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Assignar Researches IoT to solve Asset Tracking problems

Introduction

Asset tracking is a technological solution to the challenge of knowing the location and status of mobile physical assets. Physical infrastructures set up for asset tracking, called Real-Time Location Systems (RTLS), use a variety of hardware and digital platform options that are suited for a wide range of use cases, both indoor and outdoor, in every business vertical you can imagine.

Asset tracking solutions lie at the intersection of the increasing complexity of modern industrial processes and the rise of digital transformations and Industry 4.0. The needs of one are met by the possibilities created by the other. The result is RTLS deployments that are transforming industries and providing unprecedented opportunities for improved performance.

Through the use of small transmitters attached to assets in motion, asset tracking deployments provide valuable business insights into how resources, machinery, equipment, throughput and more move through a process. Facilities in manufacturing, warehousing, transport, retail, hospitality, healthcare and many other sectors use RTLS to gain insights and visibility into asset location and performance that would otherwise be impossible to achieve. This information can then be leveraged into greater efficiencies, improved processes and substantial cost savings.

The goal of asset tracking is to contribute data that helps complex operations to function more efficiently. This can mean improving workflows, streamlining processes, reducing the losses associated with downtime, optimizing asset use and performance and generally aiding in the pursuit of the ideals of lean performance.

I. THE BENEFITS OF ASSET TRACKING

Before we examine industry-specific use cases, it’s worth highlighting the fact that there are many top-level benefits of RTLS that apply to any operation. These are among the first, and perhaps most valuable, effects of being able to monitor asset location and react in real time. Asset tracking can make an instant impact on:

Inventory management
Know exactly how many pieces of inventory you have and where they are at all times. Avoid time-consuming manual inventories that cause down time and are subject to human error.

Employee tracking
People monitoring solutions can be used for precise time-clock registration, eliminating human error in documenting entry and exit times.

Equipment maintenance
Instead of schedule maintenance according to the calendar, arrange it when it’s actually needed based on use rates and performance history.

Purchasing decisions
Avoid unnecessary spending over-purchasing when you can quickly get accurate real-time data on stock levels, available equipment and use rates.

Compliance
RTLS can provide historical data to document compliance with applicable rules and regulations. Automated monitoring eliminates the need for manually gathering information and drafting reports.

Safety and security
Asset tracking deployments can be augments with geofencing capability to limit or control access to sensitive or hazardous areas. Easily manage and document entry and exit to any such zones for improved employee, visitor and vendor safety while securing areas with restricted access.

Loss prevention
Use geofencing to get alerts when valuable assets move beyond a predefined area. Easily locate smaller tools or other equipment that is easily lost in large workspaces.

Customer experience
Increase the accuracy of order picking, shipment processing and delivery timeframes. Resolve issues faster and avoid costly returns, refunds and cancellations.

II. INDUSTRY-SPECIFIC USE CASES

Moving from the general to the more specific, we can see that RTLS-based tracking applications have been refined and customised to address a wide range of scenarios where insights into the movements of people and assets can be leveraged into better performance. These are not small improvements on previous technologies, but new possibilities opened up by the digitisation of spaces and the flow of people and goods within them.

Let’s narrow our focus to asset tracking solutions that are applied to a growing number of use cases that address the unique contexts of various business environments. These applications of the capabilities of RTLS show just how flexible they can be in adapting to the specific needs and requirements of particular contexts across verticals. Here are examples of how asset tracking has proven its value in the following industries:

Supply chain management

  • Sensors with temperature-reading capability can document that goods in transit are kept in the appropriate conditions at all times, preserving the chain of custody and avoiding costly claims.
  • Asset tracking data can be used to assist in compliance reporting.

Manufacturing & Warehousing

  • Digital representations of workflows make it easier to identify bottlenecks and optimise throughput.
  • Precise, shelf-level location positioning accelerates picking times and boosts staff efficiency.
  • RTLS can provide detailed dwell time data to streamline processes and provide insights into staff productivity.

Construction

  • Gain a Better Understanding of Asset Life Cycle and Costs
  • Reduces the Risk of Theft on Site
  • Improved Visibility of Construction Assets
  • Easier to Manage Equipment Maintenance and Repair
  • Improved Safety for Construction Workers
  • Managing Construction Equipment Helps with ISO 55001 Certification

III. MULTIPLE PLATFORMS, ONE OBJECTIVE Asset Tracking Technology Comparison

The physical deployments of beacons, tags and other sensors that form the backbone of RTLS deployments are powered by a number of different location-tracking technologies.  Each platform approaches the challenge differently, but they are all focused on digitally tracking movement in a physical space.  Many firms in the field of asset tracking provide hardware agnostic deployments, meaning sensors are compatible with multiple digital standards.

