What is asset tracking?
Asset tracking, also known as asset management, refers to the method of tracking physical assets, either by scanning barcode labels attached to the assets or by using tags using GPS, BLE or RFID which broadcast their location.
Asset tracking is crucial because it captures vital information on the location and status of assets. Thanks to technological advancements, specifically the IoT industry, asset tracking is becoming easier, less expensive, and more robust. Now companies can track assets and their crucial data to enhance workflows in their facilities with increased connectivity.
As a leader in delivering IoT solutions for global deployment, we believe connectivity is the key to sharing data and bringing together systems that optimise efficiency and performance. We understand asset tracking and management makes your business efficient and supplies an understanding of the entire production chain.
In this article, we narrowed the field to discuss the history of asset tracking, challenges and benefits, how IoT is playing an essential role with asset tracking, and a market outlook on trailer and cargo tracking to make logistics chains more secure, and more!
A Brief History of Asset Tracking
Organisations use asset tracking intending to improve both the usage and security of valuable items.
Many different types of businesses have a selection of physical assets that they need to keep track of since they move around. These assets are kept track of through intricate systems that can be divided into two categories: asset tracking and inventory tracking.
Although they sound similar, asset tracking and inventory tracking are very different. Asset tracking involves the process of monitoring the value of items owned by a business, including crucial details on each item, such as its location, ownership, maintenance schedule. In contrast, inventory tracking is associated with keeping accurate records of items that are held in stock for sale to customers. [source]
Both categories have unique benefits and challenges when it comes to their management. Below is a chart that outlines the key differences between these two systems...
Before the various types of software and technology was developed to manage assets, there was only one way to keep track of movable assets: pen and paper!
Yes, it’s true…
Businesses utilised pen and paper as an early asset tracking system by keeping logbooks of their assets. They tracked when something was signed out, who it was released to or when it could be returned by, and more.
This system quickly became a thing of the past when the invention of computers swept the globe. From here, asset tracking and management became easier thanks to spreadsheets and databases replacing the traditional paper tracking system. That said, while computers certainly helped with management, humans still needed to rely on counting assets and entering information into the system themselves.
Enter Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software, which once again revolutionised the process by allowing the introduction of some automation into a business’ management process.
Today, ERP software is still a prevalent option as an asset management tool. Over 80% of businesses currently implement one. While it’s highly utilised, ERP software does have a drawback of not being very efficient at tracking individual items but instead is better suited for tracking a large number of goods (i.e. retail inventory intended to be sold).
With the implementation of mobile computing, the industry was revolutionised once again because now these devices could easily travel to the assets, which drastically improved the process. According to TrackAbout, these rugged handheld devices-- integrated computers with an attached laser scanner-- work without an internet connection and can quickly track individual items.
Today’s smartphones also play a role in changing the industry thanks to their high-resolution cameras and the ability for employees to use an app on their smartphone to scan and contribute to the tracking system.
Most Common Technologies Used for Asset Tracking
Asset tracking is crucial for businesses in practically every industry because it gains valuable business information, maximises operational efficiency and helps prevent theft and loss of assets.
Several different methods can be used for asset tracking (and a few were already briefly mentioned above). Depending on your business’ needs, you can determine which method works best for you by reading on.
Let’s dive in…
Pen and Paper
As we touched on previously, the pen and paper method was the first method used for asset tracking when no other technologies were available. Although this is the most basic method of them all, some organisations still rely on it.
While it’s relatively easy to track assets with this method, it does hold more disadvantages than advantages because it requires employees to spend a lot of time searching for asset information, therefore impacting productivity.
While it’s nearly as simple as the pen and paper method, utilising the spreadsheet approach does have some advantages such as it’s easily accessible by multiple employees and can be searched much faster.
While it’s a handy feature to allow many employees access to the spreadsheet, it can also potentially cause problems such as inputting the incorrect data about an asset due to too many employees filling in the spreadsheet.
This kind of technology was a huge advancement because it was very reliable and effective for portable asset tracking. Barcode tracking was first used commercially in the 1970s, but it’s still a very versatile tool today.
