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Using RFID technology to improve ATEX/DSEAR Inspection Integrity in Hazardous Areas

Author : Kevin Boyd, Managing Director, Arnlea Systems

18 September 2012

RFID technology is all around us today, even though we may not be aware of it. From passports, to pet “chipping” and aircraft component identification, RFID technology is gradually changing the way we identify items and ourselves. Kevin Boyd, managing director of Arnlea Systems, describes how RFID technology can be used to improve safety and efficiency in Hazardous Areas.

What is RFID technology?

Originally used to identify “friend or foe” aircraft in the Second World War, RFID has since found many more uses as the technology has gradually improved and the costs reduced. RFID, or Radio Frequency Identification Device to give its full description, provides a way to uniquely identify the item that it is attached to – for example, an electric motor driven pump in a hazardous area.

RFID technology consists of 2 separate parts – an RFID tag (or transponder), and an RFID reader/writer. The RFID tag is typically attached to the item to be identified – in this case, our pump. Contained on the RFID tag is a unique identifier which is associated with the pump. The second part – the RFID reader – is either Portable (typically integrated into today’s handheld computers) or Fixed (physically attached beside a door opening or entrance/exit).

Most RFID tags in use today are Passive devices – they have no onboard power source but derive their power from the signal received from the RFID reader. When you “scan” the RFID tag with the reader, the radio signal sent from the reader is sufficient to “power up” the RFID tag and return a signal containing data to the reader– for example, returning the unique identifier to identify our pump.

RFID tags come in many shapes and sizes today - from the shape and size of a grain of rice that can be embedded into equipment, through robust tags embedded in a metal protective shell that can be attached or welded to equipment, to RFID tags that have been ATEX certified for use in hazardous areas.

Many RFID tags also provide Visual Identification, allowing the identifier to be read even in the unlikely event that the RFID tag doesn’t respond.

And, RFID alignment to the latest global identification standards now gives users of RFID the ability to identify equipment quickly and easily anywhere in the world, even across supply chains, at lower cost than previously possible.

Examples of robust ATEX RFID tags
Examples of robust ATEX RFID tags

RFID versus Barcode

So isn’t RFID the same as a barcode? Well – yes and no. Both technologies can provide a unique identifier to identify our pump. However, unlike a barcode, successful scanning of RFID tags is not affected by weathering or when covered by oil, salt, mud, dust, and other substances. Similarly, many RFID tags are extremely robust, survive for the life of the equipment they are attached to, and are already replacing barcodes to identify items subjected to harsh treatment and challenging environments such as electrical and mechanical equipment on Oil & Gas platforms.

Another key difference of RFID is the ability to store both static and dynamic information on the RFID tag associated with our pump. Pump nameplate details such as the Manufacturer, Model number and Serial number can all be stored on the RFID tag. Similarly, dynamically changing data such as when the pump was last inspected and by who, can all be stored and overwritten on the RFID tag simply by “scanning” it with the RFID reader.

Hazardous Area Challenges

Maintaining an accurate register of all equipment installed in a hazardous area can be a continuous challenge however it is a task which is essential to ensure the equipment remains safe to use and fit for purpose.

Regular inspection and maintenance is driven from the equipment details held in the register, but these are often inaccurate or incomplete, leading to inefficiencies and, in the worst case, performing the wrong type of inspection on the equipment or recording the inspection results against the wrong item of equipment.

When the equipment is new and shiny, the nameplate and equipment identifier is relatively easy to read. As the asset ages, the nameplate can fall off or be obscured by rust and become difficult to read.

ATEX Handheld Computer with integrated RFID reader
ATEX Handheld Computer with integrated RFID reader

Changes in the maintenance management software can also impact the effectiveness of the inspection and maintenance processes. Equipment tag name changes on the maintenance system are seldom immediately reflected down to the physical tag on the equipment itself, resulting in a difference between the “software” tag and the “physical” tag for the same item of equipment, leading to potential confusion and lost time when the inspectors try to find the equipment to be inspected.

