Toolmaker Provides RFID for Job Sites

By Claire Swedberg

Bosch Tool Corp.'s Safe & Sound RFID system provides construction companies with a way to track which workers are using which power tools.

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Bosch Tool Corp. has been offering its customers a system that uses RFID to track their power tools on job sites and possibly reduce the theft of those valuable assets. With its Safe & Sound RFID system, introduced in April, Bosch embeds passive RFID tags into the tools and then provides its customers a handheld RFID reader, a computer and the tool-tracking software needed to keep tabs on who is using what tool.

According to the theft-prevention service provider National Equipment Register (NER), construction companies lost up to $1 billion due to stolen equipment last year. Furthermore, NER reports, only 10 to 15 percent of all stolen equipment is ever recovered.

Bosch’s John Doherty

"RFID is about being able to know where tools and equipment are supposed to be and who is supposed to have [them]," says Bosch’s Safe & Sound product manager, John Doherty. "From a business perspective, companies can save thousands simply knowing where tools are so they don't continue to purchase tools they already have but can't locate."

The Safe & Sound system offers an alternative to bar code tracking systems that tool owners have been using for the past decade. With those systems, large construction companies have put bar code labels on their drills, circular saws and other power tools. The tools can cost up to $1,000 and often disappear from job sites. While bar coding helps track the tools, Bosch customers have complained that the bar code system is flawed and vulnerable to tampering.

According to Doherty, Bosch's new system addresses that problem. "Two years ago, some of our large customers came to us saying they needed a better way to track their tools," he says, "They came to us saying, 'We've got a fundamental problem with tool tracking.'" The problem was that although the customers often put bar-coded labels on their tools, the system wasn't reliable. The labels could be easily damaged enough to become unreadable, or they could be removed entirely. The bar code labels were often hard to scan—and if they got dirty on the job site, the task became even more difficult.

Although Bosch initially considered finding a more durable way of covering the bar code label, it ultimately decided that an RFID tag inside the tool's housing was a better alternative. The Safe & Sound program allows customers to buy tools either with RFID chips embedded in the housing, or without. If they want the RFID tracking system, the Bosch distributor will send the purchased tool's serial and UPC number to the toolmaker's Arkansas manufacturing center, where an RFID chip will be encoded with that information and shipped to the distributor. The customer can then have the distributor install the tag or do it himself. The 1-inch-by-0.25-inch, paper-thin passive 915 MHz tag, made by Intermec Technologies, is mounted to an adhesive tape that can be attached inside the tool's housing. Bosch is offering the tag-embedding service not only for its new tools, but also for existing Bosch tools customers can bring to a distributor, and for existing non-Bosch tools as well.

Once the tools are labeled with RFID tags, the customer uses an Intermec IP3 RFID handheld reader to scan each tool's RFID tag and download the tag information to an Intermec 700 Series mobile computer that sits in a holder on top of the RFID reader. Using ToolWatch Corp.'s ToolWatch SE software loaded into the computer, the customer can keep track of such things as the last person who used the tool, where and when it was checked out and the tool’s replacement cost.

Construction firms wishing to transition from bar coding to an RFID system can contact their tool-tracking software provider and ask the company to update its software to work with RFID. Such companies include not only ToolWatch, but also Houndware and QuickPen.

"We've been reaching out to tool-tracking [software] vendors," Doherty says, "and providing information about the tags at no charge. They can adjust their software to read the tags."

The system, Doherty adds, includes a bar code scanner, allowing a user the option of flipping a switch to read a bar code label instead of an RFID tag. This may be necessary because the metal in some tools may interfere with a tag's RF signal, requiring the use of a bar code label instead.

Providing RFID tags for existing tools will cost customers about $10 per tool, or an added 2 to 5 percent of cost for new tools. "We're providing a more durable way of tracking the tool," Doherty explains.

Bosch is also offering EAS security tags designed to trigger acoustic-magnetic security portals. These portals, once installed at gates and entryways, would offer another layer of security by setting off an alarm if someone passed through the portal with a tool in hand.

According to Doherty, most companies will pay about $15,000 for the Safe & Sound system. That price includes Intermec’s IP3 RFID handheld reader and 700 Series mobile computer, a bar code scanner, the ToolWatch SE software and basic user training, but not the cost of the tags themselves.