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Two Keys to Asset Management Software: Asset Identification & Location Tracking Technology

There are lots of factors to consider when it comes to successfully implementing asset management software, given the seemingly endless options, offering widely varying levels of reliability and accuracy. But regardless of the solution on the table, it should include these two “must-have” components:  

  1. Asset identification technology to ensure you’re managing the right things
  2. Location tracking technology to ensure you can easily find and monitor your assets

To illustrate, let’s think about a car with a VIN.  Although you may know you’re looking for a blue Ford Taurus, how can you be sure that it’s the right Ford Taurus when you see one?  

If you know the car’s VIN (identity), you’ll have a much easier time finding the right car if you also know it’s supposed to be on a Ford dealership lot (location).  What’s more, you can very often manage that asset electronically with just those two raw ingredients - whether it’s a car or a ventilator.

The Business Value of Asset Identification Technology

Optical markings like barcodes, data metric codes and QR codes are among the most commonly used methods of asset identification. Each type of marking embeds information in a specific pattern that machines and cameras are programmed to recognize. 

That pattern recognition allows the user to scan a barcode or a QR code, which then yields important information in the backend system that eliminates human error in most cases. 

It’s a pretty simple technology for tracking retail items at the point of purchase, when a store associate scans a barcode (or a bunch of them) and you pay for the items. 

And because, for the most part, we’re talking about high volume consumer goods – commodities like a pack of gum that cost a dollar or two – it’s hard to justify the investment in more sophisticated  asset identification technology. 

In fact, barcode software systems make sense to use because they not only offer a way to keep track of item prices in real time, they are also incredibly cheap.  Beyond the cost of a scanner and electronic cash register, you’re only paying for the ink, an expense that is easily absorbed by consumers in the end anyway.

What’s more, you technically get location info because you’re scanning it from a fixed device, in this case a cash register that is owned by a store, which has a physical address.

So in those scenarios, you generally know a rough asset location because it's associated with the read point, i.e. you can identify the object as a pack of gum and what register it was sold from.

But what happens when that thing you just bought leaves the store (or gets returned to inventory because you decided not to buy it, or worse, falls off a pallet in the back of the warehouse where no customer could even find it)?  The fleeting value of that barcode is once again meaningless.

Now think about the element of human error.  Let’s say you’re at the grocery store buying produce.  A clerk might have to key in a PLU number, thereby introducing the opportunity to accidentally enter the wrong code; tap or weigh something incorrectly; or add the wrong quantity.  

Even worse, what if the clerk has memorized the wrong code? What if they’re accidentally ringing you up for cheap bananas instead of the expensive cherries you actually bought?  We’ll touch on the simple mistakes humans make again shortly, but you certainly understand how an error like this one can add up pretty quickly...

Needless to say, as your asset portfolio increases in value, knowing what’s what becomes even more compelling. Suppose you work for a construction company.  You have a few jobs going, and you need to move equipment between them. 

Traditionally, you’d send someone to walk each job site and write down the ID or serial numbers of equipment along with machine types.  That output might read something like “Excavator 17 is at the Town Water Plant project.”  

That person would then email their report back to the central office and hope someone can wade through the information to decode where the assets are at that moment, while also figuring out where they need to be next week and how to make that happen. 

Going Beyond Basic Accuracy and Daily Equipment Utilization

On the other hand, if you use asset management software to help tie asset identity to asset location, you could have that information reported back automatically. 

There would be no chance for human error; you'd know where each machine is located; and there’d be no opportunity for something to get written down incorrectly or, even worse, not reported at all. You’d save a lot of time in manual labor, but more importantly you’d ensure a higher degree of accuracy which, in turn, leads to peace of mind. 

In addition, you’d have built a high-quality data set that you can easily look back at if you ever need to conduct an audit or understand trends and changes to equipment utilization over time in your business.  Equally compelling, your organization could automatically do equipment relocation planning based on differences between present and scheduled work locations. 

Automated Asset Management Reduces Errors, Too

[consider inserting a graphic here that scales each technology]

Automated asset identification is generally not a one-size-fits-all approach. There are, in fact, more than a few technologies on the market today that make it easier for machines to identify assets – a market driven by certain weaknesses in human nature.

To be sure, we humans aren’t all that good at routine, repetitive tasks – like writing down identification numbers and taking inventory – because we make a lot of simple mistakes.  Yet if we have the right tools to automate these processes, we can do things we’re much better at, such as acting on exception to look for damaged packages instead.  

