Over the past decade, an explosion of new solutions has emerged to augment existing enterprise-wide asset tracking capabilities. While passive RFID (radio frequency identification) has been the status quo for equipment and inventory management, recent technological advancements have ushered in newer, more powerful asset tracking solutions.
Real-Time Location Systems (RTLS) is the umbrella term for solutions that use “active” and, typically, battery-powered equipment tags. Unlike passive RFID, which typically provides a snapshot in time—RTLS solutions can provide equipment location in real-time, as the name implies.
Therefore, enterprises should understand when and where an RTLS fits their business model versus passive RFID by considering the following questions while scoping and evaluating a potential solution.
- Is the inability to accurately locate assets in real-time impacting your budget?
Are you losing equipment and repurchasing unnecessarily as a result? Are your equipment calibration expenses skyrocketing? Are your employees walking around facilities to complete inventory audits manually? If you’ve answered yes to most or all of these questions, an RTLS solution can help. It can automate and identify where your assets are in real-time with a level of location accuracy down to a few meters for operational efficiency and lower asset spend.
- How much equipment needs tracking?
The quantity, size, workflow, and movement of assets within an enterprise that need tracking are vital in determining if an RTLS is suitable. The ability to manage a wide array of portable equipment at a massive scale while obtaining a level of location specificity can be a challenge when using manual processes typically found with passive RFID. As noted earlier, RFID provides an answer to the asset’s last-known location but not its current and real-time location which can be problematic when tens of thousands of assets need tracking.
- Where is the equipment located?
The size and location of where assets are tracked is another variable to consider. How many buildings do you have? How expansive is the area? What is a typical room size? Are the buildings co-located? Are there warehouses? Are there any areas with little to no connectivity? Advances in RTLS technologies allow for a more efficient and lower-cost deployment to provide visibility across large facilities and campuses.
Once enterprises have determined that RTLS is the more suitable option, decision-makers must identify the right technology for their solution.
RTLS Technology Comparison at a Glance
Estimated to grow to $12.7 billion by 2026, with a CAGR of 26.5%, the RTLS market comprises different underlying technologies, including Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), Wi-Fi, and Ultra-Wideband (UWB). Each of these technologies has its strengths and challenges, so selecting an RTLS solution is about determining requirements and picking the right technology to solve them.
A BLE-based RTLS is optimized to provide the lowest total cost of ownership (TCO) across tag costs, battery life, location accuracy, and wireless infrastructure. In a BLE architecture, small, battery-powered asset tags send a “beacon” to the location bridge (or locator), which captures the location data and backhauls it through a gateway, then outputs to an end application. These tags can also share sensor data (e.g., temperature, vibration, etc.), providing additional IoT solutions beyond asset tracking.
Ultra-wide Band (UWB) RTLS
In a UWB infrastructure, low-powered tags transmit data continuously to anchors within the tags’ proximity. That data gets sent to a central server, which then triangulates the precise location of that tag based on the timing of those transmissions. For this reason, UWB-based RTLS is considered the most accurate of RTLS options because of the mesh network infrastructure and transmission time methodology it uses to determine location data. UWB uses an extremely wide frequency band, allowing the signal to carry across a large spectrum. However, the accuracy is dependent on a high number of anchors, so it quickly becomes costly, and more so when you factor in relatively expensive tag costs.
In a Wi-Fi RTLS architecture, larger-sized, power-hungry tags transmit a Wi-Fi signal to multiple access points and employ a similar data transmission time approach as UWB to capture location data. The tags send signals to receivers using the existing corporate Wi-Fi network infrastructure and then output the data location based on how long it takes to receive the signal. Because the network sits atop the existing corporate infrastructure, security concerns and complex installations are often inhibitors to deploying a Wi-Fi RTLS.
Passive RFID is an attractive option from a tag cost perspective. But its limitations—location accuracy in real-time and the cost and density of a wireless infrastructure—prevents it from being considered a robust alternative to RTLS. The infrastructure required to create “real-time” capabilities, including “chokepoints” to identify when an asset passes through an area and the use of wands requiring human resources to scan tags manually to determine an asset’s location, ultimately drives up costs. Passive RFID is a natural complement to other RFID technologies for tracking high volumes of lower-cost assets such as disposable inventory then utilizing RTLS technologies for more costly assets requiring more precise location visibility.
While the evaluation process seems arduous, enterprises will benefit greatly and achieve their asset tracking goals if they can identify a vendor who offers a BLE-based RTLS when:
- They need a high level of confidence in room accuracy:BLE-based solutions provide a sub-room level of accuracy to decrease operational burdens with minimal infrastructure investment.
- Asset lifetime spans several years: BLE-based RTLS supports longer battery life up to 10 years, minimizing operational costs associated with replacing tag batteries or retagging assets when batteries reach the end of life.
- There are numerous assets spread across a wide area: BLE solutions are optimal for tracking thousands of equipment across an expansive area whether concentrated in one specific location, or across several different buildings, warehouses, or rooms, especially when paired with complementary technologies like LoRaWAN, which boosts the range of data transmission. Numerous BLE tag form factors exist to address the multitude of trackable assets.
- Keeping costs low is a meaningful consideration: BLE tags’ ubiquity on the market and lower infrastructure and connectivity costs can make BLE solutions more cost-effective than alternate RTLS solutions.
There are many providers in the RTLS market, so additional considerations are worth weighing. For example, enterprises should seek a solution that lowers their total cost of ownership. MachineQ for Asset Management pairs BLE capabilities with an underlying LoRaWAN® network platform. This combination provides enterprises the added benefit of a dedicated, secure, and scalable IoT network to expand use cases—all with the same infrastructure investment. Therefore, it eliminates the need for dedicated point solutions when adding use cases such as leak detection, occupancy monitoring, or temperature tracking.
Additionally, MachineQ’s RTLS is an end-to-end offering inclusive of deployment services. Having a single partner for IoT hardware, software, connectivity, deployment services, and maintenance drastically simplifies the rollout of an RTLS by removing the burden from in-house IT/OT teams. As a result, enterprises are able to expedite their time to market.