Real-time location systems (RTLS) have become the foundation for applications that boost efficiency, productivity and safety in every industry you can think of. The ability to accurately locate and track assets and people allows processes to be optimized and helps employees to focus on activities that bring more value to the organization. This insight into how physical objects move, viewed through a digital prism, has made RTLS crucial to achieving next-level operational efficiencies.
Any operation that involves moving parts or assets needs a way to monitor and locate them.
RTLS provides the tools needed to do exactly that while making it possible to leverage that information into business intelligence. Manufacturing, warehousing, healthcare and logistics & transport, among others, provide a long list of RTLS-based applications that provide visibility into processes and flows that makes money-saving and safety-enhancing optimization possible.
In keeping with this month’s celebration of Kontakt.io’s sixth year, today we’re looking at the six steps needed to create a successful RTLS project.
The mission of any RTLS deployment has to be aligned with the needs and objectives of the organization. Typically, that means applying RTLS capabilities to address areas already identified as problems in need of solutions or optimizing processes too complex to be analyzed through manual observation.
This will mean different things in different environments and verticals. In some contexts, it could be tracking assets and cutting search times. In others, it may be identifying bottlenecks in workflows or reassigning people or assets during downtimes. Other situations might call for more accurate time clock management for a large workforce or setting up geofencing protection for sensitive or dangerous areas.
Whatever the primary role of the RTLS, it’s important that a clear picture of how it should support the organization be established before proceeding to selecting technologies and hardware. If you don’t know exactly how an RTLS deployment is supposed to help you be more efficient or productive or safer, how can later measure how successful the deployment is?
How do you know there’s room for improvement in an area where RTLS can help?
You need information, feedback and data to better understand the problems you’re trying to address with an RTLS solution. This can come in the form of raw numbers and analytics, feedback from employees on the front lines of production, comparisons with industry benchmarks and other sources. The more information you have, the more precisely you can focus the tracking and data-gathering capabilities of an RTLS deployment and ensure an acceptable ROI.
This kind of analysis of the processes involved will not only help to shape the mission of the RTLS deployment, but its scope as well. You’ll get a clearer picture of what areas of your facility need to be covered in order to include all the relevant points in the movement of an asset. Maybe you need a localized deployment, maybe it has be facility-wide. One use case may require an end-to-end deployment while another calls for more limited and focused coverage. These different possibilities obviously come with different costs of ownership and ongoing management, which is also important to understand well before you get to advanced stages in the deployment process.
RTLS solutions can be powered by different technological standards, with the three most common being Active RFID, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth Low Energy (Bluetooth LE). In terms of accuracy and reliability, there’s very little difference between them but Bluetooth LE has emerged as the communication standard for IoT, and as the best choice for RTLS, for several compelling reasons.
The first is cost. Bluetooth LE-based deployments are typically much less expensive than other technologies, with first-year costs for a 1,000-unit deployment at around a quarter of the cost of a similar Active RFID project. The widespread adoption of BLE as a standard has made it not only cheaper, but much more ready to integrate into other systems and devices. BLE-based deployments can be adapted to almost any industry, improving operations, safety, and inventory management, or any number of other use cases.
This network effect is particularly evident as a result of the universal adoption of Bluetooth technology in smartphones. For use cases where smartphones can be used as part of the RTLS, Bluetooth greatly simplifies every step of the process.
Power efficiency is another metric that clearly sets BLE apart—something that should come as no surprise, since “low energy” is part of its name. This not only has obvious consequences for direct operating costs, but also lowers overall costs of ownership as devices and batteries need to be replaced less often. The larger the deployment, the greater the savings.
Turning from software to hardware, there are a number of things to consider when choosing the right type of equipment for an RTLS deployment. RTLS systems based on any technology use tags or beacons to send out signals to a device that detects and processes that signal. Those tags and beacons can take a number of form factors, with some designed especially for certain use cases and environments.
For example, for personnel tracking, you can’t expect employees to somehow carry around the same type of device that you would mount on a wall as part of a wayfinding application. That’s what smaller, thinner tags in the form of cards or wristbands are for. Tags have to do their job without interfering in the performance of the people and assets they help track. This isn’t an issue when they’re passively broadcasting a signal from a ceiling as things move around them, but when they’re on the thing that moves, using the right hardware is essential.
The form factor for devices can also be important in environments where things like temperature, motion or moisture have to be considered. There are use cases that demand higher degrees of toughness and resistance to environmental pressures and failing to make the right choice can fatally compromise the effectiveness of the RTLS. Outdoor asset tracking can involve a combination of multiple factors that will influence the hardware choices available.
Be very aware that hardware is not a one-size-fits-all situation and getting this part of an RTLS deployment wrong can ruin all the other planning you do.
You don’t have to try to solve all of your problems or apply an RTLS to everything right away. Start small, with parameters that are easier to track and manage. Use a limited rollout as a simpler way to understand how everything works and how to act on the information you get.
Focusing on one problem, issue or area at a time will let you learn how to manage the system starting at a manageable scale. Also, it’s easier to experiment, learn from your mistakes, identify what you could be doing differently and reconfigure settings before expanding to the full-scale deployment. As with any technical deployment, there are likely to be issues and problems that will require your time and attention to straighten out. Better to deal with those problems in their limited version before scaling your RTLS to full activation.
Starting with a limited rollout, easing into the management the RTLS and learning how to fix problems on a small scale help to create a smooth transition from the planning stages to going live. They also give you another chance to be sure that the focus, design and physical deployment are all aligned with your needs.
The level of investment required for RTLS solutions means you need to be sure that it will be capable of delivering value for some time going forward. We’ve already made the case for why Bluetooth Low Energy is the best option for the technology that drives RTLS solutions, but this final step in the process highlights another advantage it has.
The use of Bluetooth LE comes with a kind of technological insurance policy in the form of future-proofing. With the introduction of Bluetooth 5.1, the protocol has solidified its position as the dominant industry standard and the backbone of wireless communication across verticals and industries. By deploying a Bluetooth LE-based RTLS ecosystem, you’re setting up a physical and digital infrastructure that leaves the door open to future integrations with devices and applications that you haven’t even thought of yet. As for the here and now, there are billions of Bluetooth-enabled devices already and billions more on the way. That means leveraging the common language shared among them is that much easier if the need arises.
If you’re considering beacons as part of your Bluetooth LE-based RTLS solution, click here to schedule a call with us.