“Tracking your assets is important during operations and fundamental when evaluating your business processes by facilitating inventory management and unraveling the total cost of ownership of your operating assets”

 

A business depends on many resources to get the work done. More often than not, we need to know where our assets are in order to plan and monitor our operations. For instance, who is using them? How many assets are in working conditions? What are the assets used for? How are they performing? These are some of the questions that come to mind when we evaluate our business operation.

On the other hand, when we start thinking about improving operations, historical data and additional types of information can help explore alternative business scenarios. To this end, several technological solutions can help you collect data about asset use while tracking it. This can include real-time information on stock-levels, asset usage and performance, and map workflows by following assets in transit.

Therefore, tracking your assets is important during operations and fundamental when evaluating your business processes by facilitating inventory management and unraveling the total cost of ownership of your operating assets. Valuable information that can help you create and execute your strategic vision.

 

Asset tracking solutions

The simple and cheap way to keep track of assets is through spreadsheets. Unfortunately, it can easily increase administrative costs by becoming burdensome to upkeep, especially as the business grows. It’s manual updating is also prone to errors. Moreover, having only a record of your assets does not provide you with a full picture of their use as it will be explained in further detail below.

There are several technologies capable of helping you make asset tracking easy and transparent. These products depend on the context where they are deployed, either in outdoor or indoor environments.

Outdoor solutions are focused on vehicle fleet management, industrial and agricultural processes, and smart sensors. There are three different types of technology available to cover vast areas: Low Power Wide-Area-Networks (LPWAN), Global System for Mobile communication (GSM), and Frequency Modulation (FM) radio broadcasting. We will delve into these solutions in another article.

Meanwhile, this article will focus on indoor solutions. These target manufacturing processes and any business operation that takes place indoor. The technologies include barcodes, RFID tags, and Bluetooth beacons.

 

Asset tracking with QR codes

Assets can be tracked manually with barcode scanners and/or mobile applications. QR (quick response) codes are 2 dimensional barcodes that can hold diverse forms of text information (eg. phone numbers, directions, etc.) and provide web links to access online content through mobile devices. QR codes have a data capacity of up-to 4,000 characters versus the 20 characters stored in standard barcodes. In addition, they are easy to create and very economical.

Main use
QR codes were originally used to track parts in the manufacturing process of vehicles, but have since expanded their use into different areas thanks to their versatility. They are amongst the most economical alternatives for asset tracking.

Samples
QR codes can be use to track usage by registering when someone takes out and returns a tool from/to the storage deposit. Also, QR codes could be used to record the history of an asset by scanning it and adding the appropriate information (e.g. incident report) through a mobile app and/or an inventory management platform.

Limitations
Unfortunately, QR codes cannot be edited once created. However, the information that they link to on the web can be modified. Also, the codes are subject to high wear and tear (i.e. low ruggedness), and their reusability is limited. In addition, they need to be manually scanned with a specific device or with a mobile reader application.

qrcode-static

QR code: https://www.bulbthings.com

 

Asset tracking with RFID tags

Radio frequency identification (RFID) tags are chips that store information that can be scanned. RFIDs that include a battery are called active tags while those that draw their power from the readers are called passive tags. The latter has a data capacity of up-to 4 million characters. In either case, these tags only require scanners to be in close proximity to be read.

Moreover, RFID tags can come in many shapes and sizes (see image below), and made to fit inside different materials, providing a wide range of uses. Also, the information stored inside the tags can be edited providing high reusability.

Main use
The fact that scanners can communicate with multiple tags at the same time and without line of sight makes RFIDs very useful. In addition, the high durability of RFIDs (high ruggedness) makes them versatile solutions across all industries, including manufacturing, logistics, safety, asset management, and much more. The selection of your RFID solution will depend on the needs of your system and requires careful thought (see Limitations).

Samples
RFIDs cover a broad range of technologies, both passive and active. In the hospitality industry, RFID chips can help keep track of bedding and towels stock-levels and use, dwell time, wash count and laundry reconciliation, and help in theft prevention. Other examples include passive RFID tags (LF/HF) for economic tool tracking, or active RFID tags (UHF) to track containers in logistic operations.

