Q&A: Beyond asset tracking – unlocking the potential of real-time data insights
01 June 2022
IoT (internet of things) technologies, powered by electronics, are transforming virtually every industry & application space – including asset tracking & management. IoT asset tracking combines sensors & positioning technologies with wireless connectivity & communications to enable remote monitoring & management of a ‘thing’s’ real-time geolocation, status or condition, and movements.
This Q&A was originally featured in EPDT's 2022 IoT & Industry 4.0 supplement in the June 2022 issue of EPDT magazine [read the digital issue]. And sign up to receive your own copy each month.
Whether you need to monitor manufacturing equipment, vehicle fleets or livestock, locate containers, track raw materials or trace stolen goods, or detect changes to environments, IoT asset tracking can provide the tools to dramatically improve efficiency across a wide range of industries and applications. To find out more, in this Q&A, EPDT Editor, Mark Gradwell talked to Scott Brenton, IoT Director at value-added electronic components distributor, Solid State Supplies & Tim Clayton, Sales Director at electronic components manufacturer, TT Electronics…
Q: What is asset tracking?
A: Asset tracking, or asset management, is the method of tracking physical assets, for instance by scanning barcode labels or by using GPS (Global Positioning System), BLE (Bluetooth Low Energy) or RFID (radio frequency identification) tags. Asset tracking is crucial because it captures vital information on the location and status of assets.
Now, with technological advancements in the IoT sector, asset tracking has become far easier and less expensive to implement, more accurate and more reliable. With increased connectivity, companies can track their assets and crucial associated data to enhance workflows and improve performance in real-time.
Q: What do you mean by ‘beyond asset tracking’?
A: When we talk about asset tracking, we’re describing the method of tracking physical assets, either by scanning barcode labels attached to the assets or by using tracking tags. When we say ‘beyond’ asset tracking, we mean that this practice has now evolved far beyond simply monitoring the asset’s physical location.
A long list of other variables can now be monitored, and with more advanced means of collecting and managing data, there’s so much more that can be achieved. Sensors can be attached to assets to gather data, which is transmitted to a cloud platform, analysed and then transformed into actionable insights about the asset’s location, usage, environment and condition.
Tracking devices can do much more than originally intended. Consider applying asset tracking as a means of security. If a company can continuously measure the amount of light or air entering a large, sealed container in port for example, or monitor temperature changes, they will be able to know very quickly if the container has been tampered with, broken into or opened ahead of time. The availability of this type of data in real-time allows stakeholders to act immediately, and possibly avoid theft or interference.
TT S-2CONNECT Pro Kit
Asset tracking makes what was previously unknown, known, and unlocks a flow of information that wasn’t available before. Businesses are given a more holistic view of their assets, and can benefit from more informed decision making.
Q: Why do we need it?
A: Modern asset tracking enables a level of efficiency and assurance that wouldn’t have been possible before, providing insights into a range of different variables, including pressure, air quality, temperature and humidity – all of which can impact product quality. Cold storage is a great example of why we need asset tracking: a fundamental part of cold storage is the reliance on temperature, light and humidity control methods to keep products within certain parameters to ensure their quality.
Previously, when transporting products, it would only be possible to track their location during the journey. The supplier wouldn’t know whether the product was being kept at the correct temperature, or if there was a rise in humidity. As a result, food produce might spoil, or medical supplies, such as vaccines, may no longer be safe to use.
With advanced asset tracking measures, precise data can be drawn from these situations and corrective actions implemented. If the temperature is wrong, adjustments could be made to the refrigeration before the outcome is terminal. If food is starting to spoil, it could be intercepted and replaced before it reaches a customer.
Q: Which technologies are most commonly used for asset tracking, and what are their advantages and disadvantages?
A: Barcode scanning is one of the most enduring asset tracking technologies to date, as it is cheap and reliable. However, a line of sight is required in order to scan assets, which is considered its main disadvantage.
RFID tagging is another widely adopted tracking technology, and relies on RFID tags to transmit items’ details to a scanner. Although RFID scanning is more expensive than barcode technology, items can be scanned remotely, with more than one item being scanned at a time, speeding up the process.
Near field communication (NFC) technology is similar to RFID, but doesn’t require specialised equipment, like a scanner – a standard smartphone can be used, making it convenient and efficient. Like RFID scanning, no line of sight is required to log an item, but each item has a low scanning range, meaning that the operator cannot scan items from a distance.
speed to connect 3.2
Bluetooth LE (BLE) tracking involves inexpensive BLE tags, which offer up to 10 years of battery life and enable large numbers of assets to be tracked within a tight grid of infrastructure. The real-time updates and wide standardisation offered by this asset tracking technology make it attractive, but latency is a notable disadvantage for BLE. Scanning operators can also experience issues with accuracy in reflective or highly active environments like factories or refineries.
