Every year billions of dollars of assets go missing. They are sometimes lost, frequently stolen, often just completely forgotten about because a company’s asset tracking systems are based on outmoded paper-based systems prone to human error.
Research by Australian telco giant Telstra claims Australian organizations are collectively ‘losing’ AU$4.3 billion ($2.92 billion) in assets every year. Extrapolate the numbers out globally and the problem of tracking physical assets in the workplace, or across multiple workplaces, is obvious.
Outmoded asset tracking systems
Despite the availability of inexpensive, reliable wireless asset tracking solutions, according to Telstra, half of all businesses are still manually logging assets, while for 35 percent of businesses, their primary method of tracking assets is to have an employee walk around the premises to locate them. On average, 55 staff hours are lost every year by every company, searching for lost physical assets. Worse, the assets are only recovered 22 percent of the time, according to the research. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Locating ‘things’ wirelessly
Asset tracking technology is available in a wide range of forms. GPS can confirm the location of a ‘thing’ to within an accuracy of approximately five meters but is relatively expensive, power-hungry, and of no use whatsoever once the asset you wish to track is indoors. Wi-Fi-based asset tags that take advantage of a building’s omnipresent Wi-Fi access points resolve the problem of indoor signal interference and offer a similar degree of accuracy to GPS. However, they’re power-hungry and expensive, precluding use on less-critical assets or at a scale where battery replacement would become difficult.
Both passive and active RFID tags have also long been used for asset tracking. While passive RFID solutions—those with no power source—are inexpensive and overcome the battery replacement issue, what they can’t do is actively track the movement of an asset in real-time, and the absence of a power source also significantly limits their range. Active RFID tags are battery-powered, enabling real-time location and extending their working range, but the trade-off is the battery will require replacing every few years, and the tags are expensive.
Bluetooth LE-based asset tracking systems comprise battery-powered tags, locators or beacons, and a gateway to relay the data to the Cloud. These systems enable ‘real-time’ positioning with extended battery life and meter-level accuracy. However, before the advent of Bluetooth 5, the systems had limited range, requiring a higher number of fixed locators and the cost that came with it. The arrival of Bluetooth 5 quadrupled the range of the technology, while the release of Bluetooth Direction Finding promises accuracy down to the centimeter-level.
Everything is in reach with cellular IoT technology
Not all asset tracking is about locating equipment that’s been misplaced or stolen in offices, warehouses and factories, and some tracking challenges require a low power solution far beyond the reach of Wi-Fi access points, RFID readers, and Bluetooth LE-powered gateways.
This is, at least in part, why the forecast for cellular-based low power wide area network (LPWAN) technologies predicts significant growth in the coming years. According to telecoms giant Ericsson, the number of cellular IoT connections will grow from 700 million in 2017 to a forecast 3.5 billion by 2023 (Ericsson Mobility Report, June 2018), while research from analyst ABI Research claims almost half of LPWAN connections by 2023 will be for asset tracking applications.
Read more: The Worldwide Rollout of Cellular IoT
There is no one size fits all answer to asset tracking. What is certain is that paper-based systems, or worse, no system at all, is no way to be running a business in 2020. Just ask the council that discovered mistakes in its handwritten tracking records had led to a $541,000 loss in missing assets across the course of three years, or the hospital that disposed of a new $165,000 imaging device before anyone realized it was gone. They learned the hard way that using technology to manage physical assets better can not only reduce financial losses but also transform a business.