Keeping tabs on people and possessions has been a longtime challenge for companies. New tools and technologies make the job easier.
You’ve probably misplaced your keys at one time or another. You may even have misplaced your car in a parking lot temporarily. On a personal level, that’s just inconvenient, but for businesses, it can be costly. Management needs a way to keep tabs on assets, whether they’re precious assets, like newborn babies in a hospital, or just very important, like computers in an office building or retail goods in a warehouse, in transit, or on the shelves.
Companies have been grappling with this challenge for as long as they have had assets, but today they have many more options thanks to technology. In fact, helping companies track assets is a multibillion dollar industry, the capabilities of which are continuously evolving.
Bar codes are among the more traditional and cost-effective solutions. They have been around for decades, but they have evolved over the years and are now more sophisticated. There are several different types of bar codes to choose from, says Kelly Harris, director of program management at Barcoding Inc. There are tamper-evident bar code labels that can show when someone has attempted to alter them. For example, Harris says that some look like chipped paint and crumble when a person tries to remove them. There are others that leave behind a checkerboard print when removed. With these systems, someone must scan a bar code label to get the tracking data.
There are companies that are concerned about tracking traditional fixed assets, such as computer equipment, says Harris. And there are rental scenarios, “where you’re going to have an inventory of assets that you’re going to loan to a client, bill them for the rental, and then bring that back into inventory. And being able to know where all those are and how long they’ve been there is vital to that rental business,” says Harris.
Harris says that while companies have automated the tracking of fixed assets for years, she’s seeing it branch out even more to places [it had slower adoption], such as those rental businesses.
While bar codes have to be manually scanned, radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology uses radio-frequency electromagnetic waves to transfer the information wirelessly. There are various types of RFID.
One type is passive RFID tags, which are not battery powered, so they must be within 20 feet of a reader. But because they are not externally powered, these tend to be relatively inexpensive tags.
“Passive RFID are tags that require an external stimulus in order to be read. So it’s a chip with an antenna. And when you apply a radio signal to that label, you get what they call the backscatter, or a reflection, off that signal, and then you read that reflection and that’s how the passive RFID is read,” says Zahir Abji, president and CEO of Guard RFID Solutions. It’s inexpensive, he adds, running from several cents to several dollars for a tag or label. You’ll often see passive RFID tags on retail items.
Active RFID can be four to five times as expensive as passive RFID, says Richard Jenkins, vice president of marketing and strategic partnerships at RF Code, which specializes in active RFID. But despite the cost, he notes that several large companies, such as Bank of America and Thomson Reuters, started out with passive RFID and then switched to the active technology because it suited their needs better.
For example, passive RFID doesn’t do as well in a metal-dominated environment like a data center, because the RF waves bounce off the metal. “They are either not read well or not read at all,” says Jenkins.
Active RFID tags use batteries for power and to broadcast information via radio waves to readers in real time. “So any time one of our tags is in motion, it’s traveling every 10 seconds to a network of receivers, which then broadcast the location of that particular piece of equipment to the potential head end,” says Mohsen Hekmatyar, of Elpas (a division of Tyco), another company that sells this type of product. By contrast, passive tags only tell the company where the asset was the last time the system saw it.
Companies set up their RFID systems in a variety of ways. Steve Pisciotta of Remote Tracking Systems says his company often implements its v-track RFID system in fixed sites like airports, seaports, and military bases. He explains how it works: “We set up a series of base receivers throughout a facility…. So we create a wireless infrastructure around that facility,” he says. Then when a person “with one of our tracking devices is driving and walking around, every second it’s sending out a message that says, this is the tracking ID and this is where I’m located.”
Pisciotta explains that the information then goes over the radio back to the base unit that is in the vicinity, which receives the message and sends it to one of the servers. Servers merge the data together, to be sent to a display system or a security system. “We’re just one piece of a large security system,” Pisciotta says.
The v-track system will often look like a smartphone, with a device embedded. It can include a panic button that can be depressed when in trouble and it can even detect a “man-down” scenario, Pisciotta says, and that will prompt an alert.
The active tags also work at much longer ranges than the passive tags. For example, Abji says that small tags that a hospital can put on at-risk patients, such as babies or the elderly, can be read up to 200 feet away, even through walls.
Uses. Companies can use active RFID tags to achieve a range of objectives. “Let’s say I’m a nurse, and I try to use a fusion pump, and it doesn’t work,” says Hekmatyar. “I can simply trip the button on the asset tag and that button press can generate an automatic message that goes to the biomedical technician saying that this particular infusion pump, located currently in this room with number, let’s say, 232, is out of order.”
The automated workflow not only takes that particular piece of equipment out of circulation, but it also broadcasts a message to the technician to come and repair it. Most importantly, it gives the exact location of that piece of equipment at that point in time, so the technician doesn’t have to look for it, Hekmatyar says.
Abji explains another approach. “Studies have found that if you were able to track both staff members and assets in healthcare especially…you would be able to potentially save a lot of cost by increasing their efficiency and the way they use the equipment and the way they go to the different rooms and the amount of time they spend on certain locations and so on.” He adds that there is pushback from staff who don’t want to be watched by “Big Brother,” but “once you really make the user understand what the consequences of being tagged are going to be, they’re very happy and actually accept that.”
