Magazine Article | June 22, 2006

New Industries Evaluate Asset Tracking

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

Wi-Fi-based asset tracking solutions have solid traction in healthcare facilities. Industries such as manufacturing and distribution are only now considering the benefits.

Integrated Solutions, July 2006

Widespread RFID (radio frequency identification) adoption throughout enterprises faces many hurdles. Some are small and easily cleared. Others, however, are much more challenging obstacles. RFID infrastructure, for instance, falls into that latter category. Moving forward with an RFID deployment requires a significant investment in new infrastructure, ranging from various iterations of RFID readers to antennas to middleware. All of these items carry a price tag and will impact an enterprise’s current infrastructure. Then, of course, there is the issue of justifying the expense. (Return on investment remains one of the most imposing barriers to RFID adoption.)

Removing these daunting obstacles – infrastructure costs and lack of return on investment – would go a long way to propel widespread RFID adoption. It’s precisely for these reasons that enterprises have a growing interest in managing assets via Wi-Fi-based tags. In this scenario, Wi-Fi-based tags are used to track high-value assets and even personnel. The tags communicate through a company’s Wi-Fi network, which is already in place as a key component of enterprise infrastructure. With the infrastructure costs substantially mitigated, the return-on-investment case for Wi-Fi-based tags and supporting software is much easier to make.

At this point, the healthcare industry is the main market leveraging this asset tracking technology. There are many reasons the technology has received a lot of interest from hospitals in particular. In addition to having Wi-Fi networks already installed and the need to track high-value assets, these enterprises also have to deal with regulatory and liability issues. These factors make healthcare a natural fit for Wi-Fi-based tracking systems. However, manufacturing and distribution companies face many of the same asset tracking issues and have Wi-Fi infrastructures in place. These necessities, and a growing knowledge of RFID technology, are leading manufacturing and distribution companies to evaluate these asset tracking solutions.

To put the potential of this technology in perspective, research company In-Stat reports that less than 50,000 Wi-Fi-based tags were deployed in 2005. Yet, the firm projects that nearly 2 million such tags will be shipped by 2010. With that type of projected growth rate, it’s clear the technology makes a compelling case.

The prospect of potentially thousands of Wi-Fi-based tags communicating over a company’s wireless network is sure to raise the eyebrows of an IT department. Practically speaking, however, the tags communicate only sporadically through the network. In most cases, the tags are programmed to only “announce” themselves when the tagged object is actually moved. Once an object is at rest, the location is recorded and the tag essentially remains in “sleep” mode until movement is detected. “The network traffic generated by these tags is imperceptible. It’s really a nonissue,” says Mike Braatz, vice president of marketing for PanGo Networks. “All of the tags aren’t transmitting simultaneously. Instead they act more as beacons, just communicating when motion is detected.”

Still, system administrators may be inclined to take the use case to the extreme to determine the effect on their Wi-Fi networks. Suppose a thousand tags were deployed in an enterprise and all communicated simultaneously – a practical improbability – would that impact the network? According to Tuomo Rutanen, vice president of business development at Ekahau, even this level of tag traffic would have no effect on network performance. “At any given time, 95% to 98% of the tags are in sleep mode. In the unlikely event that all tags did communicate at once over the network, it would essentially go unnoticed.” In addition to the small amount of data transmitted by the tags, Rutanen points out that the tags are also engineered to interact with the network in the least obtrusive manner.

The Wi-Fi-based tags employed in these asset tracking applications continue to evolve. New developments (based largely on technology from integrated chipset provider G2 Microsystems) will help drive down the current cost of tags and also increase the battery life that powers the tags. Additionally, these new tags will provide increased functionality such as environmental sensing.

In terms of cost, the tags range in price from $40 to $150 per tag. Generally, the average cost of a Wi-Fi-based tag is about $60. “On the real high end [more than $100 per tag], these tags would be custom in design and functionality. Most tags are far less expensive,” adds Rutanen. G2 Microsystems claims that its new System-on-a-Chip technology (which will be employed by asset tracking solution providers such as PanGo Networks and Ekahau) can result in a significant reduction in total cost of ownership. Tags based on this new technology will be available in 2006 from supporting vendors.

Today’s Wi-Fi tags are engineered to optimize both performance and battery life. Still, battery life on the tags remains a concern for users. “Currently, battery life on the tags ranges from 6 to 18 months. The wide range is a result of how often the tags actually communicate with the network. Tags that are in motion more often will have a shorter battery life than those that sit dormant for long periods,” explains Braatz. Rutanen’s assessment of battery life is similar (six to nine months), but he says that Ekahau has been able to significantly increase a battery’s life span in certain circumstances. “In some cases, particularly with medical equipment, we have been able to connect the tag to the equipment’s power source and trickle charge the tag. This not only extends battery life indefinitely, it allows us to monitor the utilization of a given piece of equipment,” states Rutanen.

The next generation of Wi-Fi-based tags will increase battery life on a huge scale. Instead of the current 6- to 18-month battery life, users can expect the new ultra-low-power-consumption tags to have a battery life of three to five years. In terms of battery life, that’s a potential ten-fold improvement.

Regardless of battery life and increased performance, the cost of the tags still means that only high-value assets will be tracked. Lately, however, the definition of “high-value assets” has been expanded as other industries consider the technology. In a hospital, for instance, tracking a piece of medical equipment worth tens of thousands of dollars makes a lot of sense. In addition to increasing asset utilization, hospitals can also decrease equipment rentals and the practice of “hoarding” what is typically hard-to-find equipment.

Manufacturing companies face similar challenges as hospitals in terms of tracking high-cost assets. In maintenance and repair depots, for example, locating a particular tool or part can determine how quickly equipment or vehicles return to the field. Manufacturers working in a JIT (just-in-time) environment also face the challenge of knowing where critical assets are at all time. “The item that’s being tagged typically has a high-dollar value. But, it doesn’t always have to be based on the monetary value of the item,” says Braatz. “Items that have a high intrinsic value or are critical components within a workflow process might need to be tagged. If misplacing a relatively low-cost item can slow or shut down an operation, then tagging it may make a lot of sense.”

In addition to tracking equipment and supplies, some industries are evaluating the tagging technology for tracking the location of their employees. Tracking personnel, of course, raises a lot of issues around the “big brother” concept. In some cases, however, employees might embrace the tracking technology. “No one is interested in knowing how long an employee spent in the break room,” relays Rutanen. “But there are regulatory issues around how much time employees can spend around hazardous materials. Employees benefit greatly by tracking their locations in that instance,” says Rutanen. He also cites mine workers as another example of employees whose safety and welfare would be improved through tracking technology.

Few technologies can be deployed without a good use case and solid return-on-investment projections. The growth of the asset tracking market is based on both criteria. The technology offers enterprises a  return on investment on better management of high-value assets. And, these enterprises have responded by increasing the number and types of use cases.