By Alf Helge Omre, Business Development Manager, Nordic Semiconductor
Many people have been there. They park their car, wander off, and come back later only to find they’ve forgotten where they left it. Every car looks the same, and the owner has no idea where to begin the search for their particular model. Consider how frustrating that is and then multiply it by 10,000.
Such a challenge is what a new product called ViLOG, from Israeli software services company, Sogo Services, addresses. The product tames the unruly nature of the sprawling bonded car lot thanks to the innovative introduction of Bluetooth tagging, intelligent programming and a smartphone app.
What’s the challenge and what’s been tried?
Kia Israel imports cars from the manufacturer to their premises in Tel-Aviv. There the cars are held in a bonded lot for up to a year—alongside thousands of other identical models—until they’re registered, processed by customs and shipped to the dealer’s showroom.
During this time, the cars don’t have license plates, and over 700 individual cars may be moved each day as stock units are added to, removed from, and rearranged in the bonded car lot.
Analog methods of tracking car movements proved inefficient. Writing down lot quadrants is time-consuming and prone to human error, while barcode scanning requires dedicated equipment - and labels can bleach in the hot Mediterranean sun. And every time a car is moved, these systems require staff to update the unit location documentation. Otherwise, cars can go missing amongst the fleet - sometimes taking days of painstakingly scanning vehicle identification numbers to locate.
One solution is passive and active RFID tagging - low-cost units that help staff track stock. However, while the passive units don’t require batteries, they can’t actively track car movements in real time, and the lack of a power source limits their effective range. Active RFID units overcome this, offering boosted range and supporting real-time location, but at the expense of a battery.
And at no little cost either; while the passive tags can cost as little as 10 cents per unit, the active versions can cost as much as $15 apiece. For Kia Israel, this would mean a minimum spend of $150,000 just for the RFID tags, before any other infrastructure, such as dedicated readers, is even considered.
Beacons lead the way
Bluetooth Low Energy (Bluetooth LE) based asset tracking systems offer an affordable and scalable alternative. The solution provided to Kia Israel by ViLOG was surprisingly simple. It consisted of little more than battery-powered beacons containing Nordic’s nRF52810 SoC, some smart Cloud-based programming, and a smartphone app.
Each staff member’s smartphone plays host to the ViLOG app. When in range of the cars’ Bluetooth LE beacons, the smartphone picks up a unique signal from each. Once it receives the information, the app sends each car’s details and its estimated distance from the smartphone, together with the smartphone’s GPS location, to the Cloud, where the information is processed to give users an up-to-date location map of each and every vehicle in the lot.
Sogo has analysed the effectiveness of their solution and found that, because vehicles were located virtually instantly, there was a 20 to 40 percent reduction in the time to process a vehicle, a 50 percent drop in labour expense, and a reduction in storage costs of between 25 to 40 percent.
But perhaps the most startling revelation was that the time taken to process and deliver a car to a customer was reduced by 48 hours per vehicle. With 10,000 cars on the bonded lot, the system has the potential to cut an estimated 55 years off customer wait-time - meaning more productive staff and happier consumers.
“With ViLOG, KIA Israel significantly improved inventory turnover. We know exactly where each of our 10,000 cars is located, and waste no time tracking the 700 cars daily,” said Omri Dagul of KIA Israel.
What can we learn from this?
Scanners, antennas, gates and base stations have a place in inventory management, but less expensive options exist. Bluetooth LE’s interoperability with smartphones in particular can help to eliminate a lot of the costly infrastructure traditionally used to track assets.
Because of the ubiquity of smartphones in the modern workforce, the handsets can be leveraged as a beacon interface. All that’s needed is an account linked to the smart software, a mobile app installed on employees' smartphones and enough (relatively inexpensive) Bluetooth LE tags to cover inventory. Bluetooth also makes it easy to ramp up from a test operation involving a limited number of vehicles to a full-scale solution. There’s no proprietary hardware involved because the infrastructure comprises smartphones and Bluetooth LE tags.
With ViLOG technology it’s possible to track thousands of assets—not just cars—with minimal infrastructure, as long as the assets are outdoors. Once inside, where GPS is less reliable, the platform can be upgraded with fixed-position Bluetooth LE beacons that provide a reference for the smartphones, while the Cloud-based smart software does the rest.