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Asset Tracking: What is it, how does it work, and what are the benefits?

The world of digital technology as we know it moves incredibly fast. As organizations adopt new equipment to optimize their practices, not keeping track of assets can be a large and costly challenge. In this blog, we’re going to define what asset tracking is, how it works, and the benefits organizations can reap by adopting it.

What is asset tracking and what does it mean?

Asset tracking is the process organizations adopt in order to identify the location of their most valued equipment and people at any time. Physical assets, such as heavy-duty equipment right down to drip stands and defibrillators, are great use cases for asset tracking due to their cost, likelihood of misplacement, and importance to everyday practices. 

Other assets such as highly sought-after staff members can be tracked when in the business environment for quick identification. A primary example of this would be a Health and Safety manager.

The reason for tracking these assets ultimately is to save time and reduce the loss of revenue, which in many cases can be in the millions of dollars.

What is the difference between asset tracking and inventory management?

Commonly mistaken for asset tracking, inventory management focuses on analyzing and reporting real-time stock levels. This form of business practice can be used to understand the availability of certain storage areas, previous inventory patterns, and future forecasting for greater management control.

While these two forms of tracking can benefit organizations in a similar way, it’s important to note they’re not one and the same.

What are the benefits of tracking assets?

Before we jump into the way asset tracking works, here are some of the biggest benefits organizations look to take advantage of when applying asset tracking solutions.

Reduce staff inefficiency and cost

The big hitter that all organizations look for is “How much money will I save?”. With wireless asset tracking systems, organizations can eliminate the need for manually locating an asset, saving countless hours of labor lost to sometimes aimless wandering.

Approximately 16% of searches in U.S. hospitals end in failing to find assets. This results in a loss of over $1m per year of staff labor spent looking for medical assets.

Asset loss prevention

Real-time location data is a great tool for organizations that deal with large amounts of valuable assets such as healthcare providers and pharmaceutical drugs which are costing US hospitals an estimated $200,000 each per year!

Boost operational efficiency

With all of those hours of labor and lost assets avoided, organizations can see operational benefits as the real-time positioning data allows employees to locate their required assets quickly. 

In addition to this, organizations can visualize optimization opportunities regarding the building structure as well as forecasting for asset requirements such as maintenance, servicing, and replacement.

Deliver an improved customer experience

Although it may be common sense that we cherish a great customer experience, and in today’s customer climate of “we want something, we want it now”, asset tracking eliminates the time between expectation and delivery. And being able to locate assets quickly is vital to providing the experience your customers are expecting.

Greater control of the unexpected

In any business, the need to be informed about all aspects of operations is vital to avoiding unexpected circumstances that inevitably end up costing a lot of money. Asset tracking provides organizations with long-term confidence and predictability that in the long run, can save them millions of dollars. 

Additionally, organizations will have no doubt in their ability to deliver a great experience for their customers and staff, as well as provide peace of mind for executives and board members.

How does asset tracking work?

Now that we’ve clarified what asset tracking is and the benefits organizations can gain, let’s take a closer look at the technologies involved and how they’re used.

Barcodes

Probably the most traditional form of asset tracking, we’ve all seen barcodes and know that they are used to identify individual products in supermarkets and other retail stores. 

What many people may not know is that barcodes play a large role in helping organizations in all industries track a whole range of assets, and are utilized to track their movement, often from production to storage, and eventually onto the shelves.

The pros of using barcodes for asset tracking

  • Don’t require power
  • Incredibly cheap and lightweight
  • Every barcode is unique to its asset

The cons of using barcode technology

  • Labor intensive (manually scanning and logging assets can take a lot of time)
  • No real-time location identification (barcodes must be scanned as they travel to update their location)
  • Expensive software (while the tags themselves are very low-cost, software to keep track of all products can be very expensive)
  • Human error (fraud and human error are costing organizations in the UK est. £98.6b a year)

RFID (Radio-frequency Identification)

Officially invented in 1983 and commonly commercialized in 2002 RFID tags have now been used for over two decades, and in that time have seen incredible advancements.

RFID tags work with the combination of the tag itself and either fixed or portable readers which in the industry are commonly referred to as interrogators. Interrogators are able to identify the unique frequency of the tag and collect a range of information from it, such as the time it was scanned, upcoming security checks (similarly RFID fobs can contain security clearances), and the correct process for inventory.

