There is a confusing array of asset tracking technology options available — barcode labels, RFID tags, Bluetooth beacons, and more. Determining which one is best for your application can be a challenge. The type of asset tracking technology you need will depend on what you need to track, how many assets you have to manage, your budget, and your existing technology infrastructure. Here is a list of some of the more common asset tracking technology systems available, as well as their costs and ease of implementation.
Part of the key to determining which technology is best is the amount of information needed. Usually, assets are tracked by “asset number” which is specific to each asset, rather than part number. Gathering that information (data capture) and organizing that data (database structure and analytics) provide the basis for the technology chosen.
There a wide variety of barcode symbologies available. Two-dimensional codes (2D codes) that can hold much more data than traditional codes have grown in popularity because they are relatively small, can provide asset data even if the scanner is not connected to a database, and can be permanently marked or etched on items ranging from engine turbines to surgical scalpels. Benefits of these systems include improved accuracy, ease of use, and the relatively low cost involved in labeling assets.
Cost:The cost of barcode labels is very low compared to other tracking technologies. Companies still need to invest in asset management software, barcode scanning hardware, and either label printers or contract with a third-party label provider. How large an investment that entails will depend on the scope of the implementation. A few dozen barcode scanners may cost only a few thousand dollars; several hundred is an exponentially larger investment, particularly if you have to buy specialized hardware that is rugged enough to withstand harsh environmental conditions.
Ease of Implementation:A barcode system will require manual labeling of all assets, which can be arduous for large asset fleets. Otherwise, barcodes are fairly unobtrusive and can be scanned with mobile devices, fixed scanners, or even smartphones.
RFID uses either passive or active tags to wireless track items in real time. RFID does not require line of sight, so tags can be read in any configuration. Also, many tags can be read simultaneously. This can be handy for applications such as scanning an entire rack of servers to manage IT assets, or scanning an entire van-load of tools. Unlike barcodes, the data on the RFID tag can be rewritten at the point of activity, so the information can be altered to reflect maintenance updates or other data.
Cost:Relatively low-cost passive tags can be used for an in-building or campus application. Of course, RFID tags, their readers and printers are more expensive than simple barcode equipment. For more widespread applications (such as tracking tractor trailers or cargo containers), longer-range active tags costing hundreds of dollars each might be required. However, those types of tags are often used on very expensive assets, so the cost of the tag isn’t an impediment given the potential benefits of the asset tracking technology. Also, RFID infrastructure can be a significant expense, especially if many fixed RFID portals are required throughout a large location.
Ease of Implementation: RFID tags are susceptible to interference from metal, liquids, and other materials, so you’ll need to work with a vendor, integrator or VAR to select the right tag for your assets. The reader infrastructure also has to be carefully placed, so integration is more complex.
Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE)
BLE is a beacon technology that periodically broadcasts a signal to other surrounding BLE equipment. The beacons can run for years with very small batteries. They offer a high data transfer rate and are one of the least expensive options for real-time location tracking, though are more expensive tags than barcode or even passive RFID. They have a read range of 1 meter to 70 meters, and usually don’t require line of sight. The real value to the BLE beacons is what information may also be provided besides the “asset number”. The Smart Tag BLE Beacons can also monitor vibration, shock, temperature, humidity and other environmental values. They can also store information to provide a history of changes in the environment.
Cost:BLE is a more affordable option for active tracking applications in that you can avoid buying expensive RFID readers and use any Bluetooth enabled device to read the beacon — even a smartphone.
Ease of Implementation:BLE beacons are relatively easy to deploy, and rollouts can be done in phases. Since they don’t generally require a reader infrastructure, implementations are less complex. However, users still need to consider wireless interference, read range, and battery life when designing the solution.
Internet of Things (IoT)
The IoT encompasses some of the other technologies mentioned above, like RFID and beacons, and combines that with onboard intelligence and sensor data. The IoT allows companies to track not only the location of a device, but also conditions — temperature, vibration, etc. Intelligent devices can also communicate usage information or fault codes, for example. For remote monitoring and maintenance applications, the IoT can provide real-time performance information that enables proactive maintenance and service.
Cost:IoT functionality is generally purpose-built into the asset rather than added later. The cost would be borne by the manufacturer.
Ease of Implementation:Users will require a way to access the data from the connected devices, and a software infrastructure (often cloud-based) to manage the influx of data from these systems.
Choose the Asset Tracking Technology That’s the Best Fit
The asset tracking solution universe continues to expand. The best asset tracking technology option for your company will depend on your business needs. Conduct a thorough analysis of what you want to accomplish with your asset management program, and match the technology to your requirements.