Everything in its place: tracking assets digitally

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Manufacturing is one of the most asset-intensive industries around. But valuable tools, inventory and vehicles can be difficult and time consuming to find on large sites. In environments that are hectic and always in motion, how do you maximize your chances of keeping track of assets to boost employee productivity and factory outputs?

What type of assets are lost or stolen in industrial environments? It can be anything from toolboxes containing screwdrivers and wrenches to expensive production line equipment that is vital to a manufacturing process, or even forklift trucks and vehicles. Indeed, sometimes it can be difficult to know if containers and pallets of raw materials, sub-assemblies and parts have, or have not, arrived in a warehouse. Misplaced assets mean time and money.

How expensive is the problem of missing assets?

Expensive. A lost asset can mean shutting down the whole production line. According to a 2018 survey by ITIC, the average cost of just one hour of industrial downtime is $100,000. Over the past 10 years, the average cost of a single hour of downtime has risen by 25-30 percent. One-third of enterprises say that one hour of downtime costs their organizations between $1-$5 million. In most cases, the asset simply has been mislaid, but on occasions, enterprises can face problems with theft by employee insiders or outside gangs.

Industrial downtime

What are the constraints to asset tracking?

Traditional technologies used for assets tracking – like RFID and barcodes – have their limitations. They are passive technologies (meaning a human has to physically interrogate them with a scanner), and they don’t work well over long distances. Thankfully, active tags, which are proactively read by a beacon, have come down massively in price and are no longer reserved for extremely high-value equipment. But they can be tricky to deploy in industrial environments.

Factories are typically constructed from glass and steel, and signals from mobile networks and GPS systems can struggle to penetrate and connect to tagged assets. Orange has one asset tracking customer, for example, which is a leading manufacturer of cruise liners. Throughout the construction process, its workers effectively work inside a gigantic Faraday cage that blocks electromagnetic signals and wireless connectivity – a de facto barrier to tracking assets.

Connectivity and digital offer new answers

Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) tags and smart beacons can be used to create a Real-Time Location System (RTLS) that works well indoors – even on a cruise ship. A relatively inexpensive solution, BLE tags allow for very accurate positioning from 50cm to 10m and run on battery for a year or more.

These “tether trackers” give information on how far away an asset is from the beacon and can send an alert to a smartphone or tablet if they get out of range. The smart beacons are fixed in place and programmed to broadcast constant signals that pick up the tags. They record when someone last used a piece of machinery asset and store a complete utilization audit history.

Asset trackers can also be used in combination with IoT-based predictive maintenance solutions. In a factory, precision screwdrivers require routine calibration and lubrication based on utilization times. Until now, this has been a manual procedure performed periodically and documented in handwritten logs.

The tools can be fitted with real-time motion sensors attached to IoT gateways. The data can be collected via a 4G cellular base station, including small cells for indoor coverage, where required. It can then be transported to a secure, private cloud to enable intelligent data analysis. This reduces the amount of manual work involved in managing tools by 50 percent. And since the cost per IoT device is very low, the payback is very quick.

Learn more: 5G network slicing can drive Industry 4.0

IoT playing a growing role

IoT track-and-trace solutions are becoming increasingly popular, enabling assets to be tracked between manufacturing facilities and vendor premises. The movement of deliveries of materials can even be tracked around a facility to enable manufacturers to identify patterns of usage.

Vehicles themselves can also be tracked using IoT sensors, enhancing fleet management operations and keeping track of valuable trucks, vans and forklift trucks within a site. LoRa® (Long Range), the low-power wide-area-network (LPWAN) wireless technology, is a good fit for these applications. With its low power consumption, LoRa enables the vehicle tracker’s battery life to last up to 10 years. Meanwhile, for road vehicle tracking, extensive coverage is key, and cellular connectivity is your best option.

Generally, it makes sense to track both the vehicles and their payloads, which can have individual sensors and tags on products or on whole pallets. Research by Frost & Sullivan suggests IoT solutions in the trucking industry are now delivering an increase in profits of 10-15 percent annually through increased productivity.

In the downstream oil and gas industry, companies face pressure to reduce costs and drive operational efficiencies. The Orange IoT Connect Anywhere solution is being used by a U.S.-based multinational oil and gas company for mobile asset tracking and asset management. It works over a campus network, with assets like trucks tracked via a LoRa®-enabled GPS tracker device that uses BLE. In these types of environments, geo-fence alerting can be used to alert managers if an item goes outside the boundaries they’ve defined, indicating unauthorized usage or even theft.

The data factor

Digital tracking tools also enable cloud-based data analysis of asset usage, enabling managers to forecast future demand for equipment, isolate potential blockages in workflows and keep on top of procurement costs.

Manufacturing companies need to know where assets and tools are at all times to keep their operations up and running. Naturally, they want to prevent theft, loss and damage wherever possible. It’s no wonder that the total value of the global asset tracking market is forecast to reach $27 billion by 2023, with a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 15 percent, according to Research and Markets’ Global Asset Tracking Market 2018-2023 report.

Asset tracking can positively impact a manufacturer’s bottom line as the technology is now more accurate, accessible and reliable than ever before. Download our asset tracking infographic to learn more.