Inspections are also often hampered by the method chosen to capture the inspection results and the potential for human error and delays that can be introduced. Traditional methods require the inspectors to complete paper-based forms as they walk round the plant performing their inspections. The end result is often difficult to read, needs to be entered manually into a computer database or Excel spreadsheet, visibility of results are often delayed by weeks, and offers very little opportunity to correct problems while standing in front of the equipment or compensate for different levels of experience between the inspectors.

During inclement weather, the potential also exists to allow the inspection results to be recorded by the inspector whilst sitting in the tea shack, having never been to the equipment.

As plant operators look for ways to extend the life of their assets and reduce the cost of operating and maintaining these assets, the traditional methods need to be challenged and a new way of working introduced which easily maintains the quality of the register and inspection history, and improves the efficiency and effectiveness of the inspection and repair processes.

RFID to the rescue

When combined with a handheld computer (or PDA), equipment identification becomes as fast and easy as scanning the RFID tag attached to the equipment. The old method of scrubbing the nameplate with a wire brush to see the details is no longer necessary.

Consistently accurate identification of the equipment is guaranteed, even if the “software” tag doesn’t match the “physical” tag, as is proof that the inspector has been at the equipment.

As the asset ages, the nameplate and user instructions can fall off or become difficult to read
As the asset ages, the nameplate and user instructions can fall off or become difficult to read

Accurate identification ensures that the PDA screen presents the inspector with the correct equipment details and inspection checklists for the type of equipment, enabling automated validation of results as they are entered. Combining this knowledge with the experience of the inspector, allows the PDA software to cater for different levels of inspector experience.

On inspection completion, results are automatically saved against the correct item of equipment, awaiting transfer to the inspection database – in this case, Arnlea’s Inspect-EX software – eliminating the human error and delays typically associated with inspections using the traditional methods. Similarly, the inspection date and time is accurately recorded ensuring inspection compliance is maintained, with any overdue inspections flagged to allow action to be taken.

When to attach RFID?

For installed equipment, the RFID tags are simply attached when you do your next inspection. However, the earlier that RFID tags are installed, the higher your potential cost savings.

As a result, installing RFID tags during equipment manufacture or initial installation of new equipment is becoming more commonplace. When a new asset is built, fitting the RFID tags in the yard is less costly and allows the complete history from “birth” to “decommissioned” to be captured for the equipment.

Future RFID Opportunities

Many equipment manufacturers in other industries have been quick to see the benefit of using RFID tags to store important information related to their product. For example, storing “shelf life” data highlights when items should not be used. Similarly, storing user instructions and regulatory standards compliance details on the RFID tag helps to inform the user how and where the product should be used. Some RFID tags are even used to restrict who can use the product – for example, the key fob on many cars uses RFID.

Scanning an RFID tag with the PDA reader during an ATEX/DSEAR Inspection using Arnlea’s Inspect-EX software
Scanning an RFID tag with the PDA reader during an ATEX/DSEAR Inspection using Arnlea’s Inspect-EX software

Is there a benefit for ATEX equipment manufacturers? These manufacturers could attach RFID tags to their equipment at the manufacturing stage, to store important information such as the manufacturer, model number, serial number, ATEX certificate number, EX protection concept, and so on. By storing this data on the RFID tag, these visionary manufacturers could help their customers – the installers and users of their equipment – to improve the efficiency of their processes and therefore extend their competitive advantage.

RFID tags containing this type of information can be used to easily identify equipment which has been replaced, and ensure that correct grade and type of inspection is performed on this new equipment. Similarly, EX equipment registers can be kept up to date easily without the effort and cost often associated with register maintenance today.


With increased focus on safety compliance coupled with cost reduction targets and ageing assets, industries with hazardous areas are facing the need to improve the way they work to demonstrate that equipment located in hazardous areas remains fit for purpose.

Although traditionally common practice, the use of paper-based forms is now seen to be an inefficient and ineffective method to capture inspection results and accurately manage equipment registers.

The benefits achieved from RFID solutions to many industries with hazardous areas have shown that the innovative use of today’s proven technologies, such as RFID tagging and PDAs, opens the gate to higher quality, lower cost, and more efficient ways of working.

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