Jan/Feb 2012

Connected technology is changing the way contractors do business in the field.

Imagine a jobsite where tools check themselves in and out; trucks send you notifications when a certain speed limit has been exceeded; safety harnesses accumulate detailed information for inspections; materials are tracked in a matter of seconds; cellphones become tools to manage driver safety; and employee badges track down which employees are clocked in.

Stop imagining. While such scenarios conjure up images of the ‘jobsite of the future’ for some; others are already reaping the rewards of using such technologies. While the terms M2M (machine-to-machine), RFID (radio-frequency identification), LBS (location-based services), telematics, and remote monitoring might not mean much to the construction industry today, they very well may hold the key to your profitability in the years to come.

What’s in Your Toolbox?
Two years. That is the amount of time Neil West, shop supervisor, Snyder Roofing, www.snyderroofing.com, Tigard, Ore., has logged using RFID technology to manage tools. Thus far, the payback has been appealing.

“We were noticing a lot of our equipment coming up missing or lost, and we needed a better way to track our inventory on our equipment and make sure we could—when we were going to purchase new equipment—show what we actually had in our inventory,” West says.

The company decided to implement tool-tracking technology from ToolHound, www.toolhound.com, St. Albert, Alta. To begin, the company placed RFID tags in or on the necessary tools, and then transferred existing data from spreadsheets to the software system. Once the technology was set up, a handheld scanner could be used to automatically scan the RFID tag and display information about the tool.

“We have foremen that take equipment from one jobsite to another, so this enables us to track the equipment as it goes out so we don’t lose track of who has it or where the equipment is,” he says. “A lot of different trades on a jobsite are using the same type of equipment … so we can distinguish our equipment from someone else’s. It is eliminating a lot of lost equipment—I wouldn’t necessarily say theft—but just lost equipment.”

While the concept of attaching RFID tags to tools for the purpose of inventory seems simple enough, there are a lot of items to take into consideration—such as the differences between passive and active tags. While passive tags are more affordable than active tags, passive tags will need to draw power from the readers, which limit RFID capabilities to a certain distance. Active tags can also contain information such as when the tool was manufactured, its power output, and ID number.

Many tool-tracking technologies that use barcodes today will have the option for RFID in the future. One product offered by Trimble, www.trimble.com, Sunnyvale, Calif., is AllTrak—a solution to help manage the inventory of assets. Currently this is being done using barcodes, but the plan is to add RFID technology.

“With a barcode, you have to physically scan with a laser scanner the barcode itself,” says John Inman, market segment manager for the building construction division, Trimble. “That works fine, but there are some limitations to that. One of those is it has to be visible. Another is if that barcode gets damaged or scratched off, you don’t have it to be able to scan.”

Inman says in a plastic housing a passive RFID tag is only going to extend a few feet, depending on the physical size of the antenna on the tag. He adds, “The real downside is if it is in a metal toolbox or a metal gangbox. That signal does not transmit through metal very well at all. … That is becoming less and less of an issue, as the tool cases themselves are becoming plastic.”

Trimble has invested in RFID technology primarily through the acquisition of ThingMagic, which is a developer of RFID receivers. Since the 2010 acquisition, Trimble has continued to expand the enterprise RFID capabilities of the technology.

Moving forward, the industry can expect to see more providers offering RFID technology as an option for tool tracking. In the first quarter of 2012, ToolWatch, www.toolwatch.com, Englewood, Colo., will be releasing its new RFID offering. The company will have a variety of RFID tags that can be embedded in tools or placed on the outside of tools, as well as handheld readers and fixed portal readers, according to Don Kafka, CEO, ToolWatch. The software from ToolWatch will then be compatible with the RFID technology.

Kafka says the biggest advantage of RFID instead of barcodes is that tools will be able to report in on their own—and communicate without user interaction. He says, “For instance, let’s say a tool or piece of equipment moves from a location that has some geofence boundaries around it; then we are able to send an alert to someone and let them know that item has moved outside of those boundaries. Those are some of the advantages of RFID.”

Kafka still sees a place for barcoding in the construction industry—there are some situations, such as consumable items, that lend themselves to barcoding. For larger tools such as power tools and drills, Kafka says the industry has likely reached the point where it is more cost effective to embed RFID technology in the item and then have the ability to scan it as it moves.