A number of different technologies are available for the purposes of asset tracking, each with its strengths and weaknesses. Those attributes make them more or less suited for particular use cases in different industries. Since they function in different ways and achieve essentially the same result by taking different technical paths, the small differences between them can make them ideal for one context and a poor choice for another.

The range of choices and standards can be confusing, especially since there is so much crossover between them. That’s why we’ve put together a guide to the basic pros and cons of these wireless communication standards along with the use cases that are best matched to each.

It’s important to bear in mind that, when it comes to RTLS standards, there are rarely “right” or “wrong” answers—it’s usually a matter of “better” or “worse”. Much depends on the unique circumstances of the area being covered, the assets being tracked, environmental conditions and, of course, the business needs that are to be met. All of the following standards operate on the same principle of a piece of hardware broadcasting a signal that is “heard” by a reader that picks up all such signals in its range. With that in mind, here’s a look at commonly used RTLS standards, their pluses and minuses and the use cases where they excel.

RFID

Radio-Frequency Identification, or RFID, uses radio waves to broadcast and detect asset location. There are two main types of RFID, active and passive. Active RFID tags have their own power source, used to broadcast a signal to an RFID reader. Passive tags do not have a power source and are read-only, requiring a much stronger (thus more energy-intensive) signal from an RFID reader to activate their response.

Passive RFID is not typically used for asset location purposes since devices using it are not equipped to broadcast their location. Instead, passive RFID is more common in applications that involve short-range manual scanning. The very low price passive RFID tags makes them de facto disposable, which is they are often used in wearables, like wristbands, and in contactless forms of payment.

Active RFID tags, powered by their own energy source, are capable of broadcasting signal. This is the key to precise asset tracking, regardless of the technological platform—the ability of a small piece of hardware to advertise its location via the repeated transmission of a simple, digital version of “I’m right here”. When that signal is picked up and processed by a reader, the signal gets interpreted and translated into a location.

With RFID, location is calculated by measuring signal strength as the tag moves around a physical space.

Pros

  • No Line of Sight (LOS) Needed—The RFID signal is multidirectional and easily picked up by readers and sensors. It’s also one of the more stable and reliable RTLS platforms.
  • RFID chips are very small and can be integrated with almost anything. This is an important consideration when the use case calls for discreet design or extreme portability.
  • The RFID signal is robust, stable and resistant to interference.

Cons

  • RFID signals are easily intercepted by anyone with an RFID reader. This makes them an absolute non-starter for use cases that call for data protection and security.
  • As one of the earliest platforms to achieve wide adoption in asset tracking, RFID may struggle to keep pace with other, newer technologies (including some on this list). Its functionalities are being equalled and surpassed while it has not been significantly updated to keep it on the cutting edge. Manufacturer support for RFID chips beyond the near term is not guaranteed.
  • RFID is an older platform that is not very well standardised and can be difficult to integrate into existing supply chains.

Ideal use cases for RFID

  • Harsh, demanding physical environments
  • Asset tracking of small items requiring small tags
  • Contexts where it’s important that tags won’t interfere with movement or need to be unseen for any reason
  • Standard asset tracking applications involving inventory, warehousing, shipping, etc.
  • Simple time clock functionalities, registration of area entry/exit
  • Access control.


WiFi

WiFi operates in the same part of the radio spectrum as RFID. And, like all platforms here, it also uses tags that broadcast a signal to multiple sensors scanning the same area. With WiFi, asset location is calculated by time difference of arrival (TDOA), meaning that small differences in the signal strength picked up by each sensor reveal the tagged asset’s location. In this way, WiFi works much the same indoors as GPS navigation works outdoors.

WiFi was initially developed for data communication, not asset tracking. When it is used for location services, it’s usually as an add-on to an existing WiFi network dedicated to its primary purpose of transferring data or providing internet access. This places certain limitations on its functionality and desirability for anyone searching for a dedicated asset tracking solution. Still, it can be a serviceable option in certain circumstances.

