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Tue 16 Nov 2010 12:00 AM

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Tagged up

RFID technology is used everywhere and anywhere. PMV meets a company that offers a solution that could help the construction industry keep track.

Tagged up
MOTION TRACKING: RFID has already found a \nnumber of uses in the automotive industry.

It’s a problem I am sure we have all experienced. You’ve just
spent a frantic afternoon in the mall and it’s time to go home and recuperate. Unfortunately
when you arrive at the car park, you’re struck with the sudden realisation that
you’ve made a fatal error. You forgot to note where exactly you had parked.

“You want to find your white CLR among 500 white CLRs and you
can’t find it. And that’s where we come in,” says Reza Shibli, Director of Product
Marketing at TagStone.

TagStone is a company that specialises at RFID (radio frequency
identification) technology. If the letters RFID don’t mean anything to you, in vehicles
it’s the same tech-nology that tells automated toll systems that you forgot to pay
your fee.

TagStone has developed a system that allows vehicles to be tracked
over wide spaces and locations. It can also update on the move and in realtime,
providing data on time, speeds and performance. RFID is already being used in a
variety of situations, and it easy to see how it could be adapted to a construction
or project site, equipment asset management or a logistics set-up when you see it
in action.

To that end, TagStone has invited PMV to join it at one of its
most successful projects yet in Abu Dhabi,
Mercedes
dealer and service centre the Al Fahim. The objective of the visit is to demonstrate
how TagStone works in practice. The reasoning becomes immediately clear upon entering
the facility.

The front end of Al Fahim’s new headquarters in Mussafah is a
sparkling cavernous space that is decorated by the very smartest, sharpest looking
and expensive cars Mercedes has built. But on the other side is the real workhouse
of the building.

A huge 91,000 sqm servicing area consisting of 550 parking bays,
260 servicing bays, an ER-style area for cars in desperate need of attention, a
dedicated valeting/washing area, plus a VIP area where customers with cars with
special needs, such as bullet proof armour, can be catered for. At any one time
there are over a 100 cars being examined by 150 mechanics. The flow of work coming
from Mercedes’ demanding and expectant customers is constant, the logistics of keeping
the cars moving through the system over such a large area complicated.

Putting it in perspective, Reza describes the situation at Al
Fahim’s facility before
Tagstone’s system was in place.

Previously when a customer arrived at Al Fahim, he says, the
car would be given a number and placed into a colour-coded bay according to its
incoming status. A matching coloured beacon would then be place on top of the vehicle.

As the car was shifted around to servicing, the workshop or washing,
it would be moved into another coloured bay and a corresponding beacon placed onto
its roof. Tracking one car and its
beacon would be difficult enough, but Al Fahim is working on
hundreds of cars at one time, meaning that at any given moment there can frequently
be hundreds of cars in motion.

Previously, when it was using the colour coding system,
vehicles had to be parked in spec-ific areas, in practice that meant that when the
area was full, the
drivers would park anywhere they could.

“They used to spend a
lot of time just looking for the cars,” smiles Reza.

TagStone’s solution was to introduce RFID tags that can be used
to track the vehicle’s positioning in the multi-storeys of Al Fahim’s servicing
set-up. The RFID tags themselves are fairly mundane-looking match box-sized plastic
blocks.

Inside is a battery, a transmitter, and the clever bit, a chip
that can store information on the vehicle and relay that via a series of transponders
that capture the information and beam it across the service centre.

At any given time, the data can be accessed and the position
of any given car triangulated. All of which works beautifully with the existing
infrastructure at
Al Fahim.

“When he went to present to Al Fahim they had been talking to
other providers but I think we were the only ones that were talking about a business
solution and not just a technological
solution.

“We realised they didn’t really care about the technology. We
gave them the option of two
different RTLS (realtime location systems) but they were rolling out a Cisco wireless
system with a large number of access points around the facility (they didn’t get
good cell phone reception in the facility). One of the tags we chose was able to
use leverage the Cisco system to push data (about the cars) around
the system.

