Asset Tracking Upgrade: Bluetooth Low Energy Can Help!
Though exciting, managers must fully understand upcoming localization technologies if they hope to make the right investment. A handful of existing asset tracking tools–like RFID tags, barcodes, and GPS–already exist. Unfortunately, if you are tracking assets indoors, GPS is rendered nearly useless and, if you need to track items across a larger space, ultra short-range solutions are vastly ineffective. So much for “modern” technology!
One major hurdle when establishing a Real-Time Location System (RTLS) has always been the ecosystem. They can be costly to set up and maintain. On the other hand, one technology has only gotten better with time: Bluetooth. Bluetooth tags leverage the growing, widespread adoption of Bluetooth Low Energy to support an affordable and adaptable infrastructure.
Though nearly impossible a short while ago, beacon-based asset tracking systems are now a scaleable, cost-effective, and genuinely exciting solution to old problems.
What are common use cases for BLE asset tracking across verticals? See the chart below for answers.
Current asset tracking methods and tools
Modern asset tracking usually occurs in the form of active RFID, passive RFID, barcodes, NFC, GPS, WiFi, or Bluetooth. All of these are useful in certain circumstances. For example, barcodes are great for registering a large number of assets or assets that will be leaving a factory and taking their tracking mechanism with them. As nearly any smartphone owner will tell you, GPS is great for tracking assets outside or across huge distances. Conversely, WiFi and Bluetooth offer a level tracking that is in between. As assets travel around a factory but need to be recorded with minimal interaction and maximum efficiency, these standards are ideal.
Barcodes: Perhaps the cheapest way to track. These are so simple they can be printed, scanned, and even shipped with the product.
Bluetooth: The most affordable of the more active tracking methods. Doesn’t require interactions or active scanning but can still deliver information based on real time data. Importantly, a BLE infrastructure is capable of serving several use cases simultaneously.
GPS: Ideal for global, outdoor tracking. Doesn’t always require specialized scanners, like active RFID. It isn’t, however, ideal for tracking smaller movements like, for example, following assets as they make their final movements within a warehouse.
NFC: Near Field Communication enables the communication between a tag and electronic device when held close together, most popularly by “tapping.” Can be used with smart devices but is not practical for operations requiring real time information or automated tracking.
Passive RFID: These tags only work at very close range. While they do broadcast their location information, it only travels a very short range. For this reason, a scanner must be brought incredibly close to the tag in order to register and record presence.
QR Codes: A very specific kind of matrix barcode. Like other barcodes, they are cheap to manufacture, easy to dispose of, and ideal for tracking that doesn’t require real time information or automated tracking.
WiFi: These tags are able to, in part, leverage existing WiFi ecosystems, making them very popular in industries like healthcare. They act almost the same as Bluetooth tags with one big difference: energy usage. WiFi was designed to be highly efficient and therefore uses a large amount of bandwidth. The result is more energy usage and higher associated costs.
Passive vs. active asset tracking
Perhaps one of the largest and most pervasive misconceptions about Bluetooth asset tracking is that is may be more expensive compared to similar types of systems. However, this is only true when comparing Bluetooth to passive systems like those based on NFC, QR, or passive RFID.
Passive and active tracking are largely differentiated by distance—namely, the distance the tag can be from the reader in order to be recognized. While we call some RFID and Bluetooth solutions “active,” there is nothing particular active about it. The difference is that they can be read from longer distances. For example, a user passing through a room with an active tag can be recognized by a reader meters away. A user passing through a room with a passive tag will have to get close to the reader, likely scanning or tapping their tag, in order to be registered.
The cost difference
Passive solutions are usually incredibly simple. Barcodes can even be printed, making tags cost almost nothing in comparison to other solutions. Active solutions, however, are not in direct competition with these solutions. Use cases where passive asset tracking is preferred will likely not seek out active solutions unless there is an added value, making active tracking important. Importantly, the cost difference between Bluetooth and other active asset tracking methods can be huge. While active RFID readers will cost between $1,000 and $5,000, Bluetooth readers can cost under $100.
