Steel Tube Finishing Firm Tries RFID to Track Personnel, Tools

By Claire Swedberg

OCTG and its technology provider, Silent Partner, have also formed a new company to market a solution that tracks the manufacture, inspection and threading of tubes before they are shipped to drill sites.

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OCTG Tubular Finishing Services, which inspects and finishes steel pipes used at oil-drilling sites, is employing radio frequency identification technology to track personnel and tools at its facility near Houston, Texas. The company is also in the process of developing a service to provide information regarding the status and location of pipes located onsite.

The firm offers two services: the inspection of steel pipes—also known as tubes—and other oil country tubular goods (OCTG) manufactured by its customers (steel mills) to meet American Petroleum Institute (API) standards, and the threading of those tubes as requested by oil companies prior to their shipment to drilling sites.

Last year, OCTG Tubular Finishing Services commenced a trial deployment of various RFID, real-time location system (RTLS) and GPS solutions to track the tubes it inspects and threads, as well as tools and personnel. The solutions are being provided by Silent Partner Technologies (SPT). To date, reports Bill Hudson, OCTG’s director of operations, the system’s tool-tracking function has improved efficiency and reduced the incidence of lost tools.

OCTG initially met with SPT as a client approximately one year ago, but the two companies have since formed a joint venture, known as Oil Country Asset Management (OCAM), which plans to eventually sell the tube-tracking solution to oil-field operations companies, as well as to the steel industry, explains Ted Kostis, the president of OCAM and SPT.

Steel mills manufacture tubes of varying lengths, diameters and metal grades, and then send them to a variety of finishing companies, such as OCTG, to be inspected until they are ordered by one the mill’s oil-company customers. Once an order is placed, the finishing company cuts threads into tubes so they can be joined together, and then ships the threaded tubes to the drill site. Management of the pipes, from the time of manufacture until the tubes enter a drill hole and after this occurs, is traditionally accomplished via a combination of handwritten notes, Microsoft Excel spreadsheets and telephone calls.

In the event that a tube fails or is otherwise inoperable for the drilling customer, there is a supply chain that must be traced in order to determine how the problem occurred, and who was responsible for the error. When tubes are sent to testing or finishing firms prior to their reaching the drill site, that process becomes more complicated. In addition, the steel mills often require a daily count of their tube inventory at the finishing site. David Cragle, one of OCTG’s founding partners and general counsel, says his company receives daily phone calls from steel mills requesting inventory counts.

“We realized, a long time back, that there is no inventory-management software” for this industry, Cragle says, which is why his company began speaking with Silent Partner regarding a solution. The long-term plan, Cragle reports, is to develop a solution managed by software on a hosted server that can track tubes from the point of manufacture to their delivery to a drilling customer’s site.

In the meantime, OTCG is using RFID to track personnel and tools. In the interior sections of the facility, the partners installed five Wavetrend RFID readers to interrogate Wavetrend 433 MHz active tags (using a proprietary air-interface protocol) worn by staff members and visitors, and attached to high-value tools. SPT modified some tags to sustain being welded onto certain tools.

SPT has also installed a single Wavetrend reader at the guard shack, and is now awaiting the arrival of a secondary Wavetrend reader this month, to provide “in-out” tracking of vehicles for controlling gate access.

When a visitor arrives at the facility, he or she is issued an active Wavetrend RFID tag embedded in a badge, while workers carry their own badges used for access control, as well as for location-tracking onsite. The five Wavetrend readers located within the production areas, each covering a space measuring 4 feet by 100 feet, capture the locations of individuals and tools. With the safety sensor in place, if a forklift approaches an area in which an individual is in the vicinity, anyone in that area, as well as the forklift operator, will see an alert illuminated by the software, based on the read of the driver’s active ID in the presence of other active personnel tags.

The tag badges also enable OCTG to better manage its productivity. If, for example, managers know that a specific number of employees need to be present in order to accomplish a specific task, and if the actual number of badge reads is less than that amount, they can determine that someone has left the area and may need to be summoned back to the site.

The Wavetrend readers can also capture the locations of tools used in the production areas. This feature, Hudson explains, has already provided savings for the company in terms of improved efficiency, since missing tools in the past have caused delays in either inspection or threading processes. While both inventory and tool tracking can improve efficiency, he notes, the safety improvements may be of greatest benefit, though they are difficult to measure.

The tube-tracking system that OCTG and Silent Partners is trying to develop is still evolving. In the fall of 2012, OCTG began testing a version consisting of RFID technology, as well as SPT software on SPT’s hosted server, to manage all data about the locations of personnel, forklifts, tubes and tools.

“We started with simply putting RFID tags on cement [racks] where the pipe is stored,” Kostis states, “and as the forklift would get close to the RFID tag, the lift driver would know what location he or she was in.” Each of four forklifts comes with a portable computer linked to the software via a Wi-Fi connection, as well as Convergence Systems Ltd. (CSL) CS203 readers for interrogating the UHF RFID tags, using a Datalogic Rhino vehicle-mounted computer to view data from the SPT system.

The tubes used during the testing had passive EPC Gen 2 UHF RFID tags attached to their ends, and were stored outdoors, on a concrete rack, along with other pipes of the same size and grade from the same customer. OCTG has been utilizing various vendors’ passive tags customized by SPT. “At the end, it’s our own product,” Kostis says. “As an example, we’ve encapsulated one of our designs, and added a magnet so it attaches directly to the inside of the pipe.” That magnetic tag is now being tested, he says.

However, OCTG and Silent Partner indicate that they plan to replace the use of RFID in outdoor locations, for the time being, with a GPS unit on each lift truck to track those vehicles as they move pipes. Testing of the GPS system is slated to begin the next month, to determine how well the movements of forklifts transporting pipes can be monitored via GPS alone.

With the GPS-based system, forklift operators can view a work order on the tablet screen, indicating which products to pick up, from which locations and where they should be delivered. The software can then follow the response to that order, based on the GPS readings, and display an alert on the screen in the event of an error, such as a driver picking up or putting away an item in the wrong location.

During the next few months, the company hopes to provide hardware and server access to one of its customers, enabling that customer to track when tubing is threaded, by whom, where this takes place, and with what dimensions and materials, as well as when the tubing is shipped to OCTG. “Now that we’re progressing in this, they’ve shown a lot of interest,” Cragle says. Initially, however, the benefit to customers is simply having access to data regarding the location and status of their tubing at OCTG. The number of phone calls from customers has dropped since the system’s installation, Hudson reports.