RFID tags work like sophisticated bar codes that can provide installation instructions, store a product’s service record and monitor its movements – for the whole supply chain to see. So why is the construction industry being so slow to adopt them?

In a supermarket near you is an IT product that could revolutionise the construction industry. It has the potential to benefit everybody in the entire construction supply chain from the day a building component rolls off the production line to the day the resulting building is demolished. But before you rush for your shopping trolley, its presence on supermarket shelves does not make it readily available – it’s a type of sophisticated bar code attached to some supermarket products and, so far, its transferable applications have only just begun to be realised.

Radio frequency identity technology, or RFID for short, uses small computer chips to store detailed information far in advance of that contained in a normal bar code. The scanning device that reads the RFID tag can be used from up to 40 m away and can also change the information stored on some of the chips. Moreover, the information can be linked to a company’s IT system, meaning that other companies in a supply chain can access that information over a web link.

Some supermarkets have seen the possibilities of this technology and plan to use it across their supply chains to monitor and control the movement of goods. Its appeal for the construction industry seems obvious: as well as monitoring production in the factory and from the factory gate to site, tags could contain installation instructions to make life easier for contractors and facilities management teams could access and update service records of components installed in buildings.

However, the industry is being traditionally cautious. A spokesperson for building materials supplier Travis Perkins says: “We are not doing any RFID tagging as it’s not a priority for us at the moment.” Fellow supplier Wolseley takes a similar view. “I’m not sure we’ll see widespread take-up of RFIDs happening in our industry in the short to medium term,” says Gary Flanaghan, Wolseley UK’s logistics director. Logistics specialist Wilson James already uses bar coding to track the goods it moves from the suppliers to site and could theoretically benefit from using RFID. “We are not trialling RFID at the moment because we need to make the link with the manufacturers,” says Ian Lister, the company’s general manager for major and special projects. “We would certainly be enthusiastic about this as part of a group of three or four organisations but we are not able to do this on our own.”

I’m not sure we’ll see widespread take-up of RFIDs happening in our industry in the short to medium term

Gary Flanaghan, logistics director, Wolseley

However there are a few glimmers of light in the RFID wilderness. Research consultancy BRE has developed a system called Tag ‘n’ Track, which consists of the RFID hardware and web-based software that links the information on the tag to a company’s finance and production systems. Several companies are working with the BRE on pilot projects to find out what benefits this technology can bring.

Precast concrete products specialist Roger Bullivant has used RFID to monitor its production process. The company used the tags for capturing the job and batch numbers and monitoring each stage of the process. “It went quite well,” says Richard Mailes, the company’s product technical services manager. “We wanted to make things easier for the guys here at the factory.” He adds that there were some teething problems, such as the tags, which were attached using adhesive, falling off the products. RMC Concrete Products, which also trialled RFID, got round this problem by casting the tags into the products so that they are actually encased in concrete.

Mailes says the tags would be more useful if they could be used from the minute the client rang to place an order to delivery to site. He also adds that tags could be used to contain electronic information including drawings and warranties – details Bullivant already supplies to its clients electronically. “It’s a chicken-and-egg situation,” explains Mailes. “The clients aren’t asking for it because they aren’t equipped to read the information in the tags and we don’t do it because the clients don’t want it.” Unfortunately, because such developments have stalled, the company can’t justify the investment in the hardware and software at the moment.

It’s a chicken-and-egg situation. Clients aren’t equipped for it and we’re not doing it because the clients don’t want it

Richard Mailes, manager, Roger Bullivant

Door maker Gazlin has also tried the technology and is keen to get a client involved in order to ease the process of ordering replacement parts for doors. Chris Jones, Gazlin managing director, says: “Where we can see it being a benefit is in places like hospitals where there is a multitude of doors that tend to get hammered.” He says that facilities management teams could easily identify the manufacturer and specification of the door from the tag, making it simple to order parts such as locks.

Jones is hoping to do a small pilot scheme with an NHS trust to explore these benefits. However, he is cautious about some aspects of the technology. For example, as the company also uses bar codes, it would like readers that can interpret both bar codes and tags – which aren’t currently available. And, of course, there is the perennial obstacle to the adoption of any new technology. “I don’t think this is going to happen quickly,” he says, “because the construction industry is notoriously slow at adopting new technology.”

However, more pilot schemes are beginning to emerge. The housing department of Manchester council is just about to launch a scheme using tags to record the maintenance of its tenants’ boilers. Maintenance contractors use an internet database to find out which properties they need to service. On arrival at the tenant’s property they read a tag, which is installed on the door. This proves they have actually visited the property, which is important as councils are legally obliged to service its tenants’ boilers, providing they can gain access. Once inside, the service contractor reads a second tag on the boiler, which contains information about previous visits. Once the boiler has been serviced, this new information is uploaded onto the council’s database. The council can then use this information to find out the lifecycle costs of its boilers in order to reduce future costs.

These examples represent the cutting edge of the industry. The limited interest in RFID could change once the technology becomes more widely adopted and supply chains can gain mutual benefit from tagging. The difficulty is in getting the industry to go beyond those tentative first steps. “With Marks and Spencer its all driven from the top down; they can tell their supply chain to adopt the technology,” says Gazlin’s Jones. “If I went to a large contractor and said you must use my RFID-tagged doors they would tell me where to go.” It may yet be a long wait.

How RFID tags work

The big step forward in RFID technology occurred when the 868 MHz radio frequency was freed up specifically for RFID use. This enabled several tags to be read simultaneously, even if they were attached to moving objects. The tags come in two forms – active and passive. Passive tags contain information that cannot be updated using handheld readers and can be interrogated by readers at a distance of up to 4 m, providing nothing is in the way to block the radio signal. The great advantage of passive tags is that they cost about 20p, making them cheap enough to permanently attach to products. Passive tags are not as limited as they sound because, once a tag has been linked to the company’s main database, information about the product can be updated within that database. The passive tag merely provides the link between the product and the database and shows the tag has been read at a particular point in time.

Active tags are expensive at £20 a throw but contain a battery that enables them to be read from a distance of up to 40 m. They can also be read when they are attached to moving objects so are ideal for monitoring the movement of expensive pieces of equipment such as construction plant, or for attaching to pallets of products before being re-used. The other advantage of active tags is that the information they contain can be updated using the reader.

Readers can be very simple – mobile phones are now available that can have an RFID reading capability clipped on. Retailers pass pallets of goods through readers similar to airport metal detectors – these can read all the tags on the pallet simultaneously. Information held in the tags is either linked straight to a company’s IT system using a wireless connection or downloaded later.