Limitations
RFID tags can cost 3-6 times more than QR codes. Also, overlapping RFIDs cannot be properly scanned unless certain precautions are taken. Nonetheless, scanners only need to be in close proximity to the tags and can read more than 20 times the number of tags per second than a QR code scanner. A summary of read ranges and sample uses by technology type:

Type of RFIDRead RangeSample Uses
Passive: low frequency (LF) & high frequency (HF)A few centimetersTool check-in/-out
Passive: ultrahigh frequency (UHF)Up-to 10 metersLogistics: container tracking through specific portals
ActiveBetween 18 to 100 metersReal-time location applications

 

RFID tags

RFID tags (Image: iStock)

 

Asset tracking with Beacons

Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) beacons are small devices that send bursts of radio waves to smart devices in close proximity. The technology is effective for device-to-device communication in a decentralized wireless network. Beacons only transmits a single ID number at 1/10th per second. That ID number interacts with bluetooth devices to provide real-time information on the cloud. In addition, Bluetooth can cost up-to 90% less than similar WiFi systems, making them a very competitive alternative.

Main use

  • GPS for indoor navigation: While barcodes and RFID tags are good at registering when assets enter/exit particular points (i.e. portals or gateways), beacons emit signals that allow to continuously monitor assets location on real-time with low energy use. This information can be capture by a wireless network. So, when the beacons are attached to moving assets, they can generate “heat maps” representing asset density per location at different times on a given day.
  • Automated interaction: From checking stock levels in real-time to triggering events when assets enter certain areas.
  • Geofencing & security: Trigger alerts when assets accidentally end-up in the wrong place.

Sample
In healthcare facilities, BLE can be used to track accurately people (BLE card tags) and assets (BLE beacons). This can reduce time finding people/assets for timely patient care, as well as monitor access to restricted areas.

Limitations
Technically speaking, BLEs are very versatile and durable asset tracking solutions. However, the cost of hardware is much higher than with QR codes and/or RFIDs, making them ideal for high-value tracking in indoor spaces.

kontak-io-locateBluetooth beacon (Image: Kontakt.io)

 

Summary of asset tracking solutions

 AdvantagesLimitations
QR codes
[Inventory management]
Economical & easy to print codes

Mobile app scanner
Requires line of sight for scanning

Scan rate of 2 codes/second

Low ruggedness & reusability

Non-editable
RFID tags
[Inventory management]
Diverse range of shapes & sizes

High ruggedness & reusability

Editable
It can be read up-to 100m

Scan rate of 40 tags/second

Active RFID tags have a battery life

Potential reader/tag collision
BLE beacons
[Inventory management & geofencing]
Real-time tracking

High ruggedness & reusability

Editable

Up-to 90% more economical than wifi-systems

Interoperates with other sensors (eg. motion detectors)

It can work with NFC & RFID systems
Transmission range (Tx power) up-to 50-90m

Instant Bluetooth connection

Battery life: 6mo - 5 yrs (depends on use)

Data for Action

Businesses can generate cost savings using technology for asset tracking. These benefits rely on the optimisation of business processes, inventory management, and total cost ownership (TCO). Some of the improvements per area include:

  • Inventory management
    • Track stock levels, turnaround time, and storage space usage
    • Facilitate the location of assets
    • Reduce theft and loss risk
    • Monitor history of asset and its physical condition

 

  • Total cost of ownership (TCO)
    • Identify cost nodes through inventory changes and costs associated with asset’s history
    • Integrate with accrual accounting to keep inventory values and records organised for transparent bookkeeping

These can benefit business processes by helping

  • Reduce operating expenses through the automation of inventory processes
  • Manage workflow
  • Forecast demand based on historical data

Closing remarks

The selection of your asset tracking technology will depend on your needs and budget. Its long list of advantages will help you provide a better customer service through faster access to your assets/products and their optimal use. Also, it will save you time in stock updates and reduce costly mistakes. And, most importantly, it will provide a sustainable solution for your growing business thanks to the automation of tasks and its scalability that the burdensome use of spreadsheets cannot do.

 

References

Augur, Hannah. “Asset Monitoring, Tracking, Analyzing: IoT Gets Better with Latest Beacon Tech.” Kontakt.io. N.p., 01 Dec. 2016. Web. 23 Dec. 2016.

Technovelgy: What is RFID? Accessed on 29 Dec. 2016 http://www.technovelgy.com/ct/Technology-Article.asp?ArtNum=1