By Vince Hagen, Business Development Manager for Asset Tracking, Nordic Semiconductor
As the saying goes, employees are a company’s most valuable asset, but with 46 percent of businesses reporting physical assets misplaced by employees, and worse, 29 percent reporting them stolen, one begins to wonder whether this asset might in fact be a firm’s greatest liability.
According to a study by insurance provider Hiscox, in the U.S. alone, employee theft costs businesses in the region of $50 billion per annum. Elsewhere, research by Australian telco giant Telstra claims Australian organizations are collectively ‘losing’ AU$4.3 billion ($2.92 billion) in assets every year. Extrapolate the numbers out globally and the problem of tracking physical assets in the workplace, or across multiple workplaces, comes into sharp focus.
Despite the availability of inexpensive, reliable wireless asset tracking solutions, many companies are still relying on outmoded methods to track their assets. According to the Telsyte Telstra Track and Monitor Survey 2019, half of all businesses are still manually logging assets into a system for record keeping, a process both imprecise and prone to human error. And if that sounds antiquated, consider that for 35 percent of businesses their primary method of tracking assets is to have an employee walk around the premises to locate them when they are needed. On average, 55 staff hours are lost every year by every company, searching for lost physical assets. Worse, the assets are only recovered 22 percent of the time, according to the research. It’s a vicious circle; staff misplace assets, staff waste time looking for them, staff never find them, and the organization ends up losing both time and money. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Asset tracking technology is available in a wide range of forms. GPS can confirm the location of a ‘thing’ to within an accuracy of approximately five meters, but is relatively expensive, power hungry, and of no use whatsoever once the asset you wish to track is indoors. Wi-Fi-based asset tags that take advantage of a building’s omnipresent Wi-Fi access points resolve the problem of indoor signal interference and offer a similar degree of accuracy to GPS. However, they are power hungry and expensive, precluding their use on less-critical assets or at a scale where battery replacement would become onerous.
Both passive and active RFID tags have also long been used for asset tracking. While passive RFID solutions—those with no power source—are inexpensive and overcome the battery replacement issue, what they can’t do is actively track the movement of an asset in real time, and the absence of a power source also significantly limits their range. Fine if you want to track inventory in a specific room, less so if the assets or equipment are on the move throughout a facility. Active RFID tags are battery-powered enabling real time location and extending their working range, but the trade-off is the battery will require replacing every few years, and greater expense. Passive tags typically cost between 10 and 50 cents each, whereas active tags can range anywhere between $5 and $15.
Bluetooth Low Energy (Bluetooth LE) based asset tracking systems comprising battery-powered tags, locators or beacons, and a gateway to relay the data to the Cloud, enable ‘real time’ positioning with extended battery life and meter-level accuracy. However, before the advent of Bluetooth 5 these systems had limited range, requiring a greater number of fixed locators and the cost that came with it. The arrival of Bluetooth 5 however immediately quadrupled the range of the technology, while the release of Bluetooth 5.1 Direction Finding this year promises accuracy down to the centimeter-level.
Out of reach?
Not all asset tracking is about locating equipment that has been misplaced or stolen in offices, warehouses, and factories, and some tracking challenges require a low power solution far beyond the reach of Wi-Fi access points, RFID readers, and Bluetooth LE-powered gateways. After all to a Sami herdsman in Lapland, a missing reindeer is every bit as valuable as missing IT equipment is to someone else, it’s just a lot harder to track, and you can’t just send a member of staff off for an hour into the frozen tundra to look for it, at least not without using low power cellular technology.
This is, at least in part, why the forecast for cellular-based LPWAN (low power wide area network) technologies predicts significant growth in the coming years. According to telecoms giant Ericsson, the number of cellular IoT connections will grow from 700 million in 2017 to an eye-opening 3.5 billion by 2023 (Ericsson Mobility Report, June 2018), while research from analyst ABI Research claims almost half of LPWAN connections by 2023 will be for asset trackers and asset tracking applications.
There is no one size fits all answer to asset tracking, and different technologies will suit different use cases. What is certain is that paper-based systems, or worse, no system at all, is no way to be running your business in 2020. Just ask the council that discovered mistakes in its handwritten tracking records had led to a $541,000 loss in missing assets across the course of three years, or the hospital that somehow contrived to dispose of a $165,000 imaging device before anyone realised it was gone. They learned the hard way that using technology to better manage physical assets can not only reduce financial losses, but also transform and optimize your business.