15 June 2023

What are the benefits of 'tagging and tracking' building products?

‘Tagging and tracking’ is a way to describe the ability to scan a product and identify where in the construction process it is, from manufacture to installation and commissioning. Currently, it is not common practice within the construction industry. Wider adoption, however, would offer numerous benefits when it comes to tracing products, and their performance, across multiple projects.

Tata Steel construction digital tools

The QR code (or other scannable ‘tag’ on the product) can be used for other tasks, such as automated invoicing or seeing where in the building model the product goes.

Tagging and tracking also enables you to gather all of the information you might want about a product. The mark links to a database of historical product data (a ‘digital product passport’), which is generated in conjunction with, and linked across, the complete supply chain.

Specifically, ‘Tag and Track’ is a system developed by Tata Steel, created as a proof of concept. The work done on Tag and Track is helping toward the overall goal of products that are supplied with a mark that can be scanned.

Benefit 1: Make more data available for components

For a digital product passport to be useful, it needs to have data about the product in question. When data is gathered about construction products, the way they’re used, and how they perform in the finished buildings, better decisions can be made about sustainability.

Tagging and tracking starts the process of collecting data from before a component is even manufactured. It includes the entire supply chain, from raw material producers, through product manufacturers, to the people responsible for designing, delivering and managing buildings.

And when a product is installed, scanning it can update the building’s 3D model in real-time, helping to create an as-built digital twin as construction progresses. The digital twin can then be used to make more informed operational and maintenance decisions about the building once it is in-use.

Ultimately, it is about creating a culture of open communication and close collaboration, encouraging a high level of transparency. More data about construction products makes it more likely that the industry will share challenges and work together for the common goal of lower environmental impact.

Benefit 2: Allow components to be used for longer

Unless intentionally designed otherwise, buildings tend to last a long time. The industry talks in terms of design life, with 50 or 60 years being common. But the useful life of a building often goes beyond its original design life – sometimes remaining in use for more than a century.

By the time a building has been used for one hundred years, the people who designed, specified and constructed it are no longer around to check what their intention was. We’re unlikely to know what plans they made for disassembling the building, and reusing or recycling components.

Even when a component can be reused or remanufactured at the end of its life, there’s no guarantee it will be. But when there is linked and traceable data that can easily be accessed, the people working with the building in a century’s time can make informed decisions.

They can assess the condition and current performance of components, and decide whether to use them on another project, thereby extending their life safely. If that’s not possible, then they can be recycled to create new components that can enter the supply chain afresh.

Benefit 3: Reduce embodied carbon and aid transition to a circular economy

Compared to the decades we have spent learning about operational carbon, the construction industry must get to grips with, and move a lot faster on, the journey of reducing embodied carbon. Meeting net zero targets will be impossible otherwise.

Digital product passports, which inform reuse decisions at the end of a building’s life, are part of that journey. Extending a product’s life across multiple projects, rather than just a single building, is part of the bigger picture of moving towards a circular economy.

If a product that could be reused is sent to landfill when the building is no longer needed, because the data wasn’t available to support a reuse decision, then it is still contributing to the linear economy. Circular economic products are essential to minimising resource use. 

A key challenge for the industry is encouraging a change of mindset. Products with greater potential for reuse and circularity might have a higher upfront carbon cost. The savings they can deliver through reuse over multiple projects should be the driver for their specification – but today’s project gets no credit for those future potential savings, and so their specification becomes less likely.

Digital product passports could help with that mindset shift.

Benefit 4: Opening up new business models

Digital passports can do so much more than incremental improvement of existing construction techniques and processes. They can also open up new ways of doing things, and even help with the introduction of entirely new business models.

For example, scanning a product ID at the point of delivery to site or installation could trigger automated invoicing and payments. Time and cost associated with administration could be significantly reduced as a result.

This ties into the earlier point about transparency. Key to the success of digital passports is that a product’s location will always be known, complete with full data about the specific product instance (rather than a generic product datasheet, for example). Among the benefits of this transparency, if a defect is found with a product, then all affected parties can be quickly informed – again resulting in associated time and cost savings.

Beyond all of that, though, is that tracking unique product IDs allows manufacturers to use Internet of Things technology to monitor the performance of the product in-use. That level of information simply isn’t available for construction products currently, but with the data to understand how a product is performing over time, it opens up the potential for new business models such as product leasing.

Benefit 5: Increase the adoption of construction platforms

Construction platforms fall under the umbrella of modern methods of construction (MMC). The Government sees the standardisation offered by construction platforms as a way to deliver schools, hospitals and other public projects more efficiently and with lower environmental impact.

The construction industry is being supported in its efforts to make construction platforms a reality through frameworks like the Product Platform Rulebook (which includes circularity among its eight rules).

Standardisation of components and connections, disassembly of the building at the end of its life, and the reuse potential of components are all key aspects, as shown in the Seismic demonstrator building.

These benefits of construction platforms will be enhanced through the gathering of traceable data throughout the life cycle of products and components. Data will be specific to individual products and situations (“product instances”), rather than generic. It will also capture the exact configuration of the product or component; its performance and environmental impact; and how it was installed.

About Tata Steel and construction platforms

Construction platforms based around steel frames can be part of circular economic solutions. Thanks to the strength and durability of steel, frame components can be highly optimised. This reduces the amount of steel required in the first place, and prolongs the service life of the frame and components across multiple buildings.

Tata Steel’s work on construction platforms includes involvement with initiatives such as the Platform Design Programme and the Seismic II platform. Stay up to date on how we are contributing to proving the concept of construction platforms by signing up to our newsletter.

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