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technology INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY

Test Projects Show Great Potential For Tracking Technology Productivity is enhanced by cutting down the time needed to find components 08/27/2008 By Tom Sawyer

Battles are being won in the campaign to use technology to improve construction productivity. Project managers, craft workers, fabricators and researchers feel the opportunity in their bones. And now, thanks to collaboration on field trials, they are beginning to capture data to prove it. Two similar powerplant projects now under construction in Texas and Canada are examples of both the progress being made and the challenges analysts have in measuring that progress. On both projects, construction of twin boilers was the test scenario, with advanced materials-tracking technology applied to one, and traditional methods to the other. A comparison of the impact of technology on productivity in building two identical projects was the goal. But the test was, to a certain extent, a victim of its own success.

Bechtel/CII Research Team

The results in both cases were convincing, and now production implementation of the technology is under way. “Within two weeks we decided this is an amazing technology, and we started to use it in a different route than the academics Saiedeh Navabzadeh Razavi would have wanted,” says Paul Razavi, on site in Texas, is working to optimize the Murray, site manager on the materials-tracking data system. Canadian project used in one of the trials. “We had two identical boilers,” he notes. “Once we saw the use of it, we weren’t going to let one boiler fall behind.”

Chips and Satellites On both projects, researchers tested similar combinations of radio-frequency identification tags, global positioning systems and software to track hundreds of prefabricated components scattered across dozens of acres of laydown yards. The RFID and GPS tools worked so well that researchers had trouble maintaining the discipline of controlled experimentation and data collection. Crews were eager to jump from trial to production as quickly as possible. Industry groups, including the Construction Industry Institute, FIATECH—an eight-year-old industry consortium whose name stands for Fully Integrated and Automated Technology for capital facilities construction—and the National Institute for Science and Technology, are working to benchmark and


measure productivity in construction. In both trials CII and FIATECH were chief sponsors, but the research team included about two dozen representatives from universities, institutes, construction firms and vendors. The Rockdale, Texas, job is a project of Bechtel Construction Operations Inc., Frederick, Md. It is engineeringprocurement-construction contractor Saiedeh Navabzadeh Razavi on an open-shop, $750-million, twinFinding pipe components for installation is tricky after boiler, 565-MW, lignite-fired they are unloaded and often moved repeatedly. powerplant there. The materials tracked were the steel components of the support structure for one of the boilers. The components were fitted with electronic tags. Their locations were tracked with GPS and RFID readers as the fabricator’s trucks unloaded them and then as they were shifted around the 25-acre laydown yard over time. Estimated positions were computed by software based on direct data collection, as well as on the basis of signals picked up, several times a day, as vehicles and trackers traveled about the site. The steel for the other support structure was not tagged. Its parts were tracked the oldfashioned way, by hand, with paper maps and grid squares. The trial was run from Aug. 1 to Oct. 19, 2007. It found the average time spent tracking down a component by the manual method was 36.8 minutes, while the automated system took 4.6 minutes. In addition, with the manual system, 9.52% of the components sought “were not immediately found,” versus only 0.54% percent of the automated searches. The cost of a failure to locate a critical component at the right moment in the project sequence could lead to a serious slowdown or even reprocurement. When that issue was considered, the researchers deemed the higher success rate very significant. It was a really structured effort,” says Shrikant Dixit, construction automation manager on the project for Bechtel. “All the costs were captured.” “We are taking this to the next step internally at Bechtel,” Dixit says. “I have started it on a few production projects using the more advanced versions of the technology.” The Canadian test site was on a similar $700-million EPC job of SNC-Lavalin Constructors Inc., Bothell, Wash. It is building, with union labor, a 550-MW...

