Even if all you are trying to do is keep up with small tools or boxes of materials on a construction job, it still comes down to the same problem: keeping track of your stuff.

Now, it appears that Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags may be the answer. The little tags use radio signals to report their identity and other data whenever they come within range of special readers. They are suddenly popular with big retailers, who want to use them to track stock and automate operations. Some big construction firms now are looking at RFID, too.

Got It. RFID test named every pipe on load going out for painting. Metal tags and ID code are used now. (Photos courtesy of FIATECH)

"We’re trying to find the best appli-cation within construction," says Don Dart, Houston-based senior manager for field material management at Fluor Corp., Aliso Viejo, Calif. "I would say we are getting close...and I would say there is competitive advantage for early adopters."

Dart has been involved in field trials to automatically inventory truckloads of pipe spools–prefabricated pipe sections for plant construction–as they pass through gates. Electronic tags on the pipe and readers on the gates verify the manifest as the truck rolls by. Currently, workers crawl over the load and inventory it by reading stamped tags and hand-lettered codes.


Fluor has been hosting the tests with one of its suppliers, Shaw Fabricators, Houston, and a local coating shop. It is looking for the best combination of hardware and technique. The tests are organized by FIATECH, a Houston-based industry consortium dedicated to improving construction efficiency with technology. Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, and the University of Texas at Austin are partners in the pipe spool RFID trial.

In the trial, "active" RFID tags, as opposed to more common, short-range "passive" tags, were used. While passive tags cost 50¢ or less, have no batteries and use weak radio signals to report when called to by readers, active tags have battery-powered transmitters and rugged construction. They cost about $50 each, but can last for years, can be reprogrammed with data and read at a distance of 100 ft and more. They can even work–as the pipe spool test showed–in harsh, metal-filled environments.

Remotely reading item data is an enticing proposition. Field trials are popping up everywhere. Fluor’s Dart says his company now is looking for a domestic project for implementation. "We have trialed it enough to try to find a project to use it on," he says. "We’ll go in small, with pallets and crates and a few pipe spool pieces." He says the company will use RFID in tandem with its bar-coding system, but he sees special potential in remote-reading, data-rich RFID.

Other construction applications also are being tested. In a project funded by the Electrical Contracting Foundation, Bethesda, Md., researchers in the University of Kentucky’s Dept. of Civil En-gineering, with the help of two local

electrical contractors, tested an active RFID-based system for identifying tools as they were checked out of tool rooms, as well as recording maintenance data. Researchers placed tags inside the cases of hammer drills, portable band saws...

hen plans call for tens of thousands of pieces of custom-fabricated pipe, hangers, valves and connectors, and the construction sequence requires a lay-down yard bigger than a football stadium, pressure mounts as a manager tries to account, sort and make the pieces available for work crews.