variety of RFID solutions used. For instance, the active RFID tag used in employee badges at the gate cannot be interrogated by passive UHF readers at other locations, while the gate readers cannot read the passive tags applied to spools. As a result, Rady says, the firm has been forced to install multiple disparate systems to accomplish all of the tracking requirements for its large, complex worksites. “We, as implementers or customers,” he states, “should have the leverage on using any tag that has the agility to work under any of those systems.”