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technology INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY

Test Projects Show Great Potential For Tracking Technology Productivity is enhanced by cutting down the time needed to find components 08/27/2008


By Tom Sawyer

...natural-gas combined-cycle powerplant at the Portlands Energy Center, for Ontario Power Generation, and TransCanada Energy, Toronto, Ontario. The crowded site has multiple remote laydown yards. The pipe spools for the two boilers were fabricated in seven plants in Canada and Nova Scotia and are shipped mingled on trucks or ships. The practice is to sort and tag them on receipt, Murray says, but later he got one of his fabricators, W.S. Nicholls Industries, Cambridge, Ontario, to install tags at the shop. Scott Kerr, Nicholls’ fabrication coordinator, says the batch his company tagged consisted of 80 pieces of 2-in.-dia. pipe in 6-ft to 40-ft SNC-Lavalin Thermal Power lengths. He says the tags were RFID tag reception was not hampered by snow. fastened to flange holes with zip ties and were no bother. If their read range of about 10 ft had been more like 50 ft, he says he would use them to track components around his own yard. He adds that the read range probably would have been better had he not tucked the RFID tags inside the ends of the pipe to safeguard them from damage.

Bechtel/CII Research Team Bechtel’s trial focused on tracking steel for one of two identical structures.

The pipefitters union was consulted early, Murray says. “We walked the business manager through [the process], so they knew it was not a productivity tracking system in disguise,” he says. The union’s reaction has been positive. “Instead of having a $75-per- hour pipefitter go out and look for [a component], we had a $14-per-hour student intern ID it, and then they would go out and get it,” Murray says. “It prevented rework and allowed [supervisors] to plan better. The foremen love it.”

Murray says the read range of the tags is the biggest issue. “It was 50 meters—but it varied plus-or-minus 40 meters,” he says. “The transmission space on an industrial site like this is really flaky.” But snow cover, which can really make locating components difficult, was not a problem, he says. “That is why we are embracing this on our northern sites,” Murray adds.

First Focus In pretest conferences between SNC-Lavalin and the researchers, a decision was made to focus on 224 critical pipe spools, 22 safety valves and 100 globe valves for one of the boilers using techniques and hardware similar to that used in the Texas trial. Both trials used “active,” or battery-powered, RFID tags that emit signals constantly, from IDentec Solutions Inc., Lustenau, Austria and Addison, Texas. The tags cost about $30 apiece. The data-collection devices varied from handheld computers to tablet PCs equipped with GPS and RFID receivers. Lead field researchers for the trials were Carlos Caldas, an assistant professor in civil engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, for the Rockdale trial, and in Toronto, Carl Haas, a civil engineering professor at the University of Waterloo in Waterloo, Ontario. A third lead researcher is Paul Goodrum, an associate professor in civil engineering at the University of Kentucky. Goodrum is working to establish a historic productivity

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baseline and methodology for predicting and measuring the effect of the introduction of new tools and technology to construction. Goodrum worked with Caldas and Haas to design the trials. Field-data collection was handled by interns and graduate students. Ph.D. candidate Saiedeh Navabzadeh Razavi, who is working under Haas on CII applying artificial intelligence to the materials- tracking problem, works on SNC-Lavalin’s research partners plotted locations on demand. software to convert the data into coordinates for display on Google maps. Her goal is to optimize the system by processing just enough data to do the job. “It is a trade-off,” she says. The goal is to come up with a location with the least amount of equipment using the least resources at the least cost, she explains. Her research is in developing software to collate multiple-read events picked up as handheld or vehiclemounted receivers sense the tags. If the read range is 50 ft, each pass can be used to refine the location with greater certainty at no additional cost in equipment, she and others say. The project originally was scheduled for the summer of 2007. “It was so successful, it was extended,” says Razavi. “They wanted to have it to the end of project.” Razavi has worked on both sites. “The same as anything else—any other technology— there is still some other stuff to work on like integrating [the process] with other systems to make it more complete. But based on my experience and understanding, this is completely suitable for adoption,” she says. Murray wholeheartedly agrees. “Carl [Haas] wanted me to prove [the technology] worked, and I just went on and used it,” he says.

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