It’s estimated that first-year costs for a 1,000-unit active RFID asset tracking system can easily reach up to $39,100. That same system can be implemented with Bluetooth beacons for around $10,890.
Why hasn’t Bluetooth always been an asset tracking powerhouse?
Bluetooth isn’t currently the standard method for asset tracking. However, it’s quickly growing in popularity and usages, signaling that something has changed. We wanted to understand what happened, so we sat down with Łukasz Wierzbicki, Kontakt.io Head of Engineering to find the reason why:
“The basic difference is that Bluetooth is more power efficient. Now you can use a beacon for two years with one battery. That’s not something that was previously possible. Secondly, Bluetooth doesn’t need to be connected. You can broadcast a signal and nothing has to receive it. With previous versions, you also had to have a connection.”
He continues, “this non-connection is a big reason for Bluetooth’s success. Bluetooth SIG created the newest specifications after deciding it should be more power efficient and work without connectivity. Once companies using Bluetooth had to implement these new protocols, this new kind of more affordable and capable infrastructure became possible.”
In short: Power efficiency is the most important feature of Bluetooth. Plus, Bluetooth can do more than just track items. You can do interactions through the smartphone. So that means it’s more power efficient, cost effective, and you can do more with it.
Plus, Bluetooth tags are 3-4 times cheaper than active RFID tags.
The birth of the beacon
Bluetooth tags are often modernly known as beacons, and their popularity has been growing in recent years. The Bluetooth beacon only first appeared with the release of the iBeacon protocol in 2013. Then came Eddystone. The release of these protocols heralded in the age of the beacon. While it was originally known as a marketing tool and push notification powerhouse, the beacon’s success is also pushing it to the forefront of other verticals and use cases. Bluetooth has long been an ingredient in precision tracking and management.
Cost and simplicity
Now, there’s a growing mountain of proof that beacons are a key technology of the future. This is driving businesses to deploy larger, more global asset management systems with Bluetooth. While Bluetooth hasn’t always been seen as the central technology to tracking, its low price point, multiple capabilities, and simple hardware are winning an increasing number of deals each year. Finally, the often simpler installation process—free from drilling and cables—is allowing businesses to make the switch easily.
Popular Bluetooth asset tracking uses
If you work in manufacturing, it is vital to know where assets are on the production line. Bluetooth tags can provide managers and workers with exact data on how assets are moving through a factory. Improved visibility can decrease errors and even be leveraged to guide employees along the fastest path to an asset. That means resources, and money, are saved with every step.
Common beacon use cases in manufacturing include assembly line logistics, employee and equipment tracking, and precision tracking.
For example, beacons can help with intra-logistics or tracking those assets that haven’t yet reached the assembly line. Should assets or equipment go missing or be moved too late, this can be a huge setback for warehouse operators. Hence, active tracking from beginning to end is used to erase a substantial amount of inefficiency. This means increased visibility and decreased errors overall.
If you have worked in a hospital, you know healthcare administration is particularly complex. Fast access to the right information is paramount in keeping operations running and saving lives. Bluetooth tags have been found to make more equipment used more often. This also ensures that expensive equipment does not get misplaced. They aid in data generation, asset tracking, and can even make sure doctors get patient data instantly.
Common beacon use cases in healthcare include increasing medical device usage, patient tracking, automating medical record access, handling staff allocation or even physical and digital security.
For example, asset tracking can power a completely seamless and optimized patient experience. From the very beginning, where asset tracking and data collection can help optimize check-in, to expedited services in the doctor’s office facilitated by automated patient file collection and sending, and even to an all-around safer experience.
Logistics and Transport
Proper asset tracking makes up a huge part of healthy logistics, and many existing solutions simply do not live up to the needs of modern managers. Bluetooth beacons not only help managers generate and understand data, they also help the overall operations run more efficiently.
