RTLS Makes Cold Chains Without Weak Links

August 7, 2019

If you’re reading this, you probably already know something about the asset and people tracking abilities of Real Time Location Systems (RTLS) and the business benefits they bring. What you might not know, however, is that RTLS can go beyond location data and monitor other relevant metrics like environmental conditions. Sensors can be added to the beacons and tags used in RTLS deployments that monitor things like vibration, moisture and temperature. 

We’re focusing on that last variable in this post since temperature so often has a decisive effect on the use, storage and transport of a number of assets in various settings. Maintaining a temperature range, sometimes of just a couple of degrees, is crucial to processes as diverse as machine operation, safe storage of perishable items and delivery of those same items to end users and distributors. 
Sensor-enabled RTLS infrastructures have established themselves as a money-saving and safety-ensuring measure in any process involving a so-called “cold chain”, where every step in an asset’s life cycle must take place under temperature-controlled conditions. With RTLS, it’s easier than ever to provide the exact conditions that sensitive areas and assets need with a Goldilocks solution—not too hot, not too cold, but just right

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The importance of maintaining a cold chain

Temperature is probably the most frequently measured environmental variable in manufacturing, storage and transport. This is due to the fact that the ambient temperature in a facility—from a factory floor to a retailer or end-user and everywhere in between—can have a damaging effect if it exceeds or falls below a certain point. Any number of sensitive materials, machines and processes function best when in their temperature “sweet spot”. Falling out this often narrow range can have immediate consequences that cost a fortune in the form of wasted materials, idle downtime of both. 
Let’s look at the issues that temperature monitoring with RTLS addresses, divided into their two most obvious categories, indoor and outdoor. 

Indoors doesn’t always mean in control

Precision is everything in manufacturing. When a production process is designed and machines and tools made to execute it, every millimeter counts and every piece has to snap right into place. Allowing carefully calibrated measurements to become distorted means the entire process can be brought to a halt and product quality is compromised. 
But those precise measurements can extend beyond parts and machines to the surrounding air temperature. Many machines and the materials they process require either a specific temperature or a fairly narrow range in order to achieve the desired results. With Bluetooth-enabled connectivity, RTLS are now able to deliver a simple and cost-effective way of monitoring temperature conditions, optimizing the manufacturing process and avoiding losses due to sub-optimal temperature variations.

With so many moving parts in a production environment, literally and figuratively, it can be hard to keep everything in balance. For temperature-sensitive processes, RTLS can help to maintain the conditions required for the safest, most productive and efficient equilibrium possible. 

Temperature sensors integrated with an RTLS deployment can send alerts when environmental conditions go beyond a preset range or are in danger of doing so. The manufacture of things like pharmaceuticals, foods, and other sensitive assets require proper temperature tracking at every stage. With RTLS hardware acting like de facto remote thermometers and digitally integrated into a management or monitoring system, ensuring that environmental conditions are within an acceptable range comes with just a click.

For manufacturers, the benefits of temperature monitoring go beyond quality control and process efficiency. Huge savings can also come from avoiding downtime, a major and expensive issue in complex operations. Reducing the frequency of incidents that cause downtime alone or the duration of a particular incident can save multiples of the cost of the RTLS itself. 
The same protection continues when assets move from the factory floor to the warehouse. The requirements of cold chains demand it. As the saying goes, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link and that’s true of cold chains too. Every link is subject to the same environmental pressures and the same monitoring abilities need to follow assets as they move from place to place.

In a warehouse environment, RTLS-based temperature monitoring continues to automate monitoring and the sending of alerts when important limits are breached.  Something else to introduce here, although it applies to other links in the cold chain as well, is the documentation that RTLS-based temperature monitoring delivers. The data gathered from sensors not only informs you about the current status of the surrounding environment, but it is collected and archived as historical data too. This, in turn, becomes an asset for the purposes of regulatory compliance, performance measurement and potential disputes with third parties. You can’t go back in time and read the thermometer on the wall when you’re trying to pinpoint the origins of some disruption in production or storage, but precise records delivered by RTLS can be recalled with the touch of a button. From the moment production starts to the time goods are delivered, you have an exact temperature history of the entire process.

This is key in cold chain logistics, where the proper handling and delivery of temperature-sensitive assets is subject to minute-by-minute monitoring. There are no breaks, almost no margin for error and the cost of failure can be astronomically high. Full automation of environmental monitoring with RTLS is the only way to deliver the level of stability needed. 

You have to go outside eventually…

The challenge of maintaining cold chain integrity continues when assets and good leave the relative temperature stability of a facility behind and go mobile. But the process of transporting and delivering temperature-sensitive items is also covered by RTLS sensor capabilities. 
The entire delivery process is full of potential hazards for assets that need to stay cooled in a particular temperature range. There’s the exposure of being packed and loaded, the reliance on less powerful cooling systems on delivery trucks than in warehouses, the frequent stopping and starting and opening and closing of doors on the way to the final destination.

Also, “Last-mile delivery” isn’t just a logistical challenge for delivery operators, it’s where a large amount of spoilage and loss occurs when getting sensitive cargo to customers and end users. 
When temperature-sensitive assets go bad when they’re so close to being delivered, the benefits of cost-effective and simple-to-use RTLS tags come into focus. When drivers can see that a line is about to be crossed, that can take measures to avoid costly losses. 
Modern methods of refrigerated delivery are efficient and reliable but, just like factories and manufacturing facilities, things can go wrong. RTLS-based sensors can still provide the same monitoring functions. If temperatures rise to a dangerous level due to a refrigerating device malfunction, sensor data can immediately trigger an alert, allowing personnel the time they need to fix the device or relocate goods before they become damaged. 
Real-time data and Bluetooth give drivers and other personnel the awareness they need to take necessary precautions and prevent losses when the finish line is in sight. 

Problem, meet solution

Research has shown that up to 90% of loss-causing errors in cold chain distribution is attributable to human error. This means that almost all of those losses are preventable with the means to make it easier to be aware of the status of environmental pressures like temperature. 
RTLS is the perfect platform for delivering that awareness. It’s ability to wirelessly and remotely monitor temperature conditions and turn that data into actionable insights is exactly what cold chain operations need. RTLS temperature monitoring systems are more accurate and more reliable than other methods and, as a digital medium, create both real time and historical data for improved efficiency and performance. 

Also, if you’d like to learn more about which beacons work best in cold environments or any other conditions, take a look at our Beacon Buyer’s Guide.
Beacon Buyers Guide

As always, we’re happy to answer any questions you might have. You can leave them in the comments below or contact us.

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Anna Piasna

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