The construction industry won a major battle in late July, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (ACE) issued its verdict on reverse auctions. As hoped, the Corps sees no advantages to the idea. Basically, the verdict is that it is neither smart nor advantageous for the federal government to use RAs to buy construction services.

According to the Associated General Contractors of America, “The report went on to say that [ACE] found no proof that reverse bid auctions provided a significant or marginal edge over the sealed bid process for construction projects. There was no valid measurement method to project any claim of savings from reverse bid auctions.”

But the ACE report doesn't doom the construction reverse auction. The analysis may not be accepted by all U.S. government agencies. And while the ACE verdict might influence some private decision makers, those owners enamored of this alternative construction procurement method can ignore it at will.

Thus, the good news is limited: A key arm of the government won't endorse reverse auctions. It is worth noting that, had the decision gone the other way, that news would have been just awful.

RFID and you

RFID (radio-frequency identification) technology is getting a lot of ink in some circles. Attach an RFID tag to an item-for example, a pallet shipped by a supplier to Wal-Mart-and information coded onto the tag would be “broadcast” to properly tuned handheld receivers.

Wal-Mart would gain because it would be better able to process shipments in its warehouses. The big retailer and the Department of Defense are this country's pioneers in RFID use. It's possible some of the readers of this magazine will encounter RFID in the electrical materials supply chain, or elsewhere, before any electrical contractor uses this technology for his/her own purposes.

Here's what's new: Working with FIATECH (a construction technology consortium), Fluor Construction “found that active RFID tags could track large metal pipes stacked on a truck with 100 percent accuracy,” according to a report in RFID Journal.

Tags were affixed to spools, which are sections of steel or carbon-steel pipe that can be 40 feet long and 2 to 8 inches in diameter. A typical Fluor project can consume as few as 1,000 spools or as many as 10,000.

Receipt of these items at job sites is difficult. While each spool's label has a bar code, standard practice is to “identify each spool visually and ... use the bad code [later],” said John Wadenphul, a materials management supervisor for Fluor.

How could an electrical contractor use RFID technology? Four simple ideas come to mind:

o Tag heavy equipment, so it doesn't disappear from the site.

o Tag smaller items also, such as tools and meters.

o Employees on a job site can be asked to carry a company ID card in which an RFID tag is embedded.

o Key material items, such as expensive lighting fixtures, could be tagged as part of a security arrangement that keeps such things from walking away.

FIATECH has made the report on the RFID trials available on its Web site (www.fiatech.org); nonmembers must pay a fee to see it. The RFID research is part of the FIATECH Smart Chips project, which includes smart cards, embedded sensors and mini-GPS locators.

IT is coming

“The Scope and Role of Information Technology in Construction,” a paper on the real-world intersection of construction and IT was written by the folks at the Center for Integrated Facility Engineering. Download the 17-page PDF at www.stanford.edu/class/cee243/ITconstruction.pdf.

There's a heck of a lot to think about in this paper, including a report on a real-world use of a “4D” model (the fourth dimension is time). The section that got me was this:

“Although Mortenson had generated a detailed plan (compiled in two binders) with step-by-step analyses of the crane needs and the structural reliability of the parking structure, the county was not clear on the phasing of the cranes.

“After several weeks of meetings with the county that did not yield the desired approval of the erection plan, Mortenson showed the 4D model of the erection plan to the county officials.

“In 15 minutes the officials were able to understand more about the erection plan than they had been able to grasp in many afternoons of working through the binders.”

Note that the 4D model's purpose isn't communication; it is better coordination in construction. But we can't build it until someone says, “okay.” If computers and software can allow the industry to substitute a quick meeting, as in this case, that alone is a good enough reason for construction contractors to think hard about making better use of IT. EC

SALIMANDO is a Vienna, Va.-based freelance writer and frequent contributor to ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR. He can be reached at jsali@cris.com.