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Current Asset Tracking Technology Explained

No doubt about it.  Businesses and organizations of all types and sizes rise and fall, in large part, because of the assets they own and whether or not they’re using asset tracking technology.  

After all, it’s pretty hard to run a profitable farming operation, for example, without the right combination of implements and equipment for planting and harvesting crops.  

The same goes for healthcare facilities, emergency management agencies, and commercial transportation companies.  It’s all about the assets these organizations use for treating patients, responding to natural disasters, and moving high-value cargo through the supply chain.  

And knowing where assets are, how they are being used, and their ongoing state of operability offers numerous strategic asset management benefits, from increased productivity and reduced expenditures, to regulatory compliance and business process improvement.  

That’s why it’s increasingly more important to have both a solid asset management strategy and an effective, location tracking system in place for monitoring and managing these assets in real-time, from any location, throughout their lifecycle. 

Knowing Where to Begin: Asking the Right Questions

Speaking of questions, you may be asking yourself, ‘What is asset tracking anyway?’

Otherwise, in framing that strategy and choosing that system, you will need to define a set of requirements, based on use cases - the potential interactions between users and asset tracking technologies within specific environments.  

In doing so, you will first want to ask and answer the right questions.  Here are a few to consider:  

  • What is being tracked, how, and by whom?  Are you monitoring high-value assets like equipment and vehicles or low-value inventory, such as clothing or grocery items?  Do you envision a centralized, end to end tracking process, or will you have to rely on data from multiple monitoring sites along the supply chain? 

And if people are involved in asset scanning, are they your employees? Your partners? Third parties? Can they be trusted to operate and maintain expensive handheld scanning devices? Or would they be expected to use a personal device?   

  • Do you have easy access to a network and power?  What does your IT infrastructure look like now and what, if anything, will you have to reconfigure or change altogether? 

    Likewise, given that certain tracking technologies are more power-efficient than others, how much and what type of power will you need to get the right job done in the most cost-effective way?  
    • Who’s footing the bill and who reaps the benefits?  Let’s say you are a major supplier to one of the “big box” retail chains.  To make it easier for this chain to automate its inventory control, it asks you to add a tracking tag to each of your cases. 

      Does this process help your business in any way - e.g provide data you can use to confirm delivery or monitor resources lost in the process?  Or will you have to simply eat the cost and margin to improve their operation? 
  • Do you need to track assets indoors or outdoors or both?   

Interesting Read: The Four Stages of IoT Asset Management and Digital Transformation 


Choosing the Right Technology to Meet Your Unique Use Requirements

Once you’ve identified your use requirements, it’s time to find the right technology. While there are a variety of options to choose from, each has its own distinct “personality,” which is why it’s important to understand the basics before homing in on an appropriate asset tracking solution. 

Of course, the Internet of Things - or IoT - now affords us with a wide range of automated, real-time tracking solutions that are both cost-effective and resource-efficient. These so-called smart technologies provide all sorts of relevant data to monitoring all types of assets. 

Of course, given an ever-expanding market, it can be hard to keep pace.  So, to get the ball rolling, here’s an overview of the current portfolio of IoT asset tracking technologies:

Barcodes/QR Codes 

As ubiquitous optical tracking technologies, barcodes and QR codes have in many ways revolutionized inventory control, across multiple industries with plenty of low-value items to keep track of. In fact, they are printed on or affixed to just about every retail item we purchase.  

Barcodes, which have been around since the 70s, paved the way for the more sophisticated QR codes in the mid-90s.  (We talked more about this history in our post about asset tracking spreadsheets.)  And although both of these affixable “tags” relay product information with the help of electronic scanning devices, they are significantly different when it comes to capacity and flexibility.   

To begin with, barcodes are one-dimensional in that they must be scanned horizontally in line with the code, while QR codes are two-dimensional and can be “read” from any angle. 

Likewise, QR codes are typically as much as ten times smaller than conventional barcodes, and can transmit several hundred times more information. So, they deliver far more than merely price and sell-by dates.   

At the same time, these codes have a read range of around one meter, and must be directly and individually scanned - which basically eliminates bulk scanning from a distance. What’s more, they are, for the most part, unreadable if damaged or distorted (although QR codes have a higher fault tolerance).   

But on the plus side, they are both dirt cheap to deploy and can be read by multiple devices, from handheld scanners to smartphones - which means they are especially useful for tracking low-value items. 

In addition, you won’t need expensive IT add-ons to your existing inventory system. For example, a low-cost keyboard wedge is an easy fix for transferring data from the reader over to a regular computer.

These optical tracking technologies are typically used for low-volume scanning at distributed points, such as points of sale, rental, or field delivery. They are also employed in hospitals for safely matching patients with appropriate treatments.     

Passive RFID (Radio Frequency Identifier)

Commonly used in warehousing, passive RFID asset tracking tags incorporate readers that transmit powerful radio frequency signals to simple antennas that reflect them back to the reader. 

Unlike barcodes, these battery-free tags can be programmed to include such item-specific information as SKUs, date/place of manufacture, and time of shipment (although they have no memory storage and cannot be sensor-enabled).  

Moreover, this type of asset tracking hardware may be configured to sound an alarm when passing through “choke points” if not properly deactivated. And when affixed to or embedded in these items, they deliver near real-time asset visibility and theft protection, for effective asset monitoring and management. 

Small and lightweight, with a life cycle of up to 20 years, passive RFID tags can scan hundreds of items per second, through paper, wood, plastic, and other standard packing materials at a read range of some 10 feet. They are also relatively inexpensive - around $0.15 apiece.  

On the other hand, passive RFID tags have a rather short read range (two to 20 feet) and the high-powered signal readers they require are extremely expensive (at least $1,000 for handheld devices and upwards of $10,000 per portal for fixed readers). 

So, they are most cost-effective when used to track large volumes of assets; although that means filtering and de-duplicating a great deal of data.  Which, in turn, requires backend IT integration with an Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) or warehouse management system before any real benefit kicks in. 

Active RFID/Bluetooth Beacons

Active RFID asset tracking systems use battery-powered tags working in concert with Bluetooth or Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) beacons to continuously broadcast and/or read information in real-time. To be sure, these so-called “bleeding edge” beacon technologies are driving the IoT asset tracking market for real-time indoor positioning solutions. And no wonder.      

At between $5 and $20 each, these tags are more expensive than the passive RFID variety, but they have a much longer read range of up to 300 feet, which eliminates the need for costly readers. Indeed, you can use something as simple as your smartphone for handheld reading. 

Likewise, active tags do not have to wait for the reader’s signal, but rather “beacon” or send out specific information every few seconds. Of course, that also makes it more challenging when it comes to high-density reading - for instance, 100 items passing through a dock door on a forklift. On top of that location accuracy is directly proportional to the number of readers installed, which, in turn, runs up the cost.          

But unlike passive RFID, active tags can not only store a good deal of data, but typically integrate sensors for logging additional information, such as environmental temperature and humidity. Consequently, active RFID is a particularly effective solution for tracking expensive assets in “less than perfect” locations.  

So while installing an active RFID asset tracking system may cost more upfront, the return on investment is typically well worth it. Even better, without all of the additional infrastructure requirements, you can start “small” to see how it works before incurring the cost of full implementation.  

Bluetooth beacon-enabled indoor asset tracking systems are commonly used for monitoring large, high-value assets like vehicles and equipment, or sizable pallets moving out to the field where you may need third-party identification.   

WiFi 

WiFi indoor positioning systems also offer a cost-effective option for keeping track of assets in real-time, which are located in large areas that are fairly obstruction-free.  As the name implies, they work off of a local wireless network, using radio waves to broadcast lots of information at high transfer speeds, with a read range of approximately 30 feet.  

WiFi tags are more expensive than RFID at around $20 to $50 each, as well as larger and far more power-hungry with shorter lifespans, which can drive the cost up further. So you will probably not want to use them for tracking lower value or less critical assets.   

At the same time, these systems are fairly cheap to install with only minimal additional hardware, simply because the network infrastructure is both universal and standardized.  

But on the downside, as a common technology, WiFi is also far less secure. Equally important, they do not work at all where there is no WiFi coverage.            

GNSS/GPS

GNSS/GPS asset tracking systems are grounded in a global constellation of satellites, which makes them great for outdoor positioning - although you typically need a clear view of the sky.  

So, they are considerably less position-accurate in large urban areas with tall buildings, under bridges and inside tunnels, and/or in densely forested areas. 

Still, when all of the stars align, this technology provides exceedingly reliable location accuracy - whether in motion or standing still - along with other useful functions.   

For example, it is often used for geofencing, which creates a virtual geographic boundary for controlling and monitoring high-value assets like trucks and shipping containers.  It also serves as the foundation for telematics devices that when installed in a vehicle can capture and relay such relevant data as mileage, speed, and fuel consumption.  

Given that GNSS/GPS asset tracking tags work off of public positioning networks, they require no additional IT infrastructure or expense.  On the other hand, there is an often steep cost associated with the cellular connectivity necessary for relaying the data from these trackers. 

Likewise, GNSS/GPS technology is a power hog, which means that the tracking tags have a relatively short battery life of around a year. 

With all of these considerations in mind, these asset tracking systems are generally used for mobile vehicles and equipment like tractors or cranes; super high-value assets that leave your custody, and/or assets that are stored outdoors in somewhat remote areas.     

To Recap...                 

While we hope you now have a basic understanding of asset tracking technologies as they stand today, keep in mind that the market is constantly evolving with new options, such as our AirFinder SuperTag.  This innovative solution actually combines five technologies into one power-efficient, long lasting device, to provide seamless asset intelligence, both indoors and out.

Of course, in framing your asset management strategy and choosing the right real-time location system, we are always around to help. So please do not hesitate to 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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