A Québec construction firm recently adopted radio frequency identification (RFID) tags to speed up, simplify and streamline tracking of its power tools on job sites.

RFID is helping Moreau Construction, in Rouyn-Noranda to better manage its tools inventory worth around one million Canadian dollars.

These tools are carried in and out of company premises several times a day by Moreau staff, according to Daniel Laframboise, IT director at Moreau.

A big problem
The firm, he says, has around 300 permanent employees, and also uses contract staff for long-term jobs. Tracking tools used by workers at job sites was a very cumbersome task.

The problem is common among construction firms - statistics indicate the problem of misplaced or stolen tools is pervasive in the industry. According to the theft-prevention service provider National Equipment Register (NER), construction companies lost up to $1 billion due to misplaced or stolen equipment last year alone.

Web-based tracking was too awkward
Laframboise initially attempted to address the issue with a Web-based tracking system, but the data entry process was time-consuming and workers at sites often did not enter tool identification data correctly into the database.

He also considered barcodes, but harsh weather conditions in Rouyn-Noranda (“we’re way up north - one hour from Santa Claus”), eventually led Laframboise to reject that option.

Finally, Laframboise decided to try RFID in a pilot project and persevered despite initial setbacks.

Big providers don't want small customers
The first challenge was identifying the right RFID provider. “Finding a vendor who could deal with our industry was a problem," Laframboise said. "When you call big companies like Texas Instruments, they say we’re more in the market for Procter & Gamble, or we [only] do logistics.”

Jeff Woods, global lead analyst on RFID for Gartner, Inc, believes that is a sign of growing pains in the RFID sector. “If you’re in an industry RFID vendors are targeting, then it’s easier for a smaller company to get visibility," he says. "But I’m not surprised a small construction company found it difficult. Resources are very thin in this sector right now, and the other problem is there’s lots of window shopping going on, so vendors are selective.”

Getting the right grade of tags
Even after locating an RFID vendor. Quelys ID, Laframboise ran into problems with the first batch of tags. Sometimes the reading range was too short, and the RFID reader had to be an inch away from the tool to read its tag. If the tool was in its case, it couldn’t be read.

That proved to be a problem, he says, as nobody wanted to have to open cases, and take the tools out to scan them.

According to Laframboise, Quelys ID sent an application engineer to work with him to resolve these initial issues. He says the engineer told him that Quelsys' tags are geared more to the lighter, Canadian Tire-type retail tools. By contrast, he says, "many of our tools are industrial-grade, so they’re heavier and have more metal [and] that causes problems with RFID readings.”

Laframboise and the Quelys engineer concluded that two different types of tags were needed, one for small tools, and another bigger one with special backing for heavier or more metallic tools.

Reading is faster, and better
This solution increased the range of readings. “Now we’re getting [an] 18-inch read range, which is good enough for us because all our tools go in and out of the same tool crib," says Laframboise. He says the tags are also speeding things along. "Now if an electrician goes to the tool crib and asks for a cordless drill, we can give it to him inside its case, and the reader assigns it to him as he goes out the door."

Moreau Construction’s RFID installation cost about C$25,000, which included software, tags, readers, and implementation assistance.

Laframboise has some advice for other companies considering RFID: “Don’t go with a vendor that won’t provide support. When you commit to a technology, especially something like RFID, you’re stuck with [it]."

It's also crucial, he says, to find a vendor who will work with you. That's because "It’s such new technology -- it may work for Wal-Mart, but it may not work for you.”