Barcodes are preferred because they are low-cost, fast, easy to use, accurate and can be read by multiple types of technology. One key disadvantage is that a line of sight is required to scan them, which can prove difficult if the barcode is not easily accessible.
Radio Frequency Identification (RFID)
RFID relies on radio frequency chips or tags that, once scanned, transmit the details of the item to the scanner. While the technology sounds similar to a barcode, RFID is a significantly more advanced option that offers some advantages that barcodes do not.
Remote scanning, flexibility, and the ability to scan multiple objects are a few key advantages of this method compared to the barcode method. RFID is more expensive compared to barcodes, it uses a limited range of scanning devices, and it also has a higher probability of user error due to missed scanning or scanning an incorrect item
Near Field Communication (NFC)
NFC and RFID technology are very similar; however, NFC doesn’t rely on specific scanning equipment to get the job done. Instead, employees can just use their smartphone to keep track of assets and inventory.
Convenience, ease of use, and efficiency are the main advantages of this method. However, one drawback that should be noted is that the scanning range for this method is minimal (only a few inches), so it can’t be used from a distance like some of the other methods already mentioned.
Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE)
This method is a great solution for any short-range situations where the intended asset in motion will stay in the range of devices that can receive its signals. According to Hologram.io, BLE tags are inexpensive and offer up to 10 years of battery life, which make them an attractive option if you have a large number of assets to track that are within a tight grid of infrastructure.
Global Positioning System (GPS)
GPS technology makes tracking assets easy thanks to satellite systems that allow for triangulation of the position of a device on the earth’s surface. [source] Each device receives signals from the satellites, which determines an asset’s precise location, just like cell phone positioning technology.
One major drawback of GPS is that it can be unreliable in various environments where a clear signal to multiple satellites isn’t available.
Low Power, Wide Area Network (LPWAN)
Options for this kind of technology provide long battery life and reliable long-range connectivity for asset trackers. Several types of technologies include narrowband IoT (NB-IoT), LTE-M, Sigfox, and LoRa [source].
The tags for LPWAN are more expensive than BLE tags, but they can operate without nearly as much infrastructure. For example, NB-IoT tags connect directly to the cellular network instead of needing a gateway. This technology is great for periodic check-ins; however, it’s not useful for continuous connectivity for real-time tracking.
Are You Facing Any of These 5 Common Asset Tracking Challenges?
All types of tools and equipment under an organisation’s possession need to be tracked in some way. This can be done with various methods (like the ones mentioned above) to avoid issues like asset tracking problems, financial losses, and lost productivity.
If you’re noticing any of the below asset tracking problems are hindering your facility and resulting in lost revenue, then read on to learn how to fix these shortcomings with a tracking system that best suits your needs.
1. Untimely out of stocks or excess production
It’s no secret that determining the right amount to stock up on a specific asset is a challenge, and when you’re dealing with stock management, you probably have faced shortages or excess of assets. These issues can lead to delays in workflows or unplanned overhead expenses.
Why is inaccurate stock level such a common problem for companies?
This often results from an inadequate system to help gauge the optimal stock quantity that’s required.
To combat this common problem, companies should opt for an inventory tracking system that can allow for minimum threshold alerts for all assets. [source]
Excess stock can be just as detrimental because it not only ends up taking up precious warehouse space, but it runs obsolete after a period of time. To avoid this, it’s important to study consumption patterns and calculate the accurate demand for an asset.
2. Frequent equipment breakdowns or maintenance issues
According to a recent study, ageing equipment and lacking time to perform maintenance are the leading causes of unplanned downtime in a facility.
Companies that struggle with equipment failures should upgrade their service programmes by implementing a rigorous maintenance schedule. Doing so can create a set routine for repairs and maintenance for the equipment’s intended lifecycle.
Preventative maintenance is crucial because it eliminates unwanted downtime by:
- Boosting efficiency and productivity of tools
- Lowering costs of maintenance
- Increasing uptime and useful life of assets
- Reducing labour downtime
3. Loss of assets due to misplacement or theft
Reports show this is no small matter: firms can lose up to $10M worth of revenue due to poor security.
Asset thefts or asset losses is a common occurrence that every industry is struggling with and a lot of money can be saved if proper asset management is carried out.