Pros

  • WiFi asset tracking can be easily integrated with existing WiFi networks, requiring minimal additional hardware.
  • WiFi signals have a long range, making it possible to cover large areas with fewer access points.
  • WiFi can handle very large data throughput, although this is somewhat questionable as an asset since tracking applications don’t generate or need to transmit a lot of data.
  • The WiFi signal is stable and difficult to disrupt.

Cons

  • Installation of WiFi additional access points for asset tracking and integration with existing IT structures can be challenging and potentially costly
  • While better than RFID, WiFi is questionable in terms of data security
  • WiFi tags are large and use much more power than others on this list
  • Accuracy is usually low compared to other standards since access points are usually optimised for data transfer and not asset tracking

Ideal use case for WiFi

  • Simple deployments with limited budgets and minimal integration with IT systems

BLE

Like WiFi, Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), was not created with asset tracking in mind. Despite this, however, it has become the dominant wireless technology in asset tracking because of the range of functionalities it offers and the massive ecosystem built around it. The balance of low energy use, interoperability and stability makes BLE the default choice for a rapidly growing number of RTLS deployments.

Similar to RFID, BLE establishes location based on the relative strength of signals received by multiple sensors.

A very strong argument in favour of BLE is right there in its name—low energy. It’s extremely low power consumption means that batteries in beacons and tags can last for five years or more, depending on the settings used. Energy savings scale up with the size of the deployment, making it especially advantageous for larger deployments.

Works well indoors and outdoors. Accuracy levels can be improved be increased the density of transmitters in a given space.

A major reason for its attractiveness as a platform for asset tracking is the enormous global penetration of BLE as a standard across devices. This ability to interact with phones, tablets and other common consumer goods automatically creates an enormous network to leverage.

Pros

  • BLE is everywhere as a result of being installed in billions of consumer devices
  • Anyone with a smartphone can easily access BLE-based asset tracking applications
  • Can be enabled with sensors to track temperature, motion, vibration, impact, humidity, etc.
  • Definite price advantage over RFID, with much less expensive signal reader costs
  • Easily integrated with other technologies and cloud services
  • Easy deployment for simple use cases and expanding the reach of an existing network is easy

Cons

  • Scaling BLE and preserving accuracy requires adding transmitters to create a more dense network, which can be expensive in large deployments

Ideal use cases for BLE

  • Anything intended for use by the public (wayfinding, navigation, etc.)
  • Creating digital representations of work flows and movements through, for example, a manufacturing process
  • Asset, tool, or equipment location in large facilities like hospitals, convention centres, etc.
  • Cold chain processes or use cases involving temperature-sensitive conditions
  • Ensuring that items or people stay in / out of a particular area

UWB

Ultra Wide Band (UWB) is a technology that is enjoying a second life after a bit of a false start around twenty years ago, when it was developed as a short-range wireless standard for communication between devices, mostly consumer electronics. After losing that battle to WiFi, UWB has returned in large part due to certain characteristics that make it ideal for asset tracking applications.

Primary among these features is extreme energy efficiency, much more so than even BLE. Since energy efficiency is now a standard feature in RTLS deployments instead of an attractive “extra”, it makes sense that a platform that outperforms all others in this area would gain traction. Given the growing size and complexity of the average asset tracking infrastructure, UWB has much to offer just based on its performance in this area alone.

UWB achieves this hyper-efficiency by transmitting its signal in a fundamentally different way compared to other standards. Whereas other platforms emit a signal either continuously or at various, fairly frequent intervals, UWB transmits and extremely short signal burst much less often. In fact, UWB signals can last for just 30 picoseconds. To appreciate just how short this is, it takes a trillion picoseconds to last just one second. The interval of the transmission can be adjusted but even at its most frequent, the power needed to get the signal out is minimal.

Because its signal is sent out comparatively infrequently, UWB is not a good choice for assets in constant motion. It is, however, a very good option for assets that are mostly stationary, like items in a warehouse, or things that don’t move around constantly and need to be located rather than tracked, like industrial equipment.

UWB spreads its transmission out over a wide range of the radio spectrum, hence the name. The signal is rather short, but the tradeoff is that it is quite strong and able to penetrate walls and other obstacles that often weaken or block other kinds of signals. Also, since it is spread out over a wide range of the spectrum, UWB signals have something called “low power spectral density”. This means that UWB doesn’t interfere with other signals in the same segment of the radio spectrum. The benefit of this is the ability to operate in close proximity to other signals, an increasingly common situation in ever-more-crowded business and manufacturing environments..