“They didn’t have to change the facility in anyway, but the way
in which we placed the hardware and how we implemented our technology was dependent
on their processes,” adds Reza.

Those ‘processes’ are a series of stages at the facility that
begin when a customer drives into the building and end when it is given back and
driven out through the gate. This sequence in many ways has echoes of a car production
line.

The service centre receives the vehicle, then takes it to a service
advisor along with the client. The service advisor decides what needs to be done
and the client can accept or decline their recommendations.

If they accept, the vehicle gets put into parking (a massive
underground parking chamber with 550 bays) and waits for a mechanic. Once it’s in
parking, a mechanic is assigned and all the scheduling starts. A time clock starts
and the mechanic retrieves the vehicle takes it up to the workbays; performs the
service and it is taken back to the parking bay where it waits to be washed or test
driven; before it is eventually returned to the customer.

Like a car production line, it’s a very well-defined system but,
as it’s not totally automated, it also has to allow for the human element. Some
days are busier than others, customers don’t always turn up at precisely the right
time and there are cars that arrive like an ER patient on trucks through the emergency
door that require intensive treatment to be road-worthy once again. “We had to make
sure we could fit in with all these scenarios.”

PMV is given a fully guided tour of the facility by Alex, Al
Fahim’s director of IT. Before heading out into the workshop he explains that adding
flexibility and saving time has had an effect in the workshop and to Al Fahim as
a business. New technology at Al Fahim, including TagStone’s, has allowed it to
restructure. The new style of business operations means that some positions are
no longer needed.

Just before heading on the tour, Alex informs Reza that one member
of staff that had been with the business for 30 years had recently left – some people
will never get their head around new technology.

“We used to have people called timekeepers. Once the mechanics
had finished the job they used to go to this person and check that the job had been
done correctly according to what was on the system,” he says. “It was an additional
layer. All those guys had to go. Reza shouldn’t go down with us. We had 20 drivers
and now we have five because
of him.”

He continues: “When you start automisation you find that certain
positions are made redundant. With all the new systems we have in place we had people
sitting around and doing
nothing. The management felt we had to see which positions we could retain.”

“We’ve let some people go with your help,” he laughs as he tells
Reza.

Alex runs through a series of facts and numbers to clarify how
much of an impact installing RFID has had on the company’s aftersales business.
In man-hours alone he estimates the company gains 225 man-hours per day.

“When I joined in 2007, and before we had RFID, the
drivers used to help the mechanics find the cars. It used to take two or three people
and 30-35 minutes to find one car,” he says. “Mechanics used to lose that time.
Now it’s about five to 10 minutes.

“According to ISO, the minimum a mechanic should do a day is
three vehicles. So each one is saving an hour and a half, and we have a 150 mechanics
on each shift.”

Although the system was devised as a location device, it is also
being used in ways that TagStone hadn’t envisioned, including being used as a way
to monitor employee speed. By identifying the time it takes for mechanics to do
certain tasks, weaknesses can be identified and training recommended.

The system’s ability to push and share data around means that
customers have even been stopped at the gate trying to leave without paying because
the tag sent
a warning.

Ultimately it all adds up to the Mercedes dealer being able to
keep its most lucrative side of the business efficient and the revenue coming in.

“Aftersales is our business,” says Alex.

Returning from Al Fahim, Reza runs through some of the options
for the technology. Unlike alternatives such as GPS it has the advantage of
working on the ground level and being able to move information around, as long as
the right set-up is installed.

Clearly the construction industry can benefit from technology
that can shape logistics and track vehicles and equipment over a wide area, like,
say a construction site.

Furthermore, RFID is already being used in asset management and
is likely to be become more and more popular by virtue of its flexibility.

As we drive, there is a phone call and news that TagStone has
won an award at the Gitex show for its work with the police force in Dubai.

Individual weapons and users are being tagged now, increasing
the force’s ability to control its armoury and speed up weapon deployment in emergencies.
As we pass under an RFID-enabled Salik gate, Reza adds that even individual bullets
could be tagged. It is clear that it is in all our interest to become a little more
tag-savvy.

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