New Insight: Development and Deployment of Real-Time Location Systems are Starting to Move Fast
While RFID is rising to the top of the “track-and-trace” pack, it’s far from the only technology option. Sometimes, it’s not even the best option. This is what you need to know.
In public safety, you hear the term “situational awareness” used quite often. Police, firefighters and military members are trained to know the location of people and assets at all times. They’re given technologies that significantly enhance their visibility of their surroundings. That’s because situational awareness is critical in defining the next-best action, enhancing proactive decision making and achieving desired outcomes safely and efficiently.
Like public safety professionals, those who work in manufacturing, warehousing, farm to table, transportation, logistics, retail and healthcare can all benefit from situational awareness. This includes athletes and field service technicians. However, they need a certain level of “location awareness” as it relates to critical assets in order to maintain the full situational awareness required to act fast when opportunities or issues arise.
For example, hospital staff need to be able to locate patient testing equipment such as drug infusion pumps and EKG machines within seconds during emergency triage situations, and IT teams need to be able to track equipment in server vaults and system operations control rooms to eliminate the risk of lost or misplaced equipment and identify immediately when equipment has been stolen or breached.
That is why Zebra continues to aggressively innovate around real-time location systems, or RTLS.
(Editor’s Note: Gartner recently named Zebra Technologies a Leader in the *2020 Magic Quadrant for Indoor Location Services, Global. We have also been recognized as a Visionary for each of the two prior years of this report You can download a complimentary copy of the latest full Gartner report here until December 31, 2020.)
Data Becomes Most Valuable When It Is Viewable – and Actionable – In Real Time
Many organizations have been eager to increase the speed and agility of both individuals and teams to keep up with customer demand without compromising quality or safety for quite some time. In fact, retailers, warehouse operators, manufacturers, healthcare providers and others have been exploring ways in which they can use real-time location systems based on radio frequency (RFID), Wi-Fi, Ultra-Wideband (UWB), Bluetooth Low Energy and similar technologies for a few years now, with an uptick in RFID adoption specifically acknowledged in Zebra’s 2019 Intelligent Enterprise Index:
- Fifty-two (52) percent of organizations confirmed that they’re already using active RFID technology in some capacity. Another 34 percent plan to implement active RFID in the next few years.
- Thirty-seven (37) percent of respondents reported that they’re currently using passive RFID, with 53 percent planning to integrate it in the future.
That is because supply chain-dependent organizations have, for years, acknowledged the need to implement more sustainable business models amidst labor shortages, increasing SKUs and instant fulfillment expectations. Though supply chains’ resiliency and efficiency are certainly being tested amidst heightened demand resulting from the COVID-19 outbreak, it was actually the rise of e-commerce earlier this century that spurred the uptick in RTLS investments and led us to predict the growth of RFID-based RTLS in 2020 specifically.
To paraphrase something my colleague Chris Schaefer wrote last year:
No business can afford to lose control over valuable assets, and going on a goose chase to locate misplaced items simply wastes resources. But maintaining asset visibility 24/7/365 does more than improve one’s bottom line; it can mitigate hazardous incidents, reduce liabilities and help save lives.
In my opinion, that’s the top reason why real-time location solutions are really having a moment – and why they will become even more of an implementation priority in the coming months for many organizations. Of course, recent events have only made the necessity of location solutions more evident tor anyone who needs accurate, real-time visibility into inventory, assets and staff as they move throughout the supply chain, within a facility, in the field or even on the field.
With RTLS, You Can See Everything…Even When You Don’t Have a Line of Sight
If you already have a barcoding system in place to track inventory movement and cameras to track people and equipment, you may be wondering “why do I need RFID or UWB or Bluetooth Low Energy?”
The short answer is that more advanced technologies such as RFID make every asset, whether a person, piece of equipment or inventory part more visible, connected and optimally utilized across operations. You can “see” where something is located in near-real-time without having to send someone to lay eyes on it to confirm. Vertical industry experts speak about some of the specific benefits for healthcare, warehousing, retail and more in this video:
Even more, RTLS technologies enable you to actively scan for, track, trace and immediately locate multiple tagged items at once using array readers – something that’s not currently possible with barcode technology.
The Modern Retail Collective recently demonstrated the potential use case for RFID-based RTLS technology in retail stores, and many hospitals are now using RFID to quickly find equipment that’s constantly on the move, such as beds, wheelchairs and IV stands. RTLS solutions can also help with safety goals. For example, Buenos Aires-based healthcare network Sanatorio Finochietto is using UHF RFID technology to view the locations and status of 80,000 pieces of clothing and linens as they are used, laundered and returned to their hospital to prevent cross-contamination issues.
We’re also seeing many automotive manufacturers in EMEA, in particular, adopt RFID-based technologies in order to automate parts receiving, put away and picking processes. They’re asking hundreds of suppliers to add RFID labels to parts and pallets in order to reduce the burden on workers, increase supplier accountability and improve inventory management and product performance tracking capabilities.
Yet, unattended track-and-trace solutions aren’t the only way RFID technology can be applied. RFID labels and handheld RFID readers can essentially replace any barcode-based system used today to identify inventory and equipment, ensuring visibility across all supply chain nodes.
In fact, handheld RFID mobile computers that double as an inventory management tool and barcode-based mobile point-of-sale (POS) device continue to gain significant traction. Retailers are faced with the challenge of building a truly integrated shopping experience whereby the in-store, online and in-between (i.e. buy online, pickup in store) shopping experiences are seamlessly interconnected. They need complete visibility into and control over their inventory at all potential fulfillment sites, and giving store associates a single RFID-enabled device that enables them to complete new inventory intake or RFID tagging and assist with returns management or customer checkout can be critical to achieving their goals. Plus, RFID is one of the technologies that has proven to deliver up to 99 percent accuracy in inventory track and trace.
“When Many Become One”: How to Know Which RTLS Technologies Will Deliver the Best Return on Investment
Though I wish I could say that RFID reader X combined with RFID tag Y is the most effective track-and-trace solution for a specific workflow or industry, finding the right combination of location technologies for your needs just isn’t that cut and dry. If you look back at how “location awareness” technologies have evolved in recent years, you’ll notice two things:
1. The rapid engineering advancements of track-and-trace technologies
2. The expansion – or spread – of real-time location system portfolios by technology companies such as Zebra
Consider RFID: there are multiple flavors of passive and active sensors and technologies and a whole host of tagging and scanning solutions, each of which work in a different way to confirm the temperature or absolute location of the people, equipment and/or materials needed in order to complete a task or inform a decision at any given moment. There are even more variations of UWB, Bluetooth Low Energy, Wi-Fi and long-range sensing technologies engineered specifically to deliver up-to-the-minute digital views of your physical operations.
However, track and trace has become somewhat of a “team” sport over time, with companies such as Zebra working with customers and partners to tightly integrate together the right combination of location technologies for their individual business challenges and goals. Like many technology solutions today, there is no such thing as a “standard” RTLS architecture, mainly because each organization needs its location