In addition to promoting workforce engagement with more meaningful tasks, the more sophisticated automated asset identification technologies also help increase throughput.  For example, they greatly reduce the amount of time employees spend searching for the right equipment.  

As you move beyond optical markings like barcodes, and continue to go up the stack (and up in cost), you get to RF, or radio frequency, technologies, like passive and active RFID. Here are some examples that have electronic identifiers to send information to a machine over radio frequencies without human intervention:

Identification-only:

  • Passive UHF RFID
  • WiFi
  • Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE)

Beyond RFID technologies comes sophisticated vision approaches using machine learning (ML) methods of automated asset identification, called image classification. 

In this method, an algorithm is “trained” with many images, teaching it how to recognize one or more managed assets. This training results in an ML “model” capable of comprehending a novel image.  

Once the right level of training is achieved, the algorithm can conclude that a picture looks like something else it recognizes (or doesn’t) and identify the asset accordingly. 

Image classification is best used to find classes of objects (i.e. “Forklift”, “People”), not instances of objects (i.e. “Forklift 2838” or “Jane Smith”).  And image-based systems are fantastic at either determining if an object is moving or counting the number of objects passing through a bi-directional doorway. 

It’s important to note though that the difference between image classification and RF machine readable marking, like barcodes and such, is significant. In image classification, you'll get a prediction.  Your systems will say, "I believe this is an image of this kind of object, and I’m x% confident in that decision."

It’s equally important to keep in mind that ML models must be retrained if an asset’s appearance or behavior strays too far from the original training conditions. 

Alternatively, with machine readable markings, you’ll get a much more deterministic response like, “I know I've seen this asset and/or this asset's ID is ABC.” Now, there are still chances for error in the RF world with respect to machine-readable labels. 

However, in 2020 those have been reduced to one in billions. Further, barcodes are easy to replace, and not an inherent part of an assets identity (ex: it’s more like a license plate, than a VIN).

Conversely, with image classification, you’re generally looking at models where 98-99% reliability in accurately identifying what’s in the image is considered successful for this method. This produces errors on the order of one in hundreds and forces an organization to bias their implementation towards a smaller number of false positives or negatives. 

Plus, you’d need to feed thousands of images of something before the system could identify similar assets at a 90% rate of accuracy. And even then, it is going to be effectively trained to identify classes of assets, not specific instances of them.

That said, it’s still a much more efficient method of asset identification.  If you could simply take a photo of everything as it comes in rather than having to find each barcode, you’d save a boatload of time!  So you can see where a little “training” (or a lot)  becomes extremely valuable to productivity.   

So where image identification is good for assumptions like “that's a person,” or “that's a hot dog,” RF, on the other hand, is especially good at identification with 100% certainty. And when you put those two methods together, you get a really powerful solution.  That’s the next frontier of asset tracking though...  

Otherwise, you must choose between understanding that you have a cat without knowing what kind or in which direction it’s moving versus knowing that you have a cat named Felix but not having a highly reliable way to determine if he just entered or left the area. 

But having all of that information (e.g. knowing exactly what your retail asset is, which construction machine you have, or where your pallet of soap has landed) isn't particularly valuable unless you have a location associated with it. So identification tells you what the object or the asset that you care about is. Location tells you where the person or asset you care about is.

Next we’ll talk a bit more about asset location tracking technology which you can incorporate into your application in a variety of ways. In some cases, it's inherently coupled to asset identity.

Asset Location Tracking Technology: Outdoor GPS Trackers and Indoor Positioning Systems

Take a GPS receiver, for instance. When you “hear” from a GPS receiver, it tells you its location with latitude and longitude coordinates.  The receiver also gives you a serial number. You can use that information to determine what asset it is from the serial number and where it is from the GPS coordinates.

Let's go back to our pack of gum, barcode scanner, and cash register example. You could move the register and scanner anywhere in the world, and it's still going to show up as the gum sold from the store you took it from. Hence, this technology can tell you where your inventory is supposed to be, not where it actually is.

But if you want to know exactly where your assets are in real-time, it’s best to use an RFID tracking system that couples asset identity with asset location tracking technology to send that upstream.

There are lots of factors and events that can affect the condition of your assets.  For instance, while it’s important to recognize that an asset needs maintenance, knowing where that equipment is will help you quickly dispatch a work order and resolve the maintenance issue.

When it comes to employee safety, the stakes can be exponentially higher – which is why pinpointing location is paramount when it comes to ensuring a speedy response.  Let’s say, for example, that a construction worker has an accident and pushes a button to request assistance.  Although you need to send help fast, simply knowing the worker’s identity is pretty useless unless you know where he is, as well.