The pros of using RFID for asset tracking

  • Long life tag
  • Low-cost option
  • Compact
  • Minimal radio signature (no interference with other frequencies)

The cons of using RFID technology

  • No real-time location data
  • Difficult to set up when in large deployments
  • System installation (more steps than barcodes to set up and sometimes require manual scanning)
  • Security (RFID signals are easy to intercept)
  • Hardware requirements (signal receptors can be a high cost for organizations)

UWB (Ultra-wide Band)

In its infancy as a solution, UWB often beats other asset tracking systems regarding its real-time location accuracy, security, and ability to scale.

Ultra-wide Band refers to the technology’s ability to send data over a large range of radio frequencies meaning buildings and obstacles aren’t an issue for this technology. And a benefit of UWB having this capability is to share real-time location information. This solution is a great addition for organizations that primarily rely on GPS for all of their asset tracking requirements

The pros of using UWB for asset tracking

  • Signals can pass through objects and structures
  • Real-time location updates with good location accuracy
  • Unique signatures (similar barcode identifiers) that allow systems to track multiple assets without issue
  • Immune to multi-path signal interference

The cons of using UWB technology

  • Requires more power than other methods of wireless tracking
  • Relies on time-syncing (physical and digital clocks skew over time) which may cause issues if not monitored and fixed
  • Not yet a globally accepted solution (but quickly gaining traction)

GPS (Global Positioning System)

A shorthand for ‘global navigational satellite systems’ GPS relies on orbiting satellites to collect the relevant information for location identification.

Despite the misconception that GPS can accurately operate anywhere in the world and find assets that are indoors or underground, it has been a globally accepted technology for over a decade with it becoming mainstream in 2007.

Since this time and the inclusion of GPS in consumer devices, there have been numerous advances and developments for its use, a great example would be mobile apps such as Pokémon GO or Google Maps.

The pros of using GPS for asset tracking

  • Global visibility for tracked assets
  • GPS is a globally adopted form of tracking
  • GPS is built-in to many consumer devices

The cons of using GPS technology

  • A large amount of energy is required
  • There are limitations when indoors (structures make it difficult to receive satellite data)
  • Reliance on satellites that cannot be fixed by the solution end users

WiFi

WiFi. The service we can’t live without that connects us all can be found almost everywhere. Despite the mainstream adoption of WiFi its asset tracking capabilities are rather limited and can only provide basic information such as “an asset is/was here” without any coordinated (X and Y axis insight) data you would get with other solutions.

Despite this, WiFi can provide an insight you can collect with BLE and UWB solutions and this relies on RSSI (Received Signal Strength Indicator). This method is referred to as ‘fingerprinting’ which helps networks provide bandwidth with increased reliability. While this can cost more than a traditional setup, collecting RSSI data allows organizations to interpret how far an asset is from the closest access point.

Additionally, some WiFi setups can allow for other tracking methods such as AoA (Angle of Arrival) and ToF (Time of Flight) however this will require additional setup, configuration, and cost.

The pros of using WiFi for asset tracking

  • Large network range with access points scattered across buildings
  • Many WiFi-enabled devices can work in tandem sharing large amounts of data
  • Real-time location updates

The cons of using WiFi technology

  • Pinpoint accuracy is not the best
  • High energy requirements
  • Busy networks can cause issues

BLE (Bluetooth-low Energy)

Invented in 1994 Bluetooth is one of the most prominent capabilities in modern technology and is a primary solution for indoor positioning. Unlike Bluetooth however, BLE (which was developed in 2006) requires a fraction of the amount of power to operate while maintaining the ability to transfer a similar amount of data.

Working as a mixture of beacons and hubs, BLE solutions are able to “piggyback” consumer devices as wandering hubs to improve their range. Utilizing RSSI, organizations are able to determine an appropriate location for an asset as well as see changes to its location as it moves through a set space meaning there are no requirements for manual scanning.

The pros of using BLE for asset tracking

  • Accuracy of devices (up to a few meters)
  • Widely accepted solution
  • Low power consumption

The cons of using BLE technology

In conclusion, educate, evaluate, and implement

Despite being a utilized solution for decades, barcode asset tracking is quickly becoming a thing of the past, and as newer technologies such as UWB become increasingly popular it’s important to ensure your organization isn’t losing valuable resources and revenue due to outdated technology.

When looking to implement an asset tracking solution it is incredibly important to inform yourself and other stakeholders in your business of the options that are available, and which of them will be the greatest fit for your business requirements now and in the future.

If you’d like to see how Purple’s asset tracking solution helps Healthcare providers take a look at our blog – Intelligent Healthcare: How real-time location services benefit patient experiences and boost hospital efficiency

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