Tool and equipment tracking within a defined worksite has become an important management function for subcontractors and trades. These location systems, usually based on low-cost Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and RFID tagging technologies, provide a level of theft protection as well as assisting with the efficient allocation of mobile resources.
However, general contractors overseeing complex projects have other asset-monitoring requirements: the location and movement of large vehicles and capital equipment on- and off-site; inventory control of large, pre-built components waiting call-up from storage yards; and perhaps monitoring supervisory workers whose attendance on-site for safety reasons might require recording. In fact, monitoring the movement of individual tools or small-to-mid-size equipment may not even be of any interest.
“General contractors don’t get a return on that investment,” says Brian Ray, chief technology officer and founder of AirFinder, a location technology company based in Annapolis, MD. “Most of the labour is contracted out. They don’t care where the plumber’s tools are, for example.”
When it comes to the tracking of vehicles and large equipment, GPS location systems are often the tracking system of choice. Notification alerts can be programmed when a vehicle’s engine is started and it’s on the move, for example. This presents the opportunity to not only detect theft or unauthorized vehicle use and monitor driver behaviour, but also to help develop corporate utilization policies that could reduce accidents and insurance costs.
More recently, however, there has been increased interest in material inventory management using location systems.
“Construction projects valued at hundreds of millions of dollars use large, pre-formed items,” explains Ray. “These get made, sit in storage for many weeks or months, and then are suddenly needed and have to be transported over to the jobsite.”
Location-based inventory management can reduce the time spent looking for critical assets which, in turn, means a higher level of productivity.
Initial customer instincts also often turn to GPS when considering the tracking of assets in transit or at outdoor locations, says Ray.
However, GPS has shortcomings when it comes to the specifics of inventory management. GPS transmitters need a clear view of the sky, for example, making the system unsuitable when goods are loaded inside a truck or storage facility. GPS transmitters are also expensive and power-hungry.
Ray suggests the solution is a hybrid system that integrates a variety of location technologies, each suited to the specific task and asset type. That data is then brought together under one umbrella management system customized to the client’s operational requirements.
An example of alternate location technology is precision-based real-time location systems (RTLS). This wireless system provides pinpoint accuracy by triangulating the location of an asset’s identification tag with three or more readers or beacons over a wide Wi-Fi bandwidth or using ultrasound. However, the extreme accuracy of precision-based RTLS is not often required in construction. Its reliance on a number of high-priced readers and the relatively high price of the tags also means that precision-based RTSL can become expensive very quickly.
Instead, AirFinder has found that proximity-based RTLS is more appropriate for most construction industry applications. For example, pre-fabricated trusses and beams moving from factory settings to construction yards can be tracked during delivery and located later while in storage to within 100 square feet. Programmable alerts can advise if their position has been shifted. The proximity-based tags are less expensive than precision-based RTLS tags, and the overall system itself requires less infrastructure.
Wireless asset management systems, such as those offered by AirFinder, are customized to each client’s specific monitoring needs by seamlessly integrating GPS, RFID, LTE-M, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi technologies. It’s an exciting new area of asset and resource management that promises increased project efficiency and improved resource deployment.
John Bleasby is a Coldwater, Ont. based freelance writer. Send comments and Inside Innovation column ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.