Like other aspects of manufacturing, the handling and movement of materials has benefited greatly from the introduction digitized processes. From intake to output and everything in between, a very labor-intensive component of industry is more efficient than ever thanks to the automated tracking abilities made possible by RTLS (Real Time Location Services). 
This should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the technology. Software platforms, analytics and applications that take advantage of real-time location data supplied through hardware like beacons create new efficiencies that were previously impossible. They also deliver insights and visibility that allow for better utilization of assets and identification of areas for improvement. 

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Material handling in manufacturing using RTLS

Manufacturing facilities have long used mobile, hand-held devices and scanners to register and track materials at different stages of the process but recent advances in Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) have enabled the automated capture of real-time location data. The nature of many production facilities makes it unlikely that automated location tracking will fully replace all mobile, manually-operated forms of material and input tracking. However, beacon-based infrastructures have found a valuable place as a complementary component to existing tracking systems and a key part of supply-chain management.
Let’s look at how BLE-based location data supplied by beacons and tags is making real-time material handling easier, more efficient and part of lean manufacturing. 

Tracking right from the start

The benefits literally start the moment materials are delivered on site. Processing the intake of new inventory is dramatically accelerated when tagged assets are passively detected and automatically added to inventory. There’s no need for the time-consuming manual scanning of palettes and containers when BLE can register their arrival instantly. Instead of blocking other workflows and taking staff away from other, more productive activities, materials can be instantly routed and transported to warehouse shelves, the production line or anywhere else. 
This efficiency is transferred to the movements of staff and necessary equipment, like forklifts. When the new inventory is processed quickly, travel paths through the facility are easier to plan and down time is minimized. Beacons and tags get materials in the door and onward to storage or immediate use faster. Not only is down time reduced, but staff allocation and overall planning becomes easier when you know that the entire intake process can be completed in a given amount of time. 
Speaking of allocation, the materials themselves can be better distributed when they are viewed through a digital prism. When the location of materials is always passively monitored, it’s easier to evenly distribute them to the appropriate workstation or assembly point. Not only can these stations stay better supplied, avoiding downtime, but, when they do run out of materials, replacements can be located instantly. 
BLE-based RTLS gives staff responsible for making internal deliveries or keeping points in a production line supplied easy access to overviews of the current location of all tagged materials. Evening out the distribution of those materials and prioritizing deliveries becomes faster and easier through remote access to real-time data on material locations and statuses. 
Even in smaller facilities, it is difficult to recognize backups and bottlenecks in real time before they become a problem. Manual observation and daily experience will only take you so far. It’s usually the case that the small adjustments that need to be made in workflows to avoid these issues can only be identified with the help of digital insights. 
As the saying goes, you can’t improve what you can’t measure, and more precise location data supplies the most accurate measurements possible. Without data-based insights into manufacturing, supply chain and logistics processes, your ability to optimize them and measure your progress against KPIs is limited. RTLS is the always-on window that gives you the visibility you need for both a big-picture view and a close-up, micro-level examination of granular data. 

Smart manufacturing depends on smart material handling

Maintaining the efficient operation of manufacturing and warehousing facilities is an enormous logistical challenge. Inputs coming in one door, outputs leaving through another and constant motion across multiple complex processes in between—with this many moving parts, there are an infinite number of issues that can drag productivity down or even bring production to a halt. 
At the same time, however, there are an equal number of opportunities to refine processes, facilitate workflows and squeeze an extra degree of efficiency out of wasteful practices. As mentioned earlier, the simple observation of even the most experienced professional has its limits. Beyond a certain point, meaningful insights into operations can only come from data-driven technologies that take advantage of the powers of digitization. 
Beacons and tags have established themselves as the go-to hardware that, when combined with conventional tools like barcodes and RFID, helps to complete end-to-end visibility for handling materials in a manufacturing context. Their ability to passively collect business-critical data without engaging or interfering with human staff is a game changer. The real-time location data they constantly stream to software that interprets and converts it into actionable insights that boost operational efficiency is the fuel of any digital transformation. 
IoT-based solutions like RTLS are finding new applications in every industry. Converting physical movements into data and leveraging that information into operational efficiencies is driving lean manufacturing. Optimizing material handling is a key component of these strategies, which are dependent on the collection and application of data. The hardware that supports RTLS solutions with real-time data is more accessible than ever and flexible enough to adapt to any use case. 
But that data is just a means to an end. The end, of course, is the ability to identify useful business insights and give the data a context. The raw data by itself, in the example of location services, may tell you where things are but that information needs to be paired with business outcomes that you’re trying to achieve before you can understand how your actual performance compares to your desired performance. 
That’s where analytics platforms come in. 

Simon Analytics Platform for Real-Time Material Handling

The data your beacons collect has to be interpreted, organized and presented in a way that relates to business performance and KPI’s. Analytics platforms like Simon can measure current performance against preset benchmarks, generate alerts to potential issues and more. 
Without the context provided by an analytics platform, beacons and tags are simply collecting raw position and sensor data. That information has to be properly framed by software to explain that, for example, certain items or assets have moved outside the boundaries of a particular area. This is a critical step in any RTLS deployment—determining how the location engine will convert raw location data into events that are relevant to your business performance. 
In other words, you have to set parameters and triggers that allow you to manage assets in real time to avoid trouble and keep everything running smoothly. RTLS data is only useful, only meaningful, when it helps you achieve business outcomes that you would not otherwise get without it. Being able to react in time to warnings of developing problems, getting insights beyond the capabilities of manual human observation and instant notifications of changes in a complex system—all this and more is possible when data is integrated with a platform that constantly checks that data against rules that you set. 
In the context of material handling, Simon can monitor the movements of multiple materials in real time and ensure their timely processing, even distribution and constant supply where needed. This makes it easier to avoid costly downtime, reduce search times and meet production deadlines.


IoT in manufacturing RTLS

If you’re interested in how you can leverage IoT in achieving lean operations in a plant, check our whitepaper.


We’re still celebrating’s sixth birthday all month long with another “six” post. This time, we’re looking at six reasons why you need more visibility into your factory operations with RTLS.
In manufacturing, there comes a point where you can no longer evaluate production through traditional methods based on simple observation. The size and complexity of modern facilities can quickly grow beyond the limitations of even the best conventional tracking tools. Add the pace of twenty-first century commerce to the mix and the need for better visibility into what’s going on in a factory becomes clear. 
Of course, when we say “visibility”, we mean the kind of insights you can’t get with your eyes alone. We’re talking about observing movements, processes and flows that can only be fully revealed when viewed through a digital lens powered technologies based on Bluetooth Low Energy technology. RTLS (Real Time Location Systems) leverage connected infrastructures that track the movements of people, things and devices into business benefits and greater efficiencies. The digital representations of movements in the physical world can be interpreted and applied in any number of ways that make your factory more efficient, productive and safer.

Six ways that digitally-driven visibility can improve your factory. 

1 - Automated inventory control 

This is one of the main areas where RTLS directly impacts the bottom line of any business.     Inventory management isn’t just about tracking quantities of items on hand, although of course that’s crucial information for any facility. Just as important is the ability to locate a particular asset and use historical data to measure how efficiently things like tools, machines and other capital goods are used. 
Asset tracking streamlines the management and allocation of physical assets through the use of tags that interact with a signal broadcast in the area. Not only can this help to locate, for example, a machine when it’s needed, but the information gathered can reveal bottlenecks in workflows and make it easier to optimize the physical layout of assets in a facility.
On top of that, deeper visibility into asset movement provides information about use rates and down time. This is important when considering planned expenses for new tools and machines. Overcapacity and unnecessary inventory are common problems that arise when purchasing decisions are made without knowledge of how well existing assets are being used. Asset tracking means you only need to spend on new equipment when your current inventory is being used to its maximum capacity. 

2 - Streamlined maintenance management

Ongoing facility and asset maintenance is critical to keeping the wheels turning, the machines working and a thousand other processes that support production. While reacting to mechanical failures and other issues, the costs of downtime are often measured in thousands of dollars with every passing minute. Switching to a strategy of preventative maintenance is obviously the way to go, but you need insights into the status and condition of assets first.
That data is provided through the remote digital monitoring of the performance of assets that need to be kept in optimal working condition. Technologies like edge computing, easily integrated with IoT-based solutions, take monitoring down machine-level analytics and alert you to potential issues before they become a problem. When performance is digitized, even subtle variations in machine conditions and output can be easily identified well before the problem advances to the stage where it’s easy to spot but harder and more expensive to fix.  
The conventional strategy of regularly scheduled maintenance sounds like a good idea, but does it just generate regularly scheduled costs? Isn’t it better to respond to the early signs of trouble as they occur than to expect machinery to operate according to a calendar? When you can schedule expensive manual examinations of machinery when they’re needed, instead of basing them on arbitrary time periods, you can optimize both the direct costs of the maintenance team and the indirect but significant costs of lost production due to downtime. 

3 - Loss prevention

Expensive assets can be misplaced through honest mistakes but they can disappear as a result of other motivations too. In a large facility filled with valuable and often portable technology, you have to take steps to protect your investments in these assets. 
Loss prevention is strongly supported by RTLS in two ways. First, there’s the obvious ability to track and find missing assets based on the location tag affixed or otherwise attached to them. Not only does this locate the asset itself, but it saves time and money by avoiding the necessity of a manual search. The user interface can show where in the factory the asset is located, with a degree of accuracy within two meters. 
Secondly, RTLS allows for geofencing, or setting up virtual boundaries beyond which certain assets are not supposed to move. If they do, an alert can automatically be sent to the relevant manager or authority and appropriate measures can be taken. Learning about such issues in real time is a huge advantage in being able to track and locate the asset before it travels beyond the range of the signal broadcast by the RTLS 

4 - Enhanced safety

No matter what degree of danger is present in the functioning of a given facility, safety is always a primary consideration and fundamental to operational success. RTLS systems can play a key role in enhancing existing safety policies and offering additional functionalities that help to ensure the highest possible level of safety for everyone. 
The same geofencing capability mentioned in the third point above can be used as a safety mechanism by sending out alerts when unauthorized personnel, or anyone, enters an area considered to be potentially hazardous. Dangerous temperature extremes and overcrowding can be avoided with the use of environmental sensors. 
Still, accidents will sometimes happen and when they do, RTLS can be a vitally important source of help. Tags can be fitted with panic buttons to call for assistance or alert others of an accident. Employees with a tag can be located in emergency situations when every second counts, avoiding the need to put others in danger by searching for them. When an area must be cleared, RTLS can quickly tell you if everyone who needs to be moved out is present at a meeting point. If emergency services arrive, you can immediately tell them how many people are in an area and exactly where they are. 
These are all capabilities you hope to never need, but are you really comfortable without knowing that they’re available if the unthinkable happens? 

5 - Better compliance with regulatory measures 

Depending on your industry and the nature of your facility, regulatory compliance can be a major issue in your day-to-day operations. It can so important that dedicated full-time staff are often assigned just to this area. If this is the case in your operation, you can make their job much easier with the insights gained from an RTLS deployment. 
Digitization creates opportunities for much better documentation of any number of metrics, particularly those subject to regulatory measures. The data gathered through RTLS also helps to report on and demonstrate compliance. It’s also highly accurate and free from the problems and human error associated with manual reporting. 
Also, reports showing compliance with regulatory measures can be generated in minutes, rather than days or weeks, like with conventional reporting methods. 

6 - Overall better operational experience 

The accumulated benefits of RTLS combine to create more efficient workflows, provide reliable data for purchasing and inventory decisions and protect mechanical and human assets, all while making factory operations more transparent and easily documented. Digital transformation means more precise measurements of every input and output. From there, it’s a small step to optimizing any number of aspects of your operation. 
The visibility provided by RTLS makes it possible to achieve a level of efficiency that would otherwise be very difficult to reach. With deep insights into a factory’s organization and processes, it can be more productive, use assets more efficiently, better allocate resources and protect workers. The end result is orders filled on time and on budget, which directly translates into increased customer satisfaction. On top of all that, you get better control over spending, avoid waste and duplication and become leaner overall. What’s not to like? 

If you would like to learn more about how you can drive a successful RTLS in your business download our whitepaper Next Generation RTLS Transforming Major Verticals on valuable asset tracking insights for manufacturing, healthcare, logistics, and workspaces.

[Updated for 2020]
[Updated for 2020]