Beacons mean packages can be placed wherever there is space without fear of getting lost. Whether in the warehouse or yard storage, containers and items can always be located. More importantly, the existing BLE ecosystem means this system can be easily scaled and upgraded when needed. Finally, it adds a layer of security, alerting you if anything is incorrectly picked up or moved.
Common beacon use cases in logistics and transport include increasing effective storage, powering data analytics, and decreasing shipping mistakes.
For example, the ability to track assets with ease and reliability means increased flexibility in where they can be stored. Instead of worrying about always placing parcels in the exact, specific, previously defined location, they can be placed wherever is the most practical at that moment. They can also be easily found and optimized as more data is collected over time.
Bluetooth tags are now adding a new use case to their asset management repertoire. A report from the US Department of Commerce found that the food industry’s global losses exceed $750 billion every year. The primary culprits are improper facilities and food safety handling procedures. Food, agriculture, and even pharmaceuticals (like important vaccines) rely heavily on cold chain systems. These track temperature and other important data points to ensure the security of sensitive goods in transit. From the beginning to the end of their journey, these goods are carefully monitored. However, they often suffer from problems related to the lack of real-time data. When goods arrive at their destination and are only then found to be at an improper temperature, resources, goods, and time are wasted. Active tracking through Bluetooth will be one of the key use cases to grow in popularity and success in the near future.
In an almost futuristic solution, Bluetooth beacons can now be used to automate several processes and optimize space, resources, and time.
You booked the meeting room for an important business presentation? The beacon system can be used to:
- trigger a projector
- turn on the AC
- alert colleagues that the room is occupied
Perhaps more shocking than the fact this is possible is that such systems are increasingly affordable, practical, and scalable.
Bluetooth 5: the future of asset tracking
Late last year, Bluetooth SIG released their latest Bluetooth specifications. If you work in healthcare, manufacturing, or any other industry that has a lot to be earned through asset tracking, this is a big deal. While Bluetooth 5 doesn’t quite reinvent the wheel (or the beacon), it’s extending the technology’s reach far beyond what we’re accustomed to.
In short, Bluetooth 5.0 boasts:
- 4x range
- 800% more broadcast messaging capacity
- 2x speed
Each of these symbolize more than just a cool number and are highly important for asset tracking.
Four times the reach: you have to buy less hardware to cover more space. This could also lead to less instances of errors or assets moving out of range.
Eight hundred times the messaging capacity: sending more incredible data. Love your temperature sensors and light detectors? Right now, our beacons are functioning at full capacity, delivering sensor and location data. More messaging, quite simply, equals more possibilities for sensors.
Double the speed: faster firmware updates and, therefore, better overall infrastructure manageability.
We know Bluetooth is destined for asset tracking dominance. We hear this each day from those in the industry as well as companies looking for the latest tracking tech. Now, we can rest assured that Bluetooth 5 will make these infrastructures not only better but more popular and affordable.
[Use Cases] real-world asset tracking with Bluetooth
There are several solution providers working with beacons to bring better asset tracking to business around the globe. Here are just a few of our most recent stories.
Atollogy helped an LED lighting system manufacturer optimize their manufacturing lines leveraging beacons. By pairing Kontakt.io tags with Gateways (the related Bluetooth readers), the manufacturer was able to know the location of assets and even identify whether they were on the right track. This kind of active monitoring grants operators the ability to find and fix anomalies in real time instead of relying solely on historic data for review and operational improvements.
Measuremen helped a global financial institute situated in Amsterdam monitor employees to create a better work environment. Their app gathered numerous kinds of information about employee movements. The system included both questionnaires and self-reporting as well as real tracking information to illuminate problem areas employees themselves may not be aware of. The amalgamated data was able to provide management with several different kinds and levels of insights into their work force. Also, participants each received their own report to help them understand their personal movements better.
Our White Paper on RTLS offers our findings in depth including the role of big data and seven straight-forward steps to implementing a successful RTLS system.
No time? No worries! We carefully organized our paper to help busy managers learn about new possibilities in their particularsector, fast. Download the white paper here.
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- Using Location Data in the Automotive Industry, From Production Line to Showroom Floor