Some already have passed the testing stage. GE Energy, Atlanta, quietly moved to RFID supply-chain tools more than a year ago, although it doesn’t discuss it. The company recycles its inventory of active tags, loans them out to suppliers and rewrites the data for each new use.

Calling Double-Ts. Concrete fabricator hopes RFID tags will help crane operators find pieces in storage yard, from the cab. (Photo courtesy of Carnegie Mellon University)

More Tests

Another small tools test starts Jan. 10, again under FIATECH, with Zachry Construction Corp., San Antonio, Texas, hosting, and Texas A&M University participating. Tom Hannigan, Zachry vice president of industry services, says the test will try to validate the benefits of the tags and incorporate them with tool management systems. Ultimately, he says, he can imagine toolboxes with RFID readers that maintain an inventory of their contents. But he is really hoping software developers and hardware vendors will take over construction-specific research and development soon. "This is the wheel that I want to use, but I don’t necessarily want to invent it," he says. "Somebody has got to start somewhere, and that is what we are going to do."

In most of the tests vendors have been active participants, customizing prototypes and working with researchers to improve products. Barry Allen, CEO of RFID vendor Idnetec Solutions, Kelowna, British Columbia, has worked on a number of studies. He says he has customers in construction, but he is not permitted to name them. "We have the curse of a client-list-to-die-for–but they won’t talk. Most are early adopters and they see it as a competitive advantage," he says.


In another test project, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University’s Institute for Complex Engineered Systems are working with concrete fabricator High Concrete Structures, Denver, Pa., to test tags in a storage yard. The company makes about 14,000 pieces a year, says Bob Grasser, master scheduler. He wants to combine RFID and other locating systems so crane operators can find pieces electronically, without leaving the cab.

Christopher Lopez, an industry analyst with ABI Research, Oyster Bay, N.Y. calls the combination of global positioning systems and RFID "the next real big thing. If you can find a happy medium and mesh these technologies, you can spit out a perfect solution."

Beyond Logistics

Alan Melling, senior director of electronic product collection solutions at Symbol Technologies, Holtsville, N.Y., notes that one reason passive tags are catching on in retail is that technology standards are being established. The development of standards for active tags is lagging that of passive ones, but Melling says that may not be a barrier to implementation within companies, like GE, whose "closed-loop" system defines the technology for the company and its partners. “Closed applications have an advantage,” Melling says. “It's a lot easier to implement the technology.”

Another expert watching the construction industry's RFID experimentation is Bob Dicello, EnterpriseOne senior product marketing manager - Logistics, PeopleSoft. PeopleSoft's focus is on services built around passive tags and standards-based systems, which pose challenges in managing the data-rich information flood RFID tracking can produce. For construction, Dicello says the opportunities for increasing efficiency will not depend so much on standards development, as on the technology adopters' creative thinking.

One of Dicello’s favorite early adopters is El Paso County, Colo., which uses passive RFID to track IT assets, such as office equipment and laptop computers. It hopes to move on to road maintenance equipmentand load the tags with maintenance records, special tools data and warranty status information, he says.

But Dicello thinks the biggest efficiencies will be found through even more creative application. “Look beyond this logistics applications you are hearing about, which are important. But there is a difference between where the first impact is going to be and where the ultimate return on investment is going to be. Look for a highly visible need of something that has never been solved before,” he says. He gives the example of a European company with a refrigerated warehouse that was able to automate the opening and closing of doors by using RFID tags to pick up the arrival of approaching trucks. Just automating the door openings reduced warehouse cooling costs 25%, he says.

Symbol’s Melling says that while the application of RFID to construction does not present as clear a picture as what is happening in the retail industry, "there is definitely a role for RFID in construction," he says. "It’s a matter of working through the pilots and figuring out the best application.”

Research is not confined to the U.S. Korea’s Institute of Construction Technology is testing tags for tracking finishing products on high-rise job sites. They are using boxed ceiling tiles as test subjects with the goal of tracing them from production through installation.

Researchers say RFID tags will be more than just tools. They represent a new way of doing business and they are getting ready to change the industry.

...and reciprocating saws, and sent them out to jobs to see how easily built-in tags could be read. They performed well. Leading researcher Paul M. Goodrum says that as interest grows, costs will drop and "RFID technology will explode over the next few years" as manufacturers realize the advantages.