As West of Snyder Roofing says, RFID makes it easy to distinguish his equipment from another trade’s tools on the jobsite. The company puts RFID tags on nearly all tools at the jobsite, and keeps a tracking history of where the items have been. Now, when it comes time to purchase new equipment, the company will know exactly what it has in inventory.

Under the Hood
Moving beyond tool tracking, managing equipment presents a big opportunity for technology. Similar to how news of the connected car is infiltrating the automotive industry and the consumer realm, equipment manufacturers continue to put new technologies ‘under the hood,’ so to speak.

Telematics collects and disseminates vehicle-tracking data through a wireless network in order to track location and machine health. Here is how the technology works: hardware installed on an asset collects data about the location and transmits the information via a cellular or satellite signal to software where a realtime decision is made. Sometimes, this may simply be referred to as GPS.

Some technology-savvy construction companies are working directly with key technology players in order to integrate telematics into fleets. In addition, many North American manufacturers now include a telematics system standard on new equipment.

While dispatching and monitoring maintenance are two common benefits of this type of technology, Ken Loynes, vice president of corporate assets, Willbros T&D Services, www.willbros.com, Houston, Texas, points to two other big benefits—safety and equipment utilization. The company is a global contractor specializing in energy infrastructure serving the oil, gas, and power industries.

He says, “In our business, we are always looking at ways to improve our safety performance. We are also looking for ways to increase and improve our utilization on equipment.” To meet these needs, the company is using technology from Wireless Matrix, www.wirelessmatrix.com, Herndon, Va., which helps improve safety and determine how to better use equipment regularly so it is not sitting idle. For the company, installing GPS becomes a normal part of the vehicle prep process.

The same technology is also being used in the realm of equipment suppliers. For example, Morrow Equipment, www.morrow.com, Salem, Ore., a tower crane rental company, uses the technology to capture actual hours of use on a month-to-month basis. The company then uses that information for billing purposes.

Peter Juhren, corporate service manager, Morrow Equipment, says the company can bill the overtime on a monthly basis so customers are aware of overtime usage, and the customer can invoice back to the owners of the project accordingly. On the cranes, the company has experienced a 30-50% increase in overtime billing—a number that can be substantiated with actual data from the equipment instead of estimated usage hours.

The company is also using the same technology on vehicles for tracking and routine scheduled maintenance based on actual miles driven. The company has realized benefits in the form of fuel savings of upwards of 35% by eliminating unnecessary use of a company vehicle, as well as better utilization.

He says, “People think GPS and they think vehicle tracking, but I think there are so many other avenues (for use in) anybody’s business.”

GSA (General Services Admin.) Fleet, www.gsa.gov, Washington, D.C., provides fleet-management services to more than 75 federal agencies. With more than 217,000 vehicles, GSA Fleet manages one of the largest nontactical federal fleets in the U.S. government. The GSA uses fleet-management technology from Trimble and Sprint, www.sprint.com, Overland Park, Kan., to reduce operating costs, manage mileage, reduce idle times and emissions, and improve safety.

When managing the fleet, technology provides many advantages, but some key areas include reducing fuel, saving money, and improving safety on the road.

A Safer Jobsite
Safety has always been a top concern at the jobsite. Distracted driving is a newer concern when it comes to safety. Technology can help prevent texting, emailing, and browsing the Web while driving heavy equipment or company vehicles.

Companies such as ZoomSafer, www.zoomsafer.com, Herndon, Va., have developed solutions to prevent texting while driving. The company offers two different products—one it considers a passive control and one it considers an active control. As an example of the active control, FleetSafer Mobile is software that companies can install on a BlackBerry or an Android phone.

Matt Howard, CEO and cofounder, ZoomSafer, says, “When that employee gets into the truck and they start to drive, the software will automatically detect if the person is driving and it will essentially apply what is called ‘safe mode,’ which is a set of custom policies that are defined by the employer as to what a person can and cannot do while they are driving with their phone.”

FleetSafer Mobile consists of three components: an administrative portal to create, configure, and manage safe driving policies; a client software application installed on the driver’s BlackBerry or Android smartphone; and a customer-defined trigger mechanism that automatically detects when employees are driving.

While this is a good way to prevent the use of cellphones while driving, some construction companies may not want to take the action of completely controlling how a cellphone is used by drivers. Instead, companies can choose to use a telematics device installed on a vehicle to track trip data, phone records, and other data to measure the use of cellphones while driving. Leveraging telematics, this helps provide visibility into employee behavior while driving, but does not automatically put the phone in safe mode. Based on data gathered from the system, construction companies can then determine what actions to take.

