BLE Beacons in asset tracking – precision, cost reduction and efficiency
Imagine you are working in a large vehicle manufacturing company. You have a huge parking lot with lots of cars that look very similar, yet they all have customizations based on a specific customer’s order and thus are not interchangeable.
How do you find where is the car that you need to ship to Mr. Jones today?
The problem of locating assets is not new
and there are many existing approaches to solving it. One approach relies purely on manual input from your employees – having them fill in a form with information about a car’s location (parking lot area) every time they park a car.
As any system relying on manual input, this system is prone to human error, which can cause your company’s percent of on-time delivery to drop and increase labor costs, as employees go about looking for vehicles that are not where they are supposed to be.
Another approach is to use an RTLS system, based on one or more of the now considered standard locating technologies like GPS, RFID, NFC, barcodes. Each of them, however, comes with its own benefits and costs for the vehicle tracking usecase:
- GPS: great for tracking over long distances; very expensive if you need to have GPS in every single vehicle; lacks precision, so it would not help a worker too much in the large parking lot.
- Passive RFID: very cheap asset tags (commonly used in RFID access cards); very expensive reader infrastructure; the driver would need to manually scan the tag on a reader to update the vehicle location when parking it, so that someone else can find it later.
- Active RFID: no need for manual location update and thus better than passive RFID in our case; our reader infrastructure would still be expensive, our asset tags even more.
- Barcodes: very cheap & widely used asset tags; need manual location update and dedicated printing and reader infrastructure.
Along comes a new option that could be used for real-time locating: Bluetooth beacons
Although iBeacon technology has been used in the retail space for more than 3 years now, it’s only now that it’s making its first steps in manufacturing and logistics, raising interest from leading players in the industry. But what makes beacons particularly good candidates for solving the asset locating challenge?
- Precise locating – with beacons you can get to 5m accuracy both indoor and outdoor (depending on your budget and environment). GPS typical accuracy is 15m outdoor and much worse indoors.
- Cost-effectiveness: with prices of $25-30, beacons cost as much as active RFID tags, but need no expensive readers.
- No dedicated readers: by installing a mobile app on the phones of factory staff, you turn them into readers and save $1,000-8,000/reader that you’d normally need to spend if you go with active RFID.
- Automatic scan & position update: unlike passive RFID and barcodes, your workers don’t need to scan manually a tag to update an asset’s location. Their mobile devices do this automatically when they get in the proximity of the beacons attached to the vehicles.
All this sounds great, right? Well, yes and no, depending on your usecase and industry.
Just like any newly emerging solution to an old problem, the benefits of beacons in the asset tracking space are far from applicable to everyone:
- Enough precision? If you have a large space filled with many small items, the 5m precision (best case scenario) that beacons can offer you today will not be adequate. Right now, a potential solution to this is to use a sound or light signal from the BLE device to guide you to the right asset when you are within those 5 meters.
- Cost-effectiveness? If you compare beacons to barcodes, especially for smaller item tracking use cases, barcodes are a clear winner in terms of price at first glance. However, if you put into the picture the cost of losing and misplacing items due to human error, things can look different.
- No dedicated readers: a huge value of BLE is that every smartphone comes with the capacity to read and register the Bluetooth signal. However, if you can’t use devices already available within your factory or warehouse’s location, this benefit is lost.
- Automatic scan & position update: in case you have smartphones or tablets at key locations or factory staff moving assets around, the asset location information in your system will always be fresh. However, if you rely on machines to move assets, this advantage would not be relevant to you.
So what industries and use cases are beacons good for?
Only time will show where beacons will prove to be most useful. However, it’s clear that at this stage they are best suited for IT, Supply Chain and Warehouse Managers in manufacturing and warehousing, who need to track bulky and expensive inventory and equipment. Some examples based on the market interest we see at Onyx Beacon include:
- Vehicle dealership & warehousing: on-time shipment & lower operational costs by allowing staff to quickly locate the vehicle that they need to ship to a specific customer within indoor and outdoor parking lots with cars, forklifts, trucks, golf-carts, etc.
- Heavy machine building & aerospace: minimized labour costs and production delays by allowing staff to quickly locate expensive inventory that needs to go into heavy machine and aircraft production.
- Coils and other rolled materials manufacturing: higher throughput rate by allowing staff to find the piece of inventory they need in order to prepare a customer order. (coils, rolled roofing materials etc.)
- Pallets warehousing: less write-offs and overstocking by making sure that pallets are not misplaced and lost & always having an overview of where they are and where they were was last seen.
- Manufacturing maintenance services: better operational availability & less bottlenecks by allowing manufacturing and maintenance staff to quickly find the expensive tool/equipment they need, so that it never stays idle or stops production.
Are beacons enough?
OK, the technology is available, but logistics and supply chain professionals don’t need beacons – they are looking for solutions. Customers come to us with specific requirements for how the whole system should work within their business context, and beacons are just a part of it.
They are looking for a reliable partner with expertise in the Beacons space that can provide them with everything they need – the beacons, the mobile apps, the cloud platform or virtual appliance, advice, support, customization, installation, integration and anything else needed to get the system up and running and delivering its value.
Our Tracko RTLS & asset tracking solutions are based on this principle. We provide a basic platform that makes it easy for you to test BLE technology at your premises immediately. However, this is just the beginning – once you’ve validated the value of using beacons in solving your asset tracking challenge, you get a partner who will listen to your needs and make sure you get the complete solution you need.
It’s hard to tell what the future holds for beacon technology in warehouse and logistics. Logistics and manufacturing professionals show a high demand for beacons even at this early stage due to the shortcomings of existing technology, so there is a high chance that beacons are here to stay in asset tracking.
As the market ripens, we can expect more and more functionality to become available out of the box, for solving asset tracking challenges in specific logistics & manufacturing niches and use cases. We will also probably see interesting combinations with existing RTLS technologies, as well as integrations with WMS, ERP, EAM and other systems currently used in manufacturing and logistics.
With more and more sensors on the beacons’ hardware and better and better locating precision, beacon-based RTLS systems will bring efficiency and peace of mind to professionals in market segments that currently don’t see the value in beacon technology.
At Onyx Beacon, we believe that beacons are a step towards a future where assets will track themselves and tell you where they are just like a human can. And together with our partners, we will do our part to get there faster.