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A Canadian concrete supplier is using radio-frequency identification (RFID) tagging combined with GPS technology to efficiently locate and track products destined for construction sites.
They bear no resemblance to needles and their outdoor “warehouse” would never be mistaken for a haystack. But when it comes time to ship some of the hundreds of bridge girders and other concrete structures stored at Armtec’s 20-hectare site in Woodstock, Ontario, the “needle in a haystack” cliché rings true.
“A typical bridge girder is about 30 metres long and weighs more than 50,000 kilograms,” says Phil Sheldon, operations manager at the Woodstock facility. “These are huge structures — but as much as we don’t like to admit it, we sometimes lost them.”
The problem, until recently, is that Armtec — as with most construction companies — relied on paper records to keep track of inventory. “After placing something in our yard, the crane operator would mark its location in a notebook,” explains Sheldon. “This was fine and dandy unless the original notebook got lost or we forgot to update our records when a unit was re-located or shipped.”
Sheldon sometimes searched for half a day or more to find a particular unit.
At Armtec’s Woodstock site alone, the estimated cost of missing inventory was $260,000 per year, including $60,000 in annual penalties for late deliveries. (Suppliers are fined up to $3,000 per hour for causing delays at job sites that result in construction crews being idle.) Faced with this reality, Sheldon and his colleagues realized “there must be a better way.”
Tracking concrete with ID tags
Indeed, a partial solution already existed. Manufacturers have been using bar codes for decades, but the construction sector has been slow to adopt this technology, notes NRC researcher Ajit Pardasani. To keep track of its concrete products as they flow through the production process, Armtec worked with NRC to explore a combination of bar-code and RFID (radio-frequency identification) tagging plus GPS technology.
What is an RFID tag ?
An RFID tag is an electronic chip used to identify the object it’s attached to. The benefits of RFID-based tracking technology go beyond improving efficiencies at Armtec’s manufacturing sites. It could also help improve the maintenance and rehabilitation of infrastructure. For example, the TTC intends to use this technology to quickly identify and locate any damaged segments in its subway tunnels, resulting in time savings and better maintenance.
Armtec now embeds an RFID tag inside each concrete unit during the manufacturing stage — this protects the tags against wind, rain and other adverse conditions. Once a concrete unit has been tagged, its location in the storage yard is recorded onto database software, with the help of GPS technology.
“When you want to find a particular concrete unit, you type in the identification number and its location is shown on an electronic map on a web browser or mobile RFID reader,” says Pardasani. “If the reader is equipped with a GPS, it will guide you as you walk toward the concrete unit.”
“Our idea is not only to raise the bar in one company but to help the whole industrial sector.”
Ajit Pardasani, NRC Centre for Computer-assisted Construction Technologies
This technology also allows Armtec to keep track of its products throughout the manufacturing lifecycle. “Has it been designed? Has it been made? Has it gone through quality control? We now have access to all this information at our fingertips,” says Sheldon.
In 2010, Armtec was awarded a $43-million contract from the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) to supply 58,000 subway tunnel liner segments over a two year period. “This job requires handling hundreds of pieces per day,” says Sheldon. “The tracking of those TTC pieces would have been very difficult to do without RFID technology. The timing was extremely fortunate.”
The new RFID-based life cycle tracking system is being considered by other Armtec manufacturing facilities and NRC may transfer this technology to other sectors, such as manufactured timber products. “Our idea is not only to raise the bar in one company but to help the whole industrial sector,” says Pardasani.