Loynes of Willbros T&D Services is using technology from Wireless Matrix to improve driver habits on the road. Loynes says, “You need means to monitor and understand that your workforce is working safely and productively every day, and this is just one more tool that we use to do that.”

The technology can even provide unintended safety value. Loynes points to an incident the company had about a year ago when an employee was doing electrical work in an oil field and was overcome with toxic gases. Loynes says, “He called our office and he was very disorientated and he was on the verge of blacking out and was unable to tell us where he was … as a result of the fact that we had this GPS system in his vehicle, we were able to look up his exact whereabouts and then get a hold of EMS (emergency medical services) and get them out to the system before the situation turned much worse. That is a huge success story for us.”

As another example, the software can send an email notification when a vehicle hits a certain speed limit. The company can then take the proper steps to ensure the unsafe driving behavior is not repeated.

In another realm of technology related to jobsite safety, being able to manage inspection data and QA/QC (quality assurance/quality control) data more effectively can also provide value. Dennis Rumshas, safety director, McShane Construction, www.mcshane-construction.com, Rosemont, Ill., is using inspection and safety compliance management software to improve worker safety and regulatory compliance on jobsites.

Through the use of Web-based software, hand-based inspections and QA/QC processes are now automated. While the company is not using the RFID portion of the technology due to the fact work is typically subcontracted, Rumshas says, “The RFID tag is going to make this so easy for all contractors; they will have a detailed analysis of what was inspected, when and where. It is (unlike) anything I’ve seen.”

The inspection and safety compliance software from Field ID, www.fieldid.com, Toronto, Ont., can combine RFID or barcodes with mobile handheld devices and Web-based software to collect, store, and record inspections in a cloud-based infrastructure. According to the company, the records are permanently available for review by inspectors, safety managers, and compliance officers.

Somen Mondal, CEO, Field ID, points to harness manufacturers that are using RFID tags in order to track safety practices associated with the products. Rigging equipment is another big area where RFID tags are being used. Mondal points to a trend that could drive the use of RFID in construction—NFC (near-field communication) on mobile phones.

“The interesting thing is those phones use the same frequency that we use … so you can actually use your mobile device to read RFID tags on a harness instead of having to buy a separate reader,” says Mondal. “That is a huge benefit … because you are getting away from one of the hurdles of using RFID, which is having to buy a reader or having to buy a more bulky handheld device and have it built into it, but if it comes with a consumer-type device that makes the whole thing a lot easier to access.”

Francis Rabuck, director of realtime asset lab, Bentley Systems, www.bentley.com, Exton, Pa., says putting an RFID reader inside of the phone creates a very portable device that can read tags. He adds, “The disadvantage of NFC, of course, is unlike UHF (ultra high frequency) I can’t just wand and read 100 things in a space. I have to read them individually.”

Perhaps one of the more interesting uses of RFID tags is affixing them to employee badges. At entry and exit points, readers can automatically scan employee badges to improve productivity and security at the jobsite. This provides efficiency for supervisors to track employee whereabouts. These tags can also provide aid in a dangerous situation since contractors can track down who has gone where and if anybody is still left at the jobsite.

Inman says, “Depending on what level you want to go to that is something that could be done with either active or passive tags. If you have a small enough gate that you walk through, they don’t even have to hold their badge up. If it is a strong enough receiver, (it) can pick up who is coming in. But if it is something where it is a wider area … (employees) are worth the cost of an active tag. You could put active tags and you know they are in there. The biggest benefit from that revolves around safety.”

Another area where such technology can help protect the jobsite is associated with security. Wireless sensor and outdoor perimeter beams at the jobsite can transmit a signal back to a central monitoring system when the perimeter of a site has been breached, providing operators with data when criminal activity is observed. This technology can help secure the jobsite, preventing theft.

Manage Your Materials
Technologically advanced construction companies are using RFID to manage materials such as valves, concrete, and panels of glass at the jobsite. This can be valuable in tracking components by tagging objects and tracking the location of materials.

The tag is typically placed on the component when it is manufactured. Suppliers and contractors can then track when the material is trucked to the site and when it has been received, eliminating the possibility of the material becoming lost en route to the jobsite. Once the piece is on the site, contractors can use RFID, in combination with QA/QC and BIM (building information modeling), to determine when the component has been inspected. Finally, the technology will provide a record of when the component has been installed.

Trimble is doing some pilot testing surrounding the use of RFID technology to help manage materials in construction.

Inman says, “It has mostly been done in pilot programs today. Of course the challenge with that is going to be you have to coordinate the installers, the general contractor, and the manufacturer to all work together to make that work. We have seen that done. Our software has been used in that process and it really helps the project manager know exactly what is going on at the jobsite.”

Thermo Fisher Scientific, www.thermofisher.com, Waltham, Mass., is using QA/QC technology from Vela Systems, www.velasystems.com, Burlington, Mass., in conjunction with modeling software from Autodesk, www.autodesk.com, San Rafael, Calif., to track materials.

As a sub on a NIH (National Institutes of Health) project in Bethesda, Md., the company is responsible for providing information using BIM. This was the first project for which the company began using the QA/QC and BIM software in conjunction with a barcode system.

“We apply the barcode on our equipment after it is manufactured,” says Robert Peterson, project manager, Thermo Fisher Scientific, Laboratory Workstations. “At that point, we can track realtime delivery of installation once it hits the field, and any changes that were made. We can have different checkpoints or gateways right up to completion of the punchlist.”

The technology allows the sub to provide customers with data about the materials. Also, the technology helps the company stand apart from others in the industry.

While this subcontractor is using barcoding technology in conjunction with BIM software, the concept of using RFID technology with BIM is similar. The value of RFID in material tracking is being able to drive a whole palate of material past the scanner and being able to automatically know all the materials that are in there.

Ford, Bacon & Davis, www.fbd.com, Baton Rouge, La., a full-service engineering, procurement, project management, and construction management company, is using RFID to track and manage valves.

Rabuck says, “Now just focusing on that one piece of equipment sounds pretty simplistic, but it is not. Valves are very complex and being able to identify them, and catalog them, and the progress being made in a general valve cataloging system is certainly noteworthy.”

For every 100 valves, Ford, Bacon & Davis manages 500 documents. RFID identifies where the valve is located, maintains service and maintenance records and a modification history, and provides access to required documentation. Other organizations that use RFID to manage materials include Bechtel, www.bechtel.com, San Francisco, Calif., Fluor, www.fluor.com, Irving, Texas, and Skanska, www.skanska.com, Stockholm, Sweden.

“We are getting very sophisticated and moving toward analytics and analysis … not just tagging things at the site as they come onto the site, but tagging them from the original manufacturing source and understanding the whole procurement process there,” says Rabuck.

The Meadowlands Stadium, which was completed four months ahead of schedule in April 2010, was one of the early examples of RFID being used to track materials on the jobsite, but Inman of Trimble sees a place for this on more construction jobsites in the future.

He says the big benefit for the general contractor is going to be managing the overall coordination on the project. The value for the supplier will be tracking and managing when a piece was delivered to the site for billing purposes. Inman even sees this trend going a bit deeper—all the way to the owner—and installing an active RFID tag on the equipment to store data about the history of the material.

Connecting the Lifecycle
One big trend in the industry is sharing more information with owners as part of the turnover package. This trend is seen today as part of the BIM process. At the end of a project, it is becoming more common for contractors to provide the model to the owners for purposes of facilities management on the project—which some in the industry call the sixth dimension of BIM. This trend can extend to sensors and tags as well. As contractors are using these technologies to build, the devices can remain in place for long-term operations.

Putting RFID in a building could be the next step in taking the technology from the jobsite to operations—providing the owner with long-term value. While RFID technology would not be appropriate for every component, active tags could be put into key systems in order to operate and maintain the building more efficiently. The tag would contain information about when the system was manufactured, what its output is supposed to be, and a history of its service schedule and future maintenance.

In some cases, service contractors are using remote-monitoring technologies to offer new connected services to customers. With sensors installed on equipment, users can collect data from the assets to enable monitoring or performance for maintenance. When a piece of equipment fails, an alert can be sent to nearby technicians by email, text, or in-cab messaging system. The data can also be accessed via the Web, providing the company with detailed data about the condition of the equipment.

Robert Gibb and Sons, www.robertgibb.com, Fargo, N.D., a mechanical contractor for residential, commercial, and industrial buildings, is using technology to monitor machines—in particular the air condi