Although RFID tags can store information, many companies are careful about how much information is stored on the tag for security and privacy reasons. Hekmatyar says, his company, for example, tries to limit information to the product tag number and the location of the tag, as well as other maintenance information, such as the tag’s battery level.
“Any other pertinent data that the facility wants can be entered in user-designable fields…that information is associated with that particular tag ID number, but it’s not necessarily stored in the tag,” he explains. It’s on a secure computer. “We can secure it using passwords and log-in IDs and so on, so that it’s not being exposed, it’s not being transmitted in air,” he says.
RFID tags can have other sensors and microprocessors to report motion, or temperature, or to sense light, for example. “Quite a few different kinds of sensors can be put in there,” says Abji.
Companies also use the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) cellular network tracking and satellite tracking, which enables tracking goods in transit virtually anywhere. “You can go international with those devices, as long as you have a SIM card that is valid in those regions,” says Pisciotta. He says his company has also deployed GSM trackers with panic buttons; some of the applications are for executives who are traveling and might not want to be tracked but can push a panic button and send a message back to the company’s monitor system, which will then turn on tracking.
The satellite network can theoretically be tracked anywhere the satellites reach, which is helpful in areas without cellular coverage. Pisciotta says that tags will sometimes have all three types of trackers in them—GSM, cellular, and RFID. There are also Global Positioning System (GPS) solutions. Some systems are real-time locater systems (RTLS), which add a continual tracking component to the tags. This is more costly and sometimes requires access to a network.
Pisciotta’s company pairs GPS with active RFID. The main components are the GPS and the long-range radios. As you’re moving, the GPS is always determining its location via the radios, but there’s an active RFID reader as well for tracking assets indoors. When the GPS signal is lost, the system switches over and uses the active RFID technology. It’s not as accurate as GPS, but will report generally on the asset’s vicinity, Pisciotta says.
Harris says real-time tracking makes sense in certain applications, such as in a hospital. Hospitals buy very expensive equipment that is continuously moved from patient room to patient room. “Many a time, they don’t know where all their stuff is, so then they’re putting in requisitions to buy more,” notes Harris. If they knew where all their equipment was and could locate it quickly, there would be actual return-on-investment to the bottom line, he says. Such real-time tracking systems are not as likely to pay for themselves in an office environment.
The tags have gotten smaller over the years, says Hekmatyar, as battery power has evolved and batteries have become smaller. “But the biggest factor has been acceptance. A few years ago, not too many people were considering asset tracking, whereas nowadays, we’re getting constant interest in that particular area.”
Abji says that performance is another issue. His company has focused on making tags work better among metal objects. “We wanted the tags to be such that they could be placed on heavy-metal objects without degrading the performance, also have a fast transaction of the tag, between the tag and the system. We can determine theoretically, for example, a thousand tags per second,” he says, “whereas old technology would potentially miss one or two because the transaction rate is very slow. And you can imagine that you may put tags on hundreds of items that are put on a skid and go through a warehouse door, for example. So it’s very necessary for us to have those [faster] types of transaction speeds,” Abji says.
Another trend in this arena is toward standardization, much like in other areas of security. Abji says his company has been involved in the development of a standard for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) which was released last year. This alleviates the concerns some companies might have when investing in proprietary technology. Such systems would become useless if the manufacturer went out of business.
As a result of these improvements and other factors, such as the need for companies to comply with regulations like those stemming from Sarbanes-Oxley, RFID is being used more in places like data centers, says Jenkins. The RFID in data centers industry is expected to grow to nearly $1 billion by 2017, according to the site RFID 24-7.
In retail, by contrast, RFID has fallen short of initial expectations, but it still holds promise. Fifteen years ago, Walmart wanted all of its manufacturers to start using RFID tags to track merchandise, but even a company with that much clout couldn’t make it happen back then, notes Read Hayes, research scientist, Crime Prevention Research Team, at the University of Florida and director of the Loss Prevention Research Council (LPRC). And JCPenney is reportedly reversing its decision to try a switch to RFID that has been blamed for increased shrinkage, though the details on that are unknown at this point.
The main barrier to RFID adoption has been cost. For the system to really work, the RFID tags have to be on everything and the readers have to be everywhere—all over distribution centers, in trucks, in stores. Obviously, this is an expensive proposition.
But if such a system could be successfully and economically implemented, says Hayes, “you would actually know where all your stuff is.” The allure of that potential is strong, so all the retail chains are looking into RFID, he says.
Some are already starting to roll it out for expensive items or items at high risk of theft. Tyco ADT and Checkpoint Systems are two companies that already market such solutions. And Hayes says this will increasingly catch on in the market, but it’s hard to say whether that will be in one year, five years, or longer.
Part of the key to success is to find ways to more closely integrate tracking technology with other security technologies, like video surveillance, throughout the supply chain and in stores, says Hayes. That’s the focus of the LPRC’s RFID Center of Excellence. Hayes expects that the center will be “up and running” with some RFID innovation projects by June 2014. That will include live testing in stores or distribution centers. The center hopes to ultimately output best practices guidance to help stores implement solutions and get good return-on-investment metrics.
Asset tracking is an ever-growing field. “There’s a lot of R&D going on,” notes Hayes. And while most businesses may never get to a point where it is worth the cost for every asset to be tagged, RFID and other technologies are sure to be more pervasive in the future.
Laura Spadanuta was formerly a senior associate editor at Security Management.