Magazine Article | October 25, 2008

Effectively Track Your Largest Assets

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

Without identification and location technology, tracking large assets â€" such as heavy machinery and shipping containers â€" can be a resource-draining challenge.

Integrated Solutions, November 2008

Identification and tracking technologies seem extremely useful for small items that could easily be lost, stolen, or misplaced. However, 'small' is a relative term. On the floor of a manufacturing facility, a hand tool is a small item. In a 100,000-square-foot warehouse, a pallet is a small item. Now, consider a cargo shipping container or a piece of heavy equipment. There are environments where these items — relatively speaking — are small enough to require identification and tracking technologies.

At coastal ports, inland ports, and large-scale construction sites, a host of technology is applied to locate and identify these large assets. "There is no single technology or connectivity option that's going to give a company everything it wants to identify and locate its cargo," says Adam Crossno, vice president and general manager at SAVR Communications. "Satellite, cellular, Wi-Fi, and mesh networks can all be leveraged in one total solution. And, you'll also be incorporating RFID (radio frequency identification) sensors, and GPS technology. You really need to put all of these technologies on the table and consider each one."

There are typically two overriding factors that drive the decision to deploy identification and location technologies: Productivity and security. In that regard, it's a pretty straightforward proposition. Knowing the location and condition of these assets allows companies to streamline their processes. Additionally, this data can be used to ensure that the asset is secure at any given point in time.

Picture a large-scale construction site such as building a nuclear reactor. Large component parts arrive throughout the construction process and are stored on-site until they are needed. As more parts arrive and are stored in open-air locations, locating specific parts — no matter how large — becomes time-consuming. Forklifts canvas the site as employees try to manually find the needed parts. To address this productivity issue, many construction companies now employ technologies like GPS or RFID. GPS technology can be used to locate the heavy equipment as it moves throughout the construction site. And, a geofence can be established to alert personnel when the equipment travels outside of a predetermined location. To locate and identify the parts and inventory as it is needed for construction, RFID plays a significant role. Active RFID tags can be applied to the inventory as it arrives on-site. And, lift trucks are outfitted with mobile RFID readers. The readers continuously identify tagged inventory as the trucks move throughout the open-air storage site. This data is used to guide drivers to specific part locations. Once the inventory is located and taken to the construction site, the tags are removed and placed on new, incoming inventory. "There's no infrastructure at the site to support an identification and location system. But, this mobility-based solution doesn't require a supporting infrastructure. Within days of deployment, all of the parts are identified and mapped," says Peter Linke, co-founder and executive vice president of sales and marketing at IDENTEC SOLUTIONS. "We're currently engaged in a large-scale construction project in Milwaukee that's using 30,000 active tags for this very purpose. It's all about productivity gains."

In a marine terminal port environment, identification and location technology is being deployed to ensure that a specific piece of equipment is moving a specific cargo container that will be transported to a specific location. Accuracy and efficiency are the key factors as facilities strive to improve overall productivity. RFID, for example, is used to identify and track trucks as they onload cargo shipments and leave the facility. Once a tag is affixed, the truck and the trucking company can be identified as the vehicle passes through the entrance and exit gates. In these deployments, the infrastructure costs can be mitigated because reads are only happening at the gates and not throughout the facility. A West Coast terminal is currently using 20,000 active tags, for example, to track trucks as they enter and exit the facility. "Marine terminals are also now leveraging GPS and sensor technologies to know the location of their heavy machinery and its current state," adds Robert Inchausti, senior director, product management for marine terminal operating systems at Zebra Enterprise Solutions. "The goal is to be as accurate and productive as possible, and these technologies provide data that allows users to make more informed decisions. Or, in many cases, the data is used by an enterprise system to make decisions for users." 

In addition to identifying and locating large assets, enterprises are also taking advantage of technologies that provide data about the asset's condition or environmental status. Sensors are currently being deployed in a range of applications. IDENTEC, for instance, has developed solutions that allow sensors to be embedded in concrete after it is poured. The sensors provide accurate temperature data, allowing forms to be removed and construction to continue with the least amount of delay. Additionally, the company has developed a solution for temperature monitoring in football helmets in an attempt to eliminate deaths due to overheating.

On the industrial side, sensors are used to track whether an asset was handled appropriately. "Sensors can be used to measure g-force loads that indicate how and when an asset was damaged in transit. So, the data can be used to assign responsibility," says Crossno. "But the same technology can be used to detect if a shipping container was opened, which provides a level of security."

Inchausti agrees that sensors are being used to measure environmental conditions. But, he says that it's just those conditions that pose the biggest challenge to deploying data gathering technologies. "The amount of shock and vibration that this equipment must withstand at a terminal is pretty amazing," explains Inchausti. "You see 30-ton containers being thrown around like toy blocks. That environment is really tough on hardware."
Still, these solutions are being deployed on large construction sites, marine terminals, and inland ports. It is a huge challenge to design solutions that withstand the effects of the most difficult environmental conditions. These challenges, however, are outweighed by the need of enterprises to more accurately locate and identify their largest assets.