Recent ARC Advisory Group market research on real-time location systems (RTLS) reveals the need for accurate, reliable, real-time asset tracking in industrial environments. Industry trends, such as increased automation, digitalization, Industry 4.0, and the Industrial Internet of Things (IoT), further exacerbate this need.
Many users are finding that their current location tracking solutions aren’t quite up to today’s challenges and use cases. In response, sup-pliers have been developing and rolling out innovative new real-time location tracking solutions. These include platforms that both insulate users from technology change and allow them to better manage a mix of technologies.
Real-time Location Systems
A real-time location system provides information about the location of assets, objects, vehicles, and goods. A system comprises tags or beacons that are physically attached to the object, receivers and gateways to detect the signals, and a software location engine. The systems use the location information of assets/equipment to improve asset utilization and efficiency. When tracking people, location information improves safety and event response. Tags are attached to mobile equipment. Readers receive signals from the tags and use them to determine the tag location. Depending on the technology, location accuracy varies from about 10 centimeters to 30 meters or beyond. The systems are configured to update location information as often as the end use application requires – ranging from seconds to minutes or hours.
User Challenges and Available Location Tracking Technologies
Primary goals of most industrial users are to track inventory; spare parts; other maintenance, repair, and operations (MRO) supplies; production equipment; and indoor vehicles in production areas. It’s also important to be able to understand the physical location of assets and minimize unplanned activities. These apply regardless of whether the environment is a manufacturing/shop floor and/or a warehouse. Time spent searching for these assets can lead to expensive delays and results in unnecessary downtime and misuse of the workforce.
While locating, tracking, and optimizing assets and manufacturing processes is a key challenge for most industrial users, it’s also important to be able to share reliable and accurate location data of assets with the right people and applications at the right time. Some of the major real-time asset tracking system technologies available today include Bluetooth low energy (BLE), radio frequency identification (RFID), ultra-wideband (UWB), Wi-Fi, chirp spread spectrum (CSS), and ultrasound technologies. These provide users with a lot of flexibility on what, where, and how to track. Users can set up policies to track specific items sent into and out of an inventory location and track assets in real time to within one-meter accuracy.
Real-time Asset Tracking Contributes to Operational Excellence
Although the manufacturing sector is generally cautious and slow in investing in these types of technologies, the potential benefits here are compelling. Accurate and reliable real-time asset location tracking can help improve the efficiency of many manufacturing processes.
In manufacturing, accurate location data is one of the cornerstones of a fully automated supply chain. The most common tracking examples and emerging trends in manufacturing are tracking work-in-progress (WIP), forklifts, pallets, containers, and manufactured parts; and tracking people and their proximity to assets to improve productivity and safety. ARC research indicates that numerous new use cases for the technology are emerging, many associated with Industrial IoT.
End users are utilizing previously stranded asset data from new tags built with low-cost, internet-connected sensors mounted directly on mobile equipment and machines. In conjunction, advanced analytics software can help detect, identify, and avoid performance degradation or asset failures. ARC research indicates that users employing this technology realize improved asset utilization and availability, improved safety, reduced MRO spend, improved return on assets, and improved operational performance.
Major RTLS Applications and Industry Trends
Key applications for real-time asset tracking systems include container management in logistics and materials management in manufacturing. This includes tracking pallets, goods, floor conveyors, tools and toolboxes, indoor navigation, tugger trains, and positioning overhead cranes. Currently, automotive, aerospace & defense, and logistics, are key industries for the technologies, with an expanding number and variety of use cases in these and other industries emerging.
Generally, the automotive industry is highly advanced in the adoption of state-of-the-art automation and enterprise IT technologies. Not surprisingly, location technologies have made significant forays into this industry. Tracking materials and parts to machining, assembly, and distribution is the key challenge that motivates automotive manufacturers to adopt real-time location system technologies.
In the aerospace & defense industry, key applications include tracking tools, tool configuration settings based on tool location, foreign object damage (FOD) detection, and tracking components.
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Keywords: Real-time Location Systems (RTLS), Locating Technologies, RFID, UWB, BLE, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, Indoor Tracking, Asset Tracking, Industrial IoT, ARC Advisory Group.