Portable, self-powered and wireless infrastructure means RFID can be used in remote locations

By Zahir Abji

Laydown and heavy equipment distribution yards are prime targets for theft, as much of the equipment is of high value and in most cases not readily traceable.

According to a study done by the National Equipment Register, theft of construction equipment in the USA accounts for between $300 million and $1 billion a year in lost assets, with only 10 percent of these losses ever recovered. The diversity of machinery used for construction projects has increased and so has the volume of theft, up five percent since 2016.

Preventing the loss of high value assets is a major pain point for contractors in effective yard management. Keep in mind that these yards handle hundreds, if not thousands, of different kinds of equipment and tools (many of them also of high value!), and inaccuracies in the inventory database inevitably creep in due to the frequent movement of these assets. A field study conducted by a Construction Industry Institute (CII) Research Team has shown that automated tracking to locate a component took 4.6 minutes on average compared to 36.8 minutes of manual labor. Introducing active RFID technology to automatically track assets has been proven to save considerable labor time and improve productivity and field materials management.

Manual identification for locating equipment is often impractical because unique identification numbers can become defaced or go missing due to the environment the equipment is exposed to. Placing robust passive RFID labels on the equipment allows identification even when covered by mud or snow, but it is a partial solution at best: passive technology does not allow for long range automatic detection hence the equipment still needs to be located manually before it can be identified. Laydown and equipment distribution yards in remote locations face unique hurdles for accurate tracking and monitoring.

Active RFID technology may be the holy grail of yard management. It is a technology that does not require manual intervention, as active RFID tags provide accurate real-time inventory visibility by periodically announcing their presence at a very long range, measured in hundreds, or even thousands of feet, when placed on assets. Employing several active RFID readers allows computation of the approximate location of individual assets. Tags can be equipped with motion sensors to instantaneously notify contractors when an asset is being moved, preventing unauthorized asset movements.

Thanks to active RFID, data about inventory is made visible in real time from local or remote locations. Data information includes where the inventory has been stored at various locations and where it has been moved to between different yards. Tagged equipment can be located on demand, by the yard it is stored within and the specific zone inside that yard, significantly reducing the time to find any piece of equipment. The ability to have constant visibility of assets is a competitive advantage for contractors where they can develop real-time dashboards to determine key performance indicators. By detecting unauthorized movement, active RFID protects equipment prone to disappear without a trace due to theft and manual oversight. By improving productivity through equipment utilization and removing excess inventory, active RFID can boost the bottom line.

Yet mass adoption of active RFID has been slow within the industry. For the technology to work, power and data connectivity are an absolute necessity. The investment traditionally needed to provide these to the four corners of the yard meant digging trenches to run conduit to the various locations within a yard. Laydown yards are also, generally speaking, temporary storage spaces. Due to the costly implementation process, there remains a perception of active RFID as a cost-inhibitive technology.

Portable, self-powered and wireless infrastructure equipment for active RFID is a game-changer in the industry. Active tag readers, placed on tripods and equipped with solar panels and wireless connectivity, can be placed anywhere within a yard and moved to other locations when necessary. This portable infrastructure forms a local area network, which communicates to a central server through a hub, using either a cellular or satellite uplink, if internet connectivity is not available on the site. The central server can integrate to any Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system, so that users can continue to use their standard system for inventory management. Self-powered active RFID solutions, due to their portable nature, streamline and simplify the implementation process, removing the need to dig labor-intensive trenches that often prove impracticable in remote areas. Self-powered active RFID solutions are providing a rapid return on investment in terms of preventing theft of equipment and improving onsite productivity.

Employing a system that provides real-time visibility of equipment within laydown yards and heavy equipment distribution sites is imperative for contractors to effectively manage and prevent theft of high value assets. For remote sites that lack power and reliable network connectivity, self-powered wireless active RFID solutions make “no power, no connection” no problem.

Originally published in Construction Executive: Tech Trends E-newsletter on Oct 27, 2017. Click to view