GPS tracking offers worldwide visibility for tracking large assets outdoors, and uses a network of in-orbit satellites to facilitate accurate positioning and relative movement tracking. GPS technology has been widely adopted and has the advantage of very low costs for infrastructure, since end users are not responsible for maintaining the satellite systems. However, line of sight with multiple satellites means that GPS often doesn’t work well in built-up areas or underground, and can be unstable in most buildings. Power consumption can also be a challenge for operators, as batteries drain very quickly when sending signals over large distances.
LPWAN (low-power wide-area network) asset tracking technologies have seen incredible growth over the past few years, with over 80% of OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) adopting or releasing products using cellular LPWAN connectivity. Some well-known technologies in this space are LoRa, NarrowBand IoT, SigFox and LTE Advanced for Machine Type Communications (LTE-M). While these solutions cannot be used for global asset tracking (unlike GPS), their long signalling range and low power consumption mean that they can power tracking up to several kilometres – an advantage over BLE. These technologies also show strong potential for scalability, although LPWAN connectivity is often regional in availability. A lack of true positioning precision is considered the biggest general disadvantage for LPWAN asset tracking, so if precision to within a few hundred metres is not accurate enough, then you will need to consider a different technology.
Q: How can businesses benefit from asset tracking?
A: We work with companies in many industries that all rely on asset tracking to monitor products, but there are two that stand out. The transportation and supermarket industries are both heavily monitored with meticulous precision, and could not function without effective asset tracking. They both rely heavily on precise timescales and excellent product quality, and their customers demand overall high performance. If the business doesn’t deliver on time, or experiences issues with products, they will quickly be substituted.
Asset tracking is so crucial for supply chain activities, as it helps answer questions that were previously unanswered. For instance, if products are degrading or rotting, at what exact point is that happening in the transport journey? If there is a delay because of a fault, what measures need to be taken to ensure that fault doesn’t happen again? For an operations manager who is handling the delivery of goods to key supermarket chains, this kind of information is vital.
However, it’s not just those two industries that could benefit. Every business could be considering some form of asset management.
As well as providing these very tangible benefits, advanced asset tracking can impact the total cost of ownership in more indirect ways. With smoother running of processes, companies can improve customer service, reducing the administrative workload and allow more time for other business activities. It removes a lot of guesswork and helps companies become more effective and more time and cost efficient. Instead of spending time and energy on manual information gathering, that’s prone to human error, they will benefit from automated solutions that instantly turn data into actionable insights.
Q: What key ‘tracking’ factors will we see emerge in the future?
A: Asset tracking is fundamental if a company has valuable assets that it wants to keep safe, or thousands of assets in multiple locations that need to be quality assured. Tracking will certainly become more and more prominent in the future when it comes to equipment failure, condition monitoring, and predictive and preventative maintenance.
It is more important than ever to gauge when equipment and systems have failed in remote locations, particularly if teams are working off-site. If the team is monitoring equipment in real-time, and has a flow of data being sent back, it’s more likely that they can intervene with preventative maintenance before any serious incidents occur.
As an example, offshore wind farms are becoming increasingly more commonplace, but sending teams offshore to carry out maintenance operations is time consuming, expensive and potentially dangerous. The proliferation of sensors means that these assets can be monitored remotely, and crucial data sent back to the onshore team. Companies can monitor everything, from safety factors to weather conditions, that feeds into operations, which then helps companies to decide when to send teams out, how many people are needed and what equipment they need for that job.
Q: How do we implement asset tracking?
A: Before asset tracking can be implemented, you’ll need to make several fundamental decisions around which approach best fits your business. Factors such as the volume and nature of your assets, how they are stored and transported, the type of data to be collected, how frequently data needs to be transmitted and over what kind of distance, all play a part in determining the most appropriate technology to use.
There are many different options. An experienced supplier partner can advise and guide you towards suitable solutions, at an optimal price, with the right performance points. Evaluation kits, some including connectivity for a limited period, are often available to test specific solutions and establish whether they will suit your business requirements.
Q: Asset tracking relies on good connectivity – what are the pitfalls to avoid?
A: Choosing the right connectivity is the key to sharing data and enabling systems that optimise efficiency and performance – but it’s a rapidly evolving environment and a minefield of potential mistakes.
Advice from knowledgeable communications engineers is vital early in the process, thus helping to avoid a sub-optimal choice of communication protocol or technology which could compromise system performance. Many modular products now offer communications integrated with processing and sensing, potentially saving space, time and cost – and this may influence your design decisions.
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