10 Steps for implementing a Materials Tracking System
A construction project cannot make a lot of progress without construction materials. Whether you are installing a pipeline or building a skyscraper, materials are the building blocks of development and generally account for a significant amount of the project costs. Extensive planning is involved in managing thousands of line items across the supply chain and material tracking systems are used to control the supply and delivery of every piece driving successful project execution.
‘Tracking’ in this context, is much more than just having a marker on a map. It involves controlling the progress of your materials at every stage (from fabrication to final instalment) and includes managing inventory, logistics, expediting, storage, QA/QC and other responsibilities.
Implementing a system to track materials is no easy task. In this article, we outline the high-level steps you need consider to take control of your material handling processes and implement a materials tracking system that is driven by data captured in the field.
Why you need a Materials Tracking System
The core purpose of a materials tracking system is to ensure your construction materials are available on time, in the right quantity and quality. Other important benefits are:
Prevention of materials loss.
Reduce time spent searching for materials (e.g. on laydown yards).
Improve accountability amongst all stakeholders.
Record the chain of custody from fabrication to installation.
Forecast delays and bottlenecks pro-actively.
Use reliable real-time field data for reporting and decision making.
Generate insights into usage and utilisation.
Digitise paper processes such as inspections.
1. Obtain a list of all your materials and determine relevant details
Start by obtaining a list of all of the materials required for your project. If you’d like to start smaller, get a list for certain work-orders or part of the construction schedule. These lists can be exported from your planning software or ERP. Be critical and remove unnecessary data and data fields. More often than not do we find that systems are full of data that is ambiguous or that nobody uses. So be diligent, what information do you really want to have access to? The following data provides a good start:
- Identification fields (Reference numbers, Heat numbers, Work Order numbers, PO numbers)
- Descriptions, categories and sub-categories
- Specifications (size, weight, etc.)
- Supplier names
- Quantity and PO Quantities
- Important dates
- Cost codes
- Type (free issue, bulk, etc.)
- Work Pack or Test Pack references
2. Determine your statuses, locations and custodians
As materials move through the supply chain, you want to ensure they are tracked through relevant steps or stage gates. At each change of hands, you need to recognise who was involved, when and where it happened, and the status of the goods. As such, you initially need to determine the list of statuses, locations and custodians:
- Location (where is it, e.g. laydown yard, fabricator, work front, etc).
- Status (what condition is it in, e.g. fabricated, damaged, in transit, received, installed, etc).
- Custodian (who holds the current responsibility for the material).
3. Make sure everything is barcoded for serial identification
Barcoding is cheap and efficient. It’s also the easiest way to identify items using scanners or mobile apps. Stick a label (barcodes or QR codes) on everything you have. Use rugged barcodes for items that get banged around a lot, and stick multiple barcodes on large bulky items so you can always quickly scan and identify them (from multiple angles).
4. Start scanning materials at every stage gate
Once all parts that you want to track are barcoded, start scanning them at every change of hands and steps/gates in the supply chain. Use scanners or mobile devices that can update the location on-scan immediately, using pre-set defaults (e.g. when used at a fixed location), or a GPS that is built into the scanning device (e.g. your smartphone).
Ideally, take it one step further by also having barcoded nametags for people involved in the material handling processes. This enables you to quickly scan the nametags to associate people with custodian changes.
5. Keep a record of every status, location and custodian change and report on usage
Maintain a record every time a material changes status, location or custodian. This creates an audit trail and drives accountability. By making a habit of scanning and checking items in and out to move them through the process, you’ll be able to identify bottlenecks. You’ll also quickly identify parts and assets that aren’t being used. This helps drive efficiency as they can potentially be re-allocated.
6. Get out of spreadsheets as fast as you can
Spreadsheets are amongst the most used software tools in any business. And for a good reason. Everyone is familiar with them, they’re fairly easy to use and they are very powerful calculators. The comprehensible row-column setup provides a great means for structuring a large amount of data and nearly everyone has spreadsheet software installed on their computer. However, spreadsheets do have a fair few limitations and drawbacks, especially when they are used to keep track of frequently changing data that needs to be accessed and updated by teams of people. Major downsides of spreadsheets (for tracking construction materials) are:
Collaboration by multiple users is limited.
Lots of data = slow spreadsheets.
Data is not updated in real-time.
They are prone to human error.
Accessibility issues when someone has stored the most recent copy on their hard drive.
Lack of data integrity and checks that the data that is put in is valid and correct.
It’s complex to set permissions for different roles and manage security.
There is no historical changelog of who did what when.
They don’t send out automated alerts or notifications.
Reporting capabilities are limited and dynamic graphs slow down workbooks tremendously.
Limited to no integrations to other systems and/or hardware.
7. Actively flag risk
Start putting automated rules in place that actively monitor inventory levels taking into account re-order thresholds and delivery times. Set flags, triggers and automate notifications around important events and dates on the critical path so you can action deviations appropriately. This is especially important when it comes to long-lead items.
8. Make sure all relevant documentation is available to the teams
Once your materials tracking system is actively being used, start adding and attaching relevant material documentation for each item – anything from manuals, to inspection documents, certifications, instructions, warranty forms documents, dockets, etc. Record preservation history to maintain warranty entitlements. Ideally, you also want to be able to add photos which can provide evidence of the condition of materials at the time of transaction. By maintaining all of the above in your system, the appropriate teams will always have the relevant information in a single location. Together with the audit trail, this provides all the data you need to manage the lifecycle of materials.
9. Digitise any paper process you have in place
Save more time and prevent human input errors by further digitising your documentation. Think about transfer requests, inspection forms, over/short/damage reports, etc. Actions that need to be taken on materials must be registered through the system and users need to be notified of any documentation they are required to fill out. In addition, you want your materials tracking system to empower field workers with inspection forms and checklists that can be filled out digitally using mobile devices.
10. Consider using IoT for more expensive parts and automated tracking
Once you have followed steps 1-9 and you’re in full control and track your materials through all the steps in the supply chain, you can start thinking about advanced IoT solutions such as RFID, Bluetooth, LoRaWan or GPS. These involve extensive testing and can require a significant investment (time and money) to implement. It is essential that you understand the benefits and limitations of all the different options. Our industry is loaded with items that can cause interference with radio wave signals (metal, concrete, liquids, etc.), which can impact reliability. Moreover, in the mining, oil and gas industry remote or underground locations can make the implementation of certain technology challenging. As such, it is crucial that you have a system in place that you know you can rely on. You should always have a fail-safe fall back scenario, being your barcoded items.
Watch the webinar – The Hard Truth: Tracking Technology & IoT Explained
Whilst IoT can further automate location tracking, you do need to be aware that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. For further explanation about the different technologies, we encourage you to watch our webinar “The Hard Truth: Tracking Technology & IoT Explained”.
Learn about the differences, benefits, limitations and typical applications of RFID, GPS, barcodes and other technologies.