Embedded chips in components are set to make facilities management an exact science. How do they work?
Laurence Marsh has an unusual job title. As continuous improvement manager at Bovis, he is charged with carrying out Egan-inspired innovations in the company. His latest mission is to introduce electronic tagging to building sites. Bovis expects that by tagging equipment as it is installed, it will be more efficiently maintained – a key to keeping costs down in PFI projects.

Marsh’s interest in tagging was awakened while he was a PhD student at Reading University. He was working with Roger Flanagan, professor in the construction management and engineering department. “The proper term is automatic identification,” Flanagan explains. The system involves embedding a tag containing a memory chip into a component, which then stores information about that component.

“I came across it in the States, where guys on high-security sites wear name tags with a bar code,” says Flanagan. “When they arrive on site, they scan the badge with a bar code reader so the site manager automatically knows when the guy is on site.” Automatic identification has the potential to deliver vital information, but Flanagan admits that the UK construction industry has been slow to pick up on its possibilities. Marsh is doing his best to remedy this: “At Reading, we looked at maintenance management and facilities management and realised that the guys on site were always after information,” he says. For example, accurate data about the make and age of a boiler, when it was last repaired and how it is performing is all valuable information.

So, after Marsh started at Bovis a year ago, he began to develop iTag – an electronic tagging system that allows each component or piece of plant in a building to be identified, maintained and monitored electronically.

A button-sized tag with a memory chip is embedded or welded on to the piece of equipment. The tag records its make, model and age, and stores information on its maintenance history.

When an engineer wants to carry out maintenance jobs, he picks up a hand-held computer attached to a docking station. The docking station is connected to the building’s central computer, which holds the planned preventative maintenance database.

The engineer’s instructions for the day’s jobs are displayed on the hand-held computer’s screen. If the first instruction is to check a boiler, the engineer scans the boiler’s tag into the computer, which then confirms the component’s make, model and the last time it was maintained. After the maintenance check is carried out, the engineer scans the tag again to sign off and update the chip.

When the list of jobs is completed, the operative returns the hand-held computer to the docking station, which automatically downloads the changes to the main computer and updates the planned preventative maintenance database.

Bob Walker is a project manager with Bovis Facilities Management and a firm advocate of iTag. In his view, the system will improve efficiency, health and safety, and the performance of equipment. This becomes apparent when iTag is compared with Bovis’ present system, in which all maintenance data is recorded on paper by engineers and then has to be keyed into the central computer – a time-consuming and inherently inaccurate process.

“The potential is there for accurate plant records as opposed to the hit-and-miss situation that can exist when things are not running as they should,” says Walker.

Putting it into practice

The project has been used only for small-scale trials so far, but Marsh and Walker hope to implement it on a major PFI hospital deal.

The decision has not been finalised, but both believe it could make a real difference to the facilities management at the £76m Calderdale Hospital, an Egan demonstration project.

Bovis Facilities Management will be responsible for maintaining the building services and fabric on the Halifax-based hospital for 30 years. When the hospital is operational in two years’ time, about 50 000 individual inspections and planned maintenance operations will be carried out every year.

Walker says: ”Traditionally with these things, the initiative has to come from the client. The advantage of PFI is that we can take a longer-term initiative.“ So the benefits of tagging are clear: an efficient, paperless office and engineers who do not have to sit down on Friday and try to remember what they fixed on Monday. But what about the cost? Marsh estimates that Bovis will shell out about £30 000 for the equipment to serve the Calderdale Hospital site. The hand-held computers cost £1500 each and the tags themselves cost about £1.50. The total outlay depends on the size of the site and the number of engineers working; each engineer has to have a designated hand-held computer.

However, Marsh is eager to point out that the price of computer equipment is falling. And by his estimation, the outlay on the Calderdale site will be recouped in two years through efficiency savings.

Looking ahead

If the system gets the green light at Calderdale and proves a success, it could be extended to other PFI projects. The firm is also negotiating with a number of private clients to see if the system could be used outside the PFI sector.

Marsh can see a day when all boilers, pumps and ventilation systems are fitted with a tag at the manufacturing stage. Facilities managers will be able to produce an accurate asset register quickly and reduce the cost of collecting data.

Marsh and the Bovis team are doing their best to persuade the outside world that electronic tagging is useful beyond the realms of supermarkets and the criminal justice system. Reading University’s Flanagan is almost evangelical in his enthusiasm, but he says the key point is persuading clients to take the system on board. “Think of what it has done for Tesco. Think of the UPS parcel that can be tracked anywhere in the world. The work now needs to be in the application, and people need to know it is making money and saving money.”

Tagging solutions

Four Problems … 1] Accessing key information on the component to enable decisions to be made 2] Maintenance work involves large amounts of paperwork 3] Delays arise because of missing or inaccurate information needed for the planned preventative maintenance system 4] Lack of information to monitor the performance and durability of a component … And the Answers 1] iTag stores all information and history on the component 2] iTag removes all paperwork from the process 3] Information collection is automated and so more accurate and quicker 4] iTag times each maintenance activity and allows reasons for delays to be recorded and downloaded on to the planned preventative maintenance system