Pros

  • Highly accurate positioning
  • Able to transmit large data packets but, as mentioned previously about WiFi, this feature is rarely required by asset tracking applications
  • Highly secure data transmission
  • Signal does not interfere with other wireless networks

Cons

  • Still early in asset-tracking history of the platform, so limited integration options available
  • Because of this early stage of development and relative lack of providers, it can be more costly to implement UWB—other, more established platforms may be able to deliver the same performance at a lower cost, although in the long term UWB’s energy efficiency may offset this
  • With its unique and super-short signal transmission, deploying UWB properly can be a complex technical challenge
  • Almost total lack of a larger ecosystem to integrate with—the exact opposite of BLE
  • Short signal range

Ideal use cases for UWB

  • Deployments where efficient energy use or maximum security is a top priority
  • Spaces where multiple wireless platforms are already in use
  • When ultra-precise location information is needed, even down to the 10cm-30cm level
  • Transmission of exceptionally large data packets

NBIoT

Finally, there’s Narrow Band Internet of Things (NBIoT). As the name makes clear, NBIoT operates on the exact opposite principle as UWB, broadcasting its signal in multiple, but tiny parts of the spectrum. Like UWB, however, it uses very little power because it does not broadcast its signal continuously or even very often.

NBIoT is designed to handle lots (and lots) of small transmissions sent infrequently. Like UWB, its lack of a constant signal makes it a poor choice for real-time tracking updates on things that are in constant motion but that’s not the point of NBIoT, which is designed more for status updates and infrequent two-way communication. Devices connected to the Internet of Things (IoT) are the perfect example of the “target audience” for NBIoT—they need to be connected to a network, but don’t handle large amounts of data and typically feed very small bits of information to a cloud or online application.

The area where NBIoT really stands out and is utterly different than other standards covered here is scalability. Simply put, no other platform can come close NBIoT in terms of the area to be covered. Remember that NBIoT is intentionally designed to be able to handle massive amounts of small individual connections. To be effective, this capability needs a medium that will carry it to masses of signals. That is made possible by the fact that NBIoT is compatible with existing cellular networks. That’s “cellular” as in “cell phones”.

As the number of small IoT devices and “smart” accessories continues to grow dramatically, NBIoT is positioned to become a much more familiar acronym in the coming years.

Pros

  • Low energy consumption, but then again, every platform on the list apart from WiFi has low energy consumption
  • Capable of handling huge amounts of connections at once
  • Ideal for exploding market of IoT devices
  • There is an existing global infrastructure in already place—cellular networks—ready to accomodate NBIoT

Cons

  • Poor choice for constant, real-time asset location
  • Very limited data packet size

Ideal use cases for NBIoT

  • Updates from IoT-connected devices
  • Tracking across very large areas, even country scale
  • Periodically taking measurements from a large number of locations, like meter reading or status reports

Summary

The physical deployments of beacons, tags and other sensors that form the backbone of RTLS deployments are powered by a number of different location-tracking technologies. Each platform approaches the challenge differently, but they are all focused on digitally tracking movement in a physical space. Many firms in the field of asset tracking, provide hardware agnostic deployments, meaning sensors are compatible with multiple digital standards.

A number of different technologies are available for the purposes of asset tracking, each with its strengths and weaknesses. Those attributes make them more or less suited for particular use cases in different industries. Since they function in different ways and achieve essentially the same result by taking different technical paths, the small differences between them can make them ideal for one context and a poor choice for another.

The range of choices and standards can be confusing, especially since there is so much crossover between them. That’s why we’ve put together a guide to the basic pros and cons of these wireless communication standards along with the use cases that are best matched to each.

Many companies are currently developing new hardware products based on different technologies than Bluetooth.

Based on the research above, Assignar R&D team has started to trial NBIoT technology, based on its advantage in asset tracking over a large geographical location and constantly moving assets.  Initial proof of concept is getting developed with the following architecture that includes AWS Lambda and AWS DynamoDB:

IoT Architecture diagram

Customer-focused technologist with years of experience in developing and architecting world-class web solutions and products. I see technology as a tool to drive positive outcomes for customer businesses and to make the world a better place. A life-long student rather than a person with 1 year of actual experience that has been repeated 10 or 20 times. I love hands-on work as well as leadership, strategic thinking, scaling systems, teams and giving back to the community. My experience covers a wide range of industries, such as digital agencies, education, media, telecommunications, government, and most-recently - construction. Very grateful for the life I have had and the people I am surrounded with. Co-Founder and the CTO of Assignar.

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