Absolutely smart RFID
A technology used to track cattle and monitor prisoners in Australia and even trace survivors of Hurricane Katrina, has now made its debut on Dubai's largest construction site.
Radio frequency identification (RFID) is a versatile technology being used to track materials and men at the Dubai International Airport expansion project. Everyone from the labourers to highest management is wearing the green RFID tags.
RFID has been used for several years in the retail sector to keep tabs on merchandise in warehouses and retail outlets. It may bloom into a US$3 billion business by 2010.
According to market researchers, as new uses are being found for the technology - from detecting counterfeit goods to, more pertinently, putting construction projects on track.
So what exactly is the problem that RFID is solving here?
"Manpower on this project is upwards of 9-10,000 men, which presents tremendous logistical problems," says Cliff Wilson, Senior Commercial Manager of Thermo, MEP contractor for Terminal 3, Concourse 2 at Dubai International Airport.
"Tracking staff in a 1.25 km2 site that covers a 1.5 million m2 floor area is not easy. Before RFID, we were using a manual system of gate passes, for security purposes. RFID is one of a number of systems they are using for tracking purposes on the project."
Wilson enumerates its benefits. "One, it is automatic and requires no card system or no army of manpower to take care of the manual system. We save staff for timekeeping and security. Two, it can be integrated with human resources (HR) and health and safety - one system can cover a number of areas. Three, the products were available and easily implemented in a short period of time," says Wilson.
Therein lies one of the more complex challenges of adapting RFID. Privacy advocates have long opposed the all-seeing, all-knowing nature of the technology. How easy was it to convince workers to use the technology, and how did it impact on industrial relations? Wilson believes the 'seeing is believing' approach they used helped win labour over to the new system.
"If you work for HSBC for instance, then it's mandatory to wear a tag at all hours within the premises. The employees have no choice; everyone from the most senior to most junior wears them. Obviously there was some suspicion. But after our pilot study involving 350 people at our satellite office in Ramoul (Dubai), we moved it to the head office on the airport site where the management team wore it first, and then it was moved to the Labourers. Overall, the system is easy to implement," he says.
To ensure accurate data, the locations of the transmitters had to be decided to make sure there was coverage all across the site. The MEP contractor had to train people to wear the tags at all times, and make them realise the consequences if they didn't wear them (they didn't get paid).
What were their concerns before adopting RFID? Construction sites are hostile environments for high-tech products. Another possible problem we anticipated was the number of entries and exits from the site. As for vulnerability to tampering and sabotage, it's a fairly secure system. Whenever a worker loses a tag, the system is able to pinpoint exactly when and where it was lost," he says.
Michael Jamieson, from absolute, the RFID system supplier at Dubai airport. states the problem in a nutshell. "The main objective for implementing the RFID solution at the airport expansion site was ensuring that the project maintains its schedule, and men get to work faster," he says. "Around 50 transmitters, with a 40-metre coverage radius, are placed around the site to record workers' movements."
"Previously, labour would leave site early to board the buses for the journey back to camp. On arrival for their shift, they had to queue for up to half an hour at the gates to sign in using the manual timekeeping system. With the RFID tag, they simply walk into the site. The savings of half an hour per worker resulted in a cumulative saving of 10,000 man-hours per month on site," says Jamieson.
The Dubai airport expansion project has 40 sub-contractors currently operating on site. All except one, using 1,500 labourers, has adopted RFID.
As an MEP contractor, Thermo is keen to find out how many man-hours are used by subcontractors on specific areas and specific components. By getting more sub-contractors to switch to RFID on site, man-hours can be tracked, easing calculations and optimising resource allocations. It also acts as an effective deterrent to latecomers, particularly for
engineering and managerial staff who are expensive resources.
RFID was easy to adapt on the airport expansion project as it does not interfere with aircraft systems either. In fact. RFID-tagged goods are routinely transported by air, and the technology is also used to find lost luggage.
The RFID system at Dubai airport cost US$250,000 to implement, a cost that Thermo hopes to recover by next July through the savings on labour, increased productivity and efficient use of resources.
Costs for maintenance and upgrades increase depending on the kind of information the clients would like to receive, says Jamieson. "The hardware is fairly stable, and the software is a custom-designed suite.
"There are two types of RFID active and passive. Active RFID tags are more expensive, with a battery that provides power to transmit data on the chip, and can transmit data 100 feet o r more. Passive RFID tags get their power from the RFID reader. They usually require a reader to be within a foot of the chip, but depending on the frequency, can be read from up to 20 feet away," says Jamieson.
Another application for the RFID system is to monitor the movements of all the hired equipment contractors have on site. It also lends itself to monitoring maintenance schedules of the equipment now on site, and in the long term can be integrated as a facilities management solution for maintenance and service of plants.
The MEP contractor hopes to scale up the technology to take care of HR initiatives. by feeding an employee's identification into the database and using it for visa, health and medica] requirements. The company is also in discussion to use RFID for inventory control.
There is 600 billion dirhams-worth of equipment coming into the project and dispersed all over the site. There is a need to control that.
"Though we bought the technology for personnel, we would also like to use it to monitor the hired equipment on site. There is 600 billion dirhams-worth of equipment coming into the project and dispersed all over the site. There is a need to control that. On a project of this scale, even losing control of 10 per cent of your assets is losing a lot of money," says Wilson.
The company would also like to track its huge volumes of materials and equipment at storage facilities in Sharjah, Jebel Ali, Ghusais, and Al Quoz. "It would give us control of what's on site and what's in storage".
When asked why he took the risk of using a technology that was hitherto untested in the UAE construction market in the company's biggest and most critical project, Wilson replies: "There was a degree of apprehension. But the technology has worked on complex projects elsewhere in the world. We were also encouraged by the success of the pilot project at Ramoul, and the accuracy of the RFID. We took it across to the main site, oversaw the dispersion of transmitters and decided there was no reason why it wouldn't work on this project."