Intelligent Assets – Asset Tracking All Grown Up by Aaron Allsbrook

June 1, 2021

Asset tracking has become quite the category.  We live in a day and age where we all have phones in our pockets, watches on our wrists, and buds in our ears that are all connected and tracking us in some way shape or form. Tracking an asset sounds simple, but a google search quickly reveals Asset Tracking is not so easily defined or simple to figure out.  The results quickly take you down rabbit holes of protocols and form factors you never expected.


Asset Tracking Device Decision Points

When you start looking into Asset Tracking there are a lot of questions that come to mind.  First, are you tracking indoors or outdoors?  The difference here is that you might need an outdoor GPS coordinate vs some sort of indoor x,y,z coordinate that maps to a conference room or a warehouse shelf.  If you’re outdoors, how will the GPS coordinate be gathered and sent back to you?  Maybe it’s a simple triangulation from cell phone towers that’s usually accurate within several miles or maybe it’s calculated via a set of constellations from the US, EU, China, and Russia.  Once you have the location, how will you send the data back to your dashboard – cellular, wifi, or satellite are all popular.  For an indoor tracking solution you have questions like how accurate do you need to be, are you allowed to install antennas? Your drive solutions may be BLE, RFID, or UWB based.  It’s overwhelming already and we have just started.


Next up is how will you get power to this tracker?  Non-powered trackers use batteries that must be replaced or use innovative technologies like solar or vibration harvesting.  Powered trackers have to be plugged into a power source which works well for a locomotive that runs most of the time vs a suitcase that moves through airport security.  


Overwhelmed as we are, there is another layer of questions around how much data do you need to actually be valuable.  While only sending back a position once a day may be very cost efficient, it’s useless for preventing theft or finding the tool you need mid shift.  Each data point takes a little more battery, has network cost, and then must be stored.  To optimize this process some devices can be configured to only send when accelerometers are tripped or when temperature thresholds are hit.  


The Device is Just the Start

Despite many finding just the right tracker for the problem they have, this represents only the start of a tracking solution journey.  Other points of data are needed to solve business problems.  Tracking a shipment is useless if it’s not integrated into the CRM and order management systems to be able to show that customer where their shipment is and when it will arrive.  Tracking emergency service workers is far more valuable if the data about the skills of those workers is integrated directly into the rules for selecting and notifying the best match person.  Data scientists realize that the tracking data can help them better understand how tools are used or when equipment might fail.  Of course how does a user know when something meaningful has happened to a tracked asset? That’s done with rules and alerts that might need to work with Slack, Teams, or even Zoom.  These integrations with the business become a critical part of what started as an innocent request to track a piece of equipment.  


As you go through the effort of putting your trackers in place, small questions arise like could this device also know the temperature, could it tell me if someone is within 5 feet of it, could it let us know if it’s fallen down, will it let us know if it’s wet?  Hundreds of “nice-to-haves” appear, making every earlier question about selecting the device all that much harder.  Asset Tracking suddenly expanded into the realm of monitoring.  But monitoring isn’t the end. As everyone knows, once we have identified that a machine in the construction yard is overheating there is the immediate request to just shut it off.  The system already knows everything else, why can’t control be added to part of the automation.  Digital output ports are suddenly needed for integration with unknown brownfield hardware and devices.  So now the simple Asset Tracking experiment has turned into a full blown tracking monitoring & command and control.  

Single Point Solutions Don’t Cut It

A google search no doubt returns many results of solutions that are perfect for tracking your car keys or tracking items in your warehouse.  They come neatly bundled with a piece of hardware and an app for your phone that does one thing very well.  The problem of tracking your keys is well thought out and exactly what you need, provided only if you want to know where you left your keys and having a dedicated app for that is all you want.  Adding new device types, innovating protocols, or alerting via any way other than in-app notifications is impossible.  Other search results provide major system integrators.  All of them have built the world’s largest bespoke systems for the biggest companies to asset track, each time from the ground up.  This fresh start each time represents a huge capital investment in a system that will be under constant attack from fresh innovation.  Lastly, you’ll find many best of breed devices.  These devices in many cases will be just the thing you need for portions of your problems.  Powered in some cases, non powered in others, highly specific points, or additional sensors for data enrichment.  These manufacturers are amazing but you need multiple to help solve your bigger enterprise solution.  


The conclusion is – point solutions are just another dashboard in our complex lives that only do one thing, integrators drive the cost up such that we can never get our ROI before its end of life, and device manufactures solve only a portion of the problem we have.


Intelligent Assets brings it all together

The answer to this challenge has emerged in the overall ecosystem.  Major vendors like IBM and Rockwell Automation show up along with ClearBlade when searching for Intelligent Asset market solutions. Intelligent Assets represents the clearing house for all the tracking needs.  The ability to start with a working application that has a flexible interface for many use cases.  This flexibility does not require a system integrator to start from the ground up but instead lets the business work on the problem in a basic configuration environment.  Intelligent Assets recognizes that your journey with tracking will take you into monitoring and control and is already designed to provide the rich monitoring needs for alerts and the user interfaces for controlling your machines remotely.  The Intelligent Assets application also recognizes that this data that’s gathered will be critical on a broader business scale, ready to integrate into how your business chats, ready to fill data science with information to learn on, and ready to update the Asset Management systems already in place for process continuity.  Intelligent Assets is already thinking of how your tracking needs will lead to predictive algorithms that will require real-time inference, enriching your understanding and alerting you based on AI predictions.  Intelligent Assets represents the future of our Asset Tracking maturity path and combines the best of both worlds – the cost effectiveness of existing software and flexibility of a custom built solution.

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