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It’s 14 feet long, eight feet wide, six inches thick, and weighs 3,400 pounds. It’s called a rig mat and, in spite of its size, it’s very difficult to track.
GEM Services, based in Calgary, rents rig mats to energy companies in the remote reaches of Western Canada. These sturdy wooden mats are deployed by exploration, transmission-line and pipeline companies, providing stability in muddy terrain and creating temporary access roads and worksites for heavy equipment.
“The two biggest challenges involved in the work we do,” says GEM Services CEO Steve Fisher, “are inventory management and logistics. We need to track our mats accurately, and we also need to be ultra-efficient.
“Complex projects often involve 10,000 or more mats that are constantly on the move. We need to automatically track every mat — ensuring our clients know where the assets are at all times, so they can make informed decisions.”
GEM Services had been developing radio frequency identification (RFID) tagging systems for about three years before reaching out to SAIT’s RFID Application Development Lab (RADLab) in 2014.
Established by SAIT’s Applied Research and Innovation Services (ARIS) department in 2007, RADLab works on the cutting edge of this wireless communications technology, collaborating with SAIT students and industry partners to supply tracking and tracing solutions.
For the RADLab team led by ARIS principal investigator Ben Reed (IT ‘11), the project with GEM Services presented multiple challenges: the harsh conditions faced by the mats (which are at the mercy of heavy equipment and have an expected five-year lifespan) and the remote northern Alberta setting (which can present everything from mud to muskeg to a -40 C deep freeze).
“We moved fairly quickly from simulations to prototypes,” says Reed. “Given all the variables involved, we literally ended up doing thousands of tests.”
The RADLab team’s solution, dubbed SmartMat, is an ultra high frequency (UHF) RFID tag in a durable plastic housing that maximizes range and reliability, stands up to the brutal conditions, and is economical enough to be applied to GEM Services’ inventory of about 10,000 mats.
Besides Reed, the SmartMat project team at ARIS included RFID research chair Glen Kathler, lab lead Robert Davies, Electronics Engineering Technology student Kalle Kiiskinen, project manager Chris Zaal (IT ‘10), software developers Stephanie Krause and Sherry Yang (IT ‘12), and electronics technician Dalton Braun (ENT ‘12).
Field testing began on the SmartMat solution in late June, with production of these purpose-built RFID tags starting by the fourth quarter of 2015.
“Fantastic. Their skill set and testing facilities are top notch,” says Fisher. “We see this as our first project with SAIT. There’ll be more to follow.”
Fisher also believes the RADLab team’s SmartMat solution has massive potential for the future.
“Just think of it. There are trillions of dollars worth of what we call ‘dark assets’ out there on industrial projects. Bigger companies feel multi-million-dollar pain trying to manage their assets,” he says.
“We feel what we’ve created with SAIT’s help has tremendous value. It’s a solution we can take out to the rest of the world.”
Written by Todd Kimberley