Software

Keep tabs on movable assets

David Berger says real-time asset locating and tracking systems can help to ensure resources are available.

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.

Definition

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.

Marketplace confusion

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.

Determining the need

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:

  • environment, health, and safety
  • legal and regulatory compliance
  • security and privacy
  • customer service
  • product quality
  • financial.
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David Berger, a Certified Management Consultant (C.M.C.) registered in Ontario, Canada, is a Principal of Western Management Consultants, based in the Toronto officeDavid Berger, a Certified Management Consultant (C.M.C.) registered in Ontario, Canada, is a Principal of Western Management Consultants, based in the Toronto office. David has written more than 200 articles on a variety of topics such as maintenance management, operations management, information technology, e-commerce, organizational design, and strategy. In Plant Services magazine, he has written a monthly column on maintenance management in the United States, as well as three very extensive reviews of maintenance management systems available in North America. David has done extensive work in the areas of strategy, information technology and business process re-engineering. He can be reached at david@wmc.on.ca.
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To assist with the cost-benefit analysis, think about past situations during which assets went astray. What were the consequences with respect to the factors above? If hard numbers aren’t available, use reasonable assumptions and sensitivity analysis to estimate the probability of occurrence and its effect. If applicable, run a study for a few weeks and track the number of occurrences and their effects to assist with the business case. For example, you can track the number of times tools went missing, how long it took to find them (productivity loss), and the replacement cost of the tools if you don’t find them.

Options to consider

If there’s a business case, the next step is to consider the many technology options for asset locating and tracking systems. Set up a decision matrix for rating the various options based on weighted criteria, such as scalability and flexibility, reliability and performance, user interface, vendor track record and knowledge of your industry, one-time and ongoing costs, and effect on the key factors such as safety and financial. Technology options for real-time asset locating and tracking can be divided into four major categories.

Sensors: To determine an asset’s position, we need some means of sensing its whereabouts. Popular sensor options include barcode labels, RFID tags, and GPS devices in all sorts of shapes, sizes, and composition. Although barcode labels printed on paper are cheapest, they’re limited in terms of the information that can be captured. RFID tags are more powerful in that they carry more information, they can be read at greater distances, and, unlike barcode labels, they don’t require a direct line of sight to the reader. Although the price is constantly dropping, RFID tags are still more expensive than barcode labels.

This is especially true of active RFID tags, as opposed to passive RFID tags, that carry their own signal to increase the amount of information that can be stored and the allowable distance from the reader.

Global positioning system (GPS) devices can be expensive because they use satellite signals to determine position. GPS devices typically are used for larger, more expensive assets that travel greater distances off-site, for example, tracking vehicle movements.

Readers: Every sensor needs a reader or receiver to extract the required information. Readers differ in terms accuracy, reading distance, and reading technology.

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Locating/tracking software: Middleware software analyzes data from the reader to monitor the asset’s position, to send an alert if necessary when an asset enters a restricted zone, or to follow other rules the user defines such as close a gate if a certain asset is detected. The software also is necessary for interfacing with other software applications such as CMMS.

CMMS integration: Coupling real-time asset locating and tracking systems with a CMMS can be a powerful combination. For example, if a condition is triggered in CMMS for doing critical maintenance work, the asset locating and tracking system can help the technician find the mobile asset’s location, as well as the whereabouts of any special tools needed to do the job. Additionally, an asset tracking system might provide the means to better correlate use patterns with asset wear history.