The IoT-supported asset tracking market is growing at an astonishing rate. According to a report published by Research and Markets, IoT-based solutions will account for 95% of all enterprise and industrial implementations by 2025. On top of that, IoT is finally paving the way for making it increasingly viable to monitor assets valued at or below $1,000.
Even more important, these technologies are now making it easier for us to scale the tracking solutions we build in a way that empowers businesses of all types and sizes to manage and monitor an ever-expanding number of devices.
But that requires a system architecture grounded in a solid strategy for scaling. One that works seamlessly to deliver both return and value on investment.
The Basic Building Blocks
Before we tackle the scalability issue, let’s start by reviewing the basic building blocks of an end-to-end asset tracking solution.
It all begins with the system itself. For us at Link Labs, that means a real-time location system (RTLS), such as AirFinder indoor positioning and indoor/outdoor asset tracking solutions, grounded in all of the right technology components, from tags and sensors, to the local network, to the user interface.
And the secret lies in building a solution that combines these components in innovative ways, with the goal of empowering end users to track all sorts of valuable assets from anywhere, at any time.
With 21 technology patents and counting, Link Labs works closely with its customers to develop scalable solutions capable of tracking everything from parts and equipment to supplies and people more reliably and power-efficiently, from a greater distance.
That said, we have become known for our innovative work with low-power, wide-area networks - LPWAN for IoT, RTLS and GNSS - while also expanding our creative horizons to include BLE mesh technologies.
Further, we constantly innovate with sensor fusion by leveraging ultrasound, motion, and other inputs.
Likewise, we provide an intuitive user interface, built from the ground up to empower users with such features as workflows, automated reports, and smart asset groupings. What’s more, our modern application layer includes configurable tables, reports and seamless indoor/outdoor mapping capabilities.
For example, we can “peel the roof” off a building and zoom in on floor plans within the facility to find a tagged asset, while also tracking it over the road and into a distribution center when it heads out to the field, all from one map.
Once the technology system design is in place, we also have to consider everything that wraps around it to ensure a value-added customer experience.
For instance, we make it possible for customers to quickly order parts, like batteries and brackets, with a credit card, while having access to rapid prototyping services if a new mounting option is needed. The same goes for ensuring data integration with other solutions, such as an ERP system.
Likewise, it’s important to furnish field installation training, as well as supply monitoring tools to facilitate scalability that improves the ongoing quality of service delivery.
Three Tried and True IoT Development Strategies for Scalability
Of course, while all of these front-end technology and wraparound service components are basic to any of our end-to-end asset tracking solutions, the real value lies in their scalability.
And after years of experience, we have settled on three tried and true development strategies that lay the foundation for building an effectively scalable solution.
1) Guiding Development Principles
IoT-Based Asset Tracking Solutions Must Be Easy To Use
In creating transformative end-to-end asset tracking solutions, we are driven by two guiding development principles, the first of which is that they must be easy to use out of the box.
By that, I mean solutions that truly meet the customer’s identified use case without creating a complex technology infrastructure. In fact, that infrastructure must be designed to seamlessly scale, as needs change.
We also focus on solutions that enable “hot swapping” in that they use plug and play devices and systems that are highly interoperable with third-party technologies.
Likewise, they must produce data that is easy to manage and use, regardless of the number of devices in play - another important factor for scalability when devices can number in the hundreds of thousands or even millions for a single company.
At the same time, we are pioneering network layer technologies that move with a customer’s assets as they travel through a fragmented supply and distribution chain.
So, for instance, we avoid systems that depend on WiFi network connectivity because location-specific WiFi networks within and throughout the chain typically have different security levels and credentialing. All it takes is for one person in that chain to change a password and the whole system quits functioning.
Asset Tracking Must Also Be Affordable
Our second guiding principle for development has to do with cost, in that any solutions we provide must be affordable, while driving ROI and delivering measurable value. With that in mind, we take into account the total cost of ownership over the system lifecycle - not just the initial cost of installation.
Consequently, we develop affordable solutions that allow our customers to realize internal economies of scale - cost savings over time from increased work efficiency and productivity, as well as reduced incidence of asset replacement and loss. But we also want to make sure that we are using technologies that are both power- and data-efficient.
In fact, as global experts in power efficiency, Link Labs has made this a key development consideration, to provide our customers with more bang for the buck over the long haul.
Take AirFinder, for example. In designing this product, we used a patented approach to ensure that its smart, active RFID tags consume less power - which translates into much longer battery life.
At the same time, by shifting the location processing to these tags, AirFinder greatly reduces network data throughput, thereby lowering the data costs of IoT, which are extraordinarily high. So by combining the savings associated with power and data efficiency, we have been able to decrease the cost of ownership by 50 to 90%.
Finally, affordable solutions such as this one provide cost-effective lifecycle maintenance and service delivery, thanks to domain -level expertise on everything from hardware to firmware to connectivity that uniquely enables Link Labs to deliver world-class solutions.
2) Proven Development Process
In developing a scalable solution, we have found it essential to work with the customer as a partner; a collaborative extension of their team to fully understand the reality of their situation.
Our goal is to glean what customers actually want to accomplish (rather than to push what we want to sell them), which, in turn, ensures that everyone’s goals are aligned. We begin this consultative process with something we like to call magic wanding, which goes like this: if we had a magic wand, what would the ideal report or alert or capability look like for you?
And in doing so, we are never afraid to say, “Even if you could do that with our technology, we don’t think it’s going to provide a worthwhile user experience and would prefer not to attempt it.”
In fact, we are more than willing to refer a potential customer to our direct competitors if we think their offering is better suited for the expressed need. Because when all is said and done, we want to create a delightful user experience that is both easy and affordable.
Once we have established that Link Labs is a “right fit” partner in progress, we then move ahead to development, using the six-step, Stage-Gate model, which takes us full circle from discovery to launch and implementation.
Basically, this approach divides the development process into smaller stages (during which development activities are conducted) and gates (where business decisions are evaluated) to create a roadmap for building a scalable solution at the front end. Consequently, it enables us to get a handle on such important customer variables as:
- The appetite for risk
- The strategic importance of an end-to-end solution within the context of unique business needs (i.e. goals and objectives)
- Business infrastructure to ensure that location services augment, rather than entirely replace, existing systems
- Expectations for demonstrating value and ROI at every scale point
- Systems in place for managing data, distributing reports, monitoring maintenance, etc.
3) Valuable Partnerships
As the old saying goes, “it takes a village” - or in our case an ecosystem of innovative technology partners - to build a scalable end-to-end asset tracking solution.
A big part of our success at Link Labs has been picking the right abstraction points, while understanding where it makes sense to create our own “rung on a ladder,” or use someone else’s, to get data from the field to the back-office.
Oftentimes this means inventing radio protocols, creating partnerships with wireless carriers, and/or working with innovative hardware partners.
That said, Link Labs does most of its go-to-market with the help of carefully chosen technology partners, who have developed at least some innovative component of that solution. We also use value-added channel partners that not only help us market, sell, or service our products, but also provide a valuable capability that the customer needs to realize a healthy ROI.
For example, we are happy to co-innovate with Wiliot, a semiconductor company dedicated to scaling IoT with the help of battery-free bluetooth tags.
Likewise, our partner Polte, provides us with its proprietary, patent-protected technology, as one of five that powers our pioneering indoor/outdoor RTLS, AirFinder SuperTag.
And as a channel partner, AT&T integrates and resells our location technology and IoT platform into multiple markets, including hospitality. We are also exploring the healthcare and retail markets.
Indeed, these partners empower us with an ever wider ecosystem to work with; thus, more diverse skillsets and technical expertise than one company can provide - which translates into far more robust solutions.
Having this breadth and depth at our disposal makes our job easier and our systems more interoperable, while enabling us to build relationships with customers that our partners have developed to some extent.
Strategic partnerships also help facilitate a future-facing mindset, allowing us to remain ahead of industry trends, by riding component supply chain “waves” as adjacent and interoperable offerings are created in the consumer world. This capacity, in turn, saves our customers money.
For instance, advances in consumer smartphone technology are paving the way for RFID tracking solutions that bypass the need for more expensive handheld devices or sleds.
Now for a Few Examples...
Until very recently, IoT-based asset tracking solutions have come with a relatively steep cost curve. Consequently, we have been limited to pursuing vertical markets comprising assets valued at more than $1,000 (although as we noted earlier in this post, that is beginning to change).
But by demonstrating measurable economies of scale, we can, in fact, expand our market reach to include lower value assets. And that’s where both return and value on investment factor into the equation. Here are two good examples of markets where cost versus benefit becomes the deciding factor.
So just how much money is there in tracking and monitoring beer kegs from production to distribution and eventual return across multiple points, and where is the value created?
For starters, there’s the problem of lost and unrecoverable steel when too many of these kegs go missing in the shuffle. You also have to consider the cost of lost sales to bars and restaurants when there aren’t enough beer kegs to distribute the product they have agreed to serve.
Likewise, there is the challenge of delivery route optimization when it comes to getting the right beer to the right places, along with brand compliance if the beer is not being shipped at the required temperature level.
What’s more, the beer producer must maintain an adequate number of beer kegs on hand to meet production levels and anticipated demand.
But at a cost of $50 to $100, beer kegs are not high-value assets, which means you have to either reduce the cost of tracking systems or greatly scale up the number being tracked to lower the cost curve and make it work for the customer. Here’s how that works:
Panic Button Systems
On the other hand, we use our AirFinder product to provide hospitality staff in hotels of all sizes with small, wearable, and easily concealed panic buttons (conceptually similar to the medical alert pendants advertised on television).
These wearables run off a simple plug-in device that enables hospitality staff to send a distress signal - which pinpoints their specific location - if their safety is compromised.
Equally impressive, once the system is installed, it enables other remote monitoring within the hotel building, such as leak detection, as well as noise pollution and air quality levels.
Unlike beer kegs, the panic button solution was driven by three “urgency” factors, all of which revolve around safety:
- Compliance with state and federal government mandates for ensuring hotel housekeeper safety
- Collective bargaining agreements with hospitality worker unions that specify employee safety
- The brand promise of hotels to keep their employees safe at all times inside the facilities in which they work.
So given the obvious benefit, we developed an affordable, easy to use solution that could be scaled across several thousand hotels with hundreds of thousands of rooms. And with the extra functionality, our customers have realized both a significant ROI and a measurable value-add, including increased levels of staff retention and productivity.
To Wrap it Up
No doubt about it, there is an art to scaling IoT-based asset tracking solutions. But as we have learned through years of trial and error, it is not impossible to master. In fact, by embracing a solid scalability strategy at the front end, we can develop easy and affordable solutions on the back end that deliver both a healthy, impactful return and a positive value on investment throughout the system lifecycle.
So as you begin your search for a right fit partner in progress, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us at Link Labs for a little magic wanding and a lot of expert feedback.