Consequently, it’s easy to see that different kinds of businesses have different kinds of needs, and one size doesn’t fit all. If you’re tracking vehicles, or anything that has a consistent view of the sky, GPS location technology can be a great option. 

But given that GPS really doesn’t work indoors, this method will likely never reveal an asset’s position if it spends any significant time in a warehouse or boxed up in a pallet.  In those cases, something like passive RFID or BLE tracks assets much more effectively at the right cost point with the right precision.

Types of Indoor Location Technology

Choosing the right mix of asset management technologies means the difference between growing with your business and delivering a solid return versus implementing a single solution that'll solve your most immediate problem but may very well cost you more in the long run.

When you’re making that critical decision, you might think about breaking the world of RFID indoor location technology down into two buckets, each with advantages and disadvantages:

  • Range-based
  • Proximity-based

Broadly speaking, with ranging, the infrastructure is often substantially more sophisticated, requiring more time and expense to set up (think new cabling, building modifications, and knowing exactly where read points are installed). You’ll also need routine calibration, which typically equates to more vendor time on site, as well as more specialized labor.  So the cost of ownership is usually pretty high. 

In the proximity-based world, you can be less formal when installing your infrastructure, using simple instructions such as “install one BLE reference point in each hospital room, closest to the window.”  

Contrast this setup with a “ranging” based solution where installation requires accurately measuring distances between beacons and results in instructions like “Install a reference UWB beacon every 15m on the corridor wall, exactly 4.2m off the ground.” Bottom line, your infrastructure installation is generally much less cumbersome with proximity-based solutions. 

However, the data you get from both of these systems is remarkably different. With proximity-based asset tracking, you'll get relatively simple event information, such as moving closer to a destination or room-level location.

Alternatively, with range-based location technology you’ll get much more precision, like this piece of equipment x centimeters from this wall, y centimeters from that wall and z centimeters from the floor. 

Likewise, there’s a vast gap in cost between the two approaches to indoor positioning systems – which is why it’s paramount to be realistic about your needs and requirements for position. Maybe you just need to know where an asset is in your building and when it moves from the first floor to the third floor. Or you need to know when Worker A is getting too close to Forklift B so you can send out an alert.

Given that each of these applications has a different requirement with respect to positional accuracy, installation requirements and cost, understanding these variations can greatly facilitate the selection process.

But What if You Need Indoor AND Outdoor Asset Management Software?

What happens when you have a requirement for both indoor and outdoor asset tracking software? Although an asset may go over the road with a view of the sky suitable for GPS tracking, it might also spend significant time in a factory where you’d need visibility inside.

Unfortunately, solutions that cover both scenarios have been virtually nonexistent – at least until now, thanks to Link Labs and its innovative product, the  AirFinder SuperTag.

This highly versatile asset tracking device is designed to automatically switch modes.  So, as the asset moves from place to place, this device can dynamically locate its outdoor position with the help of GPS or WiFi, while spontaneously shifting over to a different technology that is optimized for indoor tracking.    

Of course, tracking devices like this one are particularly useful because of their flexibility.  

Keep in mind that as assets leave your facility or go to a different part of your facility, the necessary level of location detail, or its resolution, changes. Maybe you need its outdoor street-level address or a more/less specific indoor-level position. That’s why choosing a technology platform solution that supports a portfolio of options and choices will afford you the biggest bang for your investment buck.  

Conclusion

No doubt about it, there are multiple dimensions to asset management and maybe even more factors to consider when using asset tracking software.  In the end though, you will want a solution that effectively pairs the right level of asset identification with location tracking technology.  

Whether that’s a barcode software system or something more complex, like AirFinder SuperTag, make sure that it suits your needs now and in the future.  Given that automated asset identification and localization technologies will continue to evolve, avoid choosing so-called “magic bullet” solutions that are more likely than not to age out sooner than later. Instead, look for vendors offering solutions that are flexible and scalable, self-contained and cost-effective.   

And if you have more questions or want to learn more, go ahead and reach out.

 

Written by Satyan Shah

Satyan joined the Link Labs team in 2019 and is responsible for the company’s Product team. Satyan brings more than 15 years of leadership experience in the IoT space. He excels at understanding complex customer needs and translating those needs into loveable world class products. In his previous roles at Amazon, Trimble, and ThingMagic, Satyan has a demonstrated ability to deliver scalable solutions to a wide variety of markets, including construction, retail, and supply chain. Satyan holds a B.S. in Computer Systems Engineering from Boston University.

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