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For nearly 30 years, commercial applications of radio frequency identification technology have aided companies across a wide variety of industries—many of which are in the middle market—in managing their security and supply chain risks and regulatory filing obligations.
Shipping and logistics firms, manufacturers and governmental entities use it to monitor point-to-point movements of cargo, raw materials, products and other assets. RFID-enabled security gates have become a popular choice among commercial property owners seeking to limit access to their buildings, while thousands of retailers use RFID tags and readers to track inventory and reduce shoplifting losses.
In construction, RFID tags have been used to log inspections of safety equipment as well as inventory tools and building materials on-site. Consolidating the digital collection and organization of that data can reduce regulatory violations, property losses and wasted work hours, experts said.
Despite the demonstrated applicability to safety management, property protection and inspection compliance, implementation among U.S. construction contractors has been sluggish in comparison with other business sectors, experts and observers said.
In 2011, less than 10% of the construction industry had implemented some form of RFID-enabled asset management system, experts estimated.
“I think there is some interest in the technology in the industry, but I also think that a lot of contractors aren't all that aware of what exactly RFID tags could do for them,” said Ethan Cowles, a senior risk management consultant at Denver-based FMI Corp.
The limited number of contractors that are using RFID technology mostly are applying it to on-site material asset management, specifically tracking use and storage of tools and portable equipment, Mr. Cowles said.
Field studies of digital tracking systems for construction tools and materials—including RFID and GPS tracking—conducted by University of Texas at Austin researcher Fiatech indicated that foremen can spend as much as 20% of their time on-site searching for tools and materials, “leaving their crews unsupervised and slowing productivity.”
“Quite honestly, there are a lot of other things I'd love to have my foreman doing than looking for tools,” Mr. Cowles said. “Keeping track of your equipment, knowing whether something is accounted for and sparing the manpower it takes to count widgets or track down tools could be a massive savings.”
RFID technology also has seen at least some construction adoption when applied to safety equipment inspections, experts said.
Several companies, including Toronto-based N4 Systems Inc., have developed software platforms to manage safety inspection data using RFID or barcode identification tags. N4 Systems CEO Somen Mondal said its system, Field ID, can be applied to almost any piece of equipment, from climbing harnesses and other fall-protection gear to fire extinguishers, exit and emergency lighting, and smoke and gas detectors.
“Anytime you're conducting an inspection, or you're looking up the safety audit history of a piece of equipment, identification is the first step, and that's where RFID really helps,” Mr. Mondal said. “(Manual record-keeping is) really not the best way to do it, because there's so much human error that can work its way in. The RFID chip practically eliminates that possibility.”
Last year, Rosemont, Ill.-based general contractor McShane Construction Co. implemented the RFID-enabled Field ID program to help its subcontractors enhance both on-site compliance with safety regulations and its own internal quality control/quality assurance protocols.
Dennis Rumshas, the company's president and CEO, said McShane Construction's contracts with subcontractors do not require RFID capability but that use of the technology can influence its selection of them.
“It's absolutely an incentive,” Mr. Rumshas said. “The contractors that aren't using RFID simply have to go through all of the extra paces of making sure that documentation is ready, not only for our own use, but for OSHA or whatever state agency knocks on their gate for an inspection. The ability for them to be able to provide us with inspection reports at a moment's notice makes it so much better and easier for everyone involved than if they're still doing it with pen and paper.”
Another application of RFID that has seen some traction in the industry is subsurface surveying, experts said. Tagging materials destined for underground installation with RFID markers address management of the asset itself, as well the legal and financial protection of any company that wants to dig near the pipe three or four years later and the safety of the crew doing the digging.
“It's not just about the physical location of an object, it's connecting that information to another data source in the service of some higher benefit,” said Fran Rabuck, director of technology research at Exton, Pa.-based infrastructure management software firm Bentley Systems Inc.
The technology's various applications notwithstanding, experts said adoption of RFID-enabled asset management has been stifled by several factors, including a lack of software and hardware standardization among system manufacturers. Without greater standardization, program providers have been hesitant to roll out products.
“That lack of a ready-made solution is probably the biggest damper on adoption; that companies have to kind of invent the system that they want rather than just pulling one off the shelf” is an impediment, said Huw Roberts, Bentley Systems global marketing director for building and structural products.
Additionally, current RFID-enabled systems can cost tens of thousands of dollars for even basic configurations.
Mr. Roberts said the upfront investment coupled with the uncertainty surrounding the technology's long-term evolution of standards has been enough to discourage most firms from adopting an RFID system.
“Those companies that are already thinking about the (return on investment) and about the benefit of having their workforce, their materials and tools and inspections tied into together using these tags, those are the ones that are just waiting for the right package solution,” Mr. Roberts said.
Another key to more widespread implementation in the construction industry, Mr. Rabuck added, will be integrating RFID scanning capabilities with smartphones.
“The cost to get a handheld scanner today is going to be at least a couple thousand dollars,” Mr. Rabuck said. “But once manufacturers begin equipping cell phones with RFID readers, that's when you're likely to see a real and sudden increase.”