For example, a proper asset tracking solution lets asset managers label all tools and equipment with proper technology and they can assign a unique serial number to each one of their assets, which can allow companies to track ownership in case of unauthorised usage or misplacement.
Equipment theft negatively impacts any business because when equipment is lost or stolen, the operations are affected and project deadlines are extended. Furthermore, losses also directly impact a company’s bottom line and productivity.
4. Human error
Unfortunately, this problem is inevitable because we make mistakes, even when we don’t try or want to. Here is where more traditional methods of asset tracking can increase the likelihood of this problem and end up being more of a wasteful work effort in the long run.
For example, the spreadsheet tracking method, while cost-efficient and relatively easy to implement, can be prone to errors due to many employees manually inputting data at once. As a result, overall productivity is impacted.
5. Waste of Resources
Misplaced assets and equipment can adversely affect a company and its operations due to lost labour-hours, work stoppages, delayed project deliverables and more. [source]
If a required asset is not found, operations can suffer by either being delayed or becoming inefficient as workers have to wait until a substitute asset becomes available.
Here’s an example from Asset Infinity that sums this issue up…
“If a worker waits for 5 minutes and the entire crew has 100 workers, the organisation loses 500 minutes per day. In effect, the organisation is losing valuable work hours and consequently productivity.”
Here is where lacking a proper workflow structure can lead to halting of routine operations and work orders that are not completed on time.
Asset Tracking Benefits You Need to Know
There are numerous benefits of asset tracking and almost all of them contribute to improving an organisation’s bottom line if the asset management process is implemented properly.
These are a few of the benefits that organisations can take advantage of by implementing asset tracking.
Variety of options - Perhaps the most obvious benefit of asset tracking is the variety of technology that can be implemented based on an organisation's geographic needs and size. For example, RFID tags, GPS, and barcode labels are just a few of the many technological options available for asset tracking.
Control of movement - Admins of companies who are using asset tracking can benefit from the ability to gain insight into the locations of their assets as well as the ability to control the movement of their inventory. Not only does access to an asset’s location and inventory quantities create peace of mind, but it also allows for employees to correct potential mistakes in the future.
Organisation and efficiency - Since asset tracking collects all necessary information for users, it makes organisation of warehouses, inventory or other storage spaces much easier and faster. “Not only can users track which items are grouped together to create a more efficient system of filing, organisation, and reduce the time it takes to locate items but they also have the ability to better forecast future inventory purchases based on the quantity needs easily found through barcodes, RFID, and GPS numbers,” according to Skuvault.
Other asset tracking benefits that are worth mentioning include the following [source]:
- Conduct asset tracking using fewer resources, with the aid of an asset tracking system
- Lower administrative costs, since administrators do not need to track or locate assets manually
- Track and reduce asset loss and utilise assets more effectively
- Grow your company and scale your asset tracking as necessary
- Improve customer service through improved asset tracking and management practices
- Ensure accountability and accuracy with asset loss and management
How IoT Solutions are Redefining Asset Tracking
It comes as no surprise that one of the most promising areas of the Internet of Things (IoT) is asset tracking.
A recent report predicts the asset tracking IoT device market to triple by 2022 [source] and IBM even listed asset tracking as one of the top 5 industrial IoT use cases.
So what is all excitement in the market stemming from? And how can IoT be utilised by your company’s asset tracking?
Read on to find out…
The Old Way (Legacy Systems)
Managing assets in the “old way” consists of using siloed systems (as we’ve touched on already) such as pen and paper or Excel sheets to keep track of asset information. While many companies still use these systems to manage their assets, a shift is certainly on the horizon.
Because these systems are prone to errors and are inefficient. Plus, they require asset managers to stay on top of a lot of manual upkeep such as updating asset records and answering questions about asset’s whereabouts.
The New Way (Asset Management Software)
Many companies have shifted to using asset management software to help operations run smoothly by allowing employees to access and update asset information easily.
Usually, implementing a solution like this entails that a company’s assets are tagged with asset tags (think barcodes, NFC tags, RFID, etc.) and are managed with asset management software. From there, assets can be scanned with mobile devices which act as links between physical items and their information which is in the database. [source]
This dedicated software provides companies with valuable asset information: location of an asset, who is using it, asset condition, specific maintenance schedules, an asset’s user manual and more. Plus, all of this information can be accessed and updated with just a few taps on a mobile device, making it easy-to-use by all employees and always the most up-to-date information.
So yes, it’s clear that dedicated asset management solutions provide a massive advancement compared to the “old way” of manual methods… but what does IoT specifically bring to the table?
What IoT Brings to Asset Tracking
Incorporating IoT with asset tracking means automating processes that were once tedious and adding AI to many parts of the workflow that were originally performed manually before.
That’s right-- IoT-enabled asset management solutions can add elements such as predictive maintenance, top-down visibility into the status of assets, and real-time alerts into the picture through IoT sensors.
These IoT sensors allow companies to track asset information without any human involvement needed actively, and they can be attached to assets either instead of or along with conventional asset tags like barcodes or QR codes.
Some examples of the many sensors available that can be utilised for various use cases include (but are not limited to):
These sensors are attached to assets to gather data, which is pushed to a cloud platform at a predetermined frequency, depending on technology and settings used for data transmission. [source] From there, the data is analysed and then transformed into actionable insights about the asset’s location, usage, environment, locations, and condition.
Source: Asset Infinity https://www.assetinfinity.com/blog/what-is-iot-and-how-is-it-helpful-in-asset-management
IoT-enabled asset management solutions can provide companies in any industry with predictive analytics, real-time alerts, automatic reporting, data insights and much more.
Here are some use cases for IoT-enabled asset management:
Transportation IoT - Utilising devices that track GPS location data are heavily relied upon in transportation asset management and IoT enables the smart tracking of vehicles, fleets, or even “micro-transport” like e-scooters and bikes through various coverage zones.
IoT for Healthcare and Medical Fields - In the industry of healthcare, IoT systems can be used for tracking equipment or other high-value assets.
Manufacturing - In manufacturing environments, IoT asset tracking is frequently used for monitoring supply materials and warehouse inventory. It can also monitor other fixed systems and equipment, and the platform can help view analytics regarding usage, downtime, or maintenance.
Special Market Outlook: Trailer and Cargo Container Tracking
A recent report titled Trailer and Cargo Container Tracking, Seventh Edition, 2019 from Berg Insight anticipates that there will be a strong focus on cargo transport security and increased supply chain visibility in the coming years.
According to the report, “trailer and cargo container tracking is a subsegment of asset tracking and aims to increase operational efficiency and make logistics chains more secure. Berg Insight’s definition of a real-time tracking solution is a system that incorporates data logging, satellite positioning and data communications to a back-office application.”
Tracking of trailers, swap bodies and intermodal containers are increasingly common, and technology advancements allow for even smaller logistics units such as individual pallets or cargo boxes to be tracked at reasonable costs.
It’s estimated that shipments of remote tracking systems utilising either cellular or satellite communications capabilities for cargo loading units (this includes trailers, intermodal containers, rail freight wagons, air freight cargo containers, cargo boxes and pallets) reached 2 million units worldwide in 2018. [source]
And it’s not stopping there…
Growing at a CAGR of 27.4%, shipments are expected to reach 6.8 million units by 2023.
This report shows a clear conclusion-- the shipping industry, specifically trailer and cargo containers and their security, is not only booming today but will continue to grow in the coming few years.
Every organisation in virtually every industry deals with physical assets that need to be tracked. In the past, paperwork on Excel spreadsheets were the best solutions to keep track of these assets as well as valuable information regarding their location and upkeep. Today, those traditional methods are still used by some companies, but newer technology and methods have emerged thanks to AI and automation.
Furthermore, IoT asset tracking has proved to be an affordable, streamlined and dynamic way to track assets, all to make workflows that much more efficient for organisations and their employees.
From device to data management, we provide an end-to-end framework that delivers hardware, connectivity, infrastructure and user experience solutions for seamlessly and securely connecting products and systems.
At TT Electronics, our industrial IoT solutions enable OEMs to focus their resources wisely and develop IoT programmes quickly so that you can accelerate time to market.
Speak with a member of our team today to get started.
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