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By David Berger, P.Eng., contributing editor
As assets in every industry become smarter, more complex, and more expensive, management is becoming increasingly concerned about knowing exactly where those assets are at any given time. Real-time asset locating and tracking systems provide myriad options for different work environments, asset types, and user requirements. Here is an overview of some of these options, as well as how to identify and cost-justify the need for real-time asset locating and tracking.
A real-time asset locating and tracking system indicates the position of an object as of a single moment in time (locating) or over some period of time (tracking). Real-time asset location can be thought of as a point on a map, a series of spatial coordinates, or relative to some fixed or variable reference point (in Room B1231). Real-time locations can vary in terms of granularity and precision, such as “within a given building” versus exact xyz coordinates accurate to, say, a tenth of an inch.
The healthcare industry provides a great example of how useful a locating system can be. Hospitals have many expensive and critical assets such as electrocardiograms, defibrillators, and fetal monitors that are quite portable. When healthcare workers need these assets for a procedure or in an emergency, there might be little time to hunt for equipment that has gone astray. A real-time asset locating system can provide the exact location of this equipment quickly.
Real-time asset tracking also can vary in terms of granularity, depending on the frequency and accuracy of position sampling. Asset tracking can be depicted as a line on a drawing or map, representing where the asset has been over time. Alternatively, some users prefer to see a table showing the positions of an asset at various times, or simply when an asset has moved from one location to another.
“To assist with the cost-benefit analysis, think about past situations during which assets went astray.”
A good example of how real-time asset tracking systems might be useful is on a construction site, where it’s not uncommon that expensive assets such as power tools mysteriously disappear from the site. An asset tracking system can show the whereabouts of an asset over time, thereby revealing clues for determining where and how the asset went missing. This is especially powerful when combined with time and attendance, security passkey, and video surveillance systems.
In some cases, companies benefit from both asset locating and tracking, such as pinpointing an asset location for security reasons and tracking the same asset’s position over time for regulatory purposes.
During the past decade, there’s been a proliferation of asset locating and tracking systems. Vendors abound, selling everything from individual components such as sensors, readers, and control software, to complete turnkey solutions. Some vendors also offer integration capability to their own products, or those of related vendors’ CMMS packages.
This has led to limited standardization and lots of confusion in the marketplace, in the face of growing demand for real-time asset locating and tracking products and services, combined with a rapid improvement in technology. Fortunately, some of the larger vendors began cooperating with each other, their industry associations, and governing bodies. The most significant breakthrough was the development of standards by the International Standards Organization (ISO), including standards JTC1 SC31 and the related ISO 24730. These standards define the term “real-time locating system (RTLS)” as wireless-based hardware and real-time software combined to provide, on a continuous basis, the position of an asset or resource equipped with sensors. This definition refers to any resource such as humans, animals, parts, and finished goods, not just assets such as equipment and components.
If you have critical or expensive assets that can be moved, then you should prepare a cost-benefit analysis to determine if a real-time asset locating/tracking system is right for you. The cost-benefit analysis should consider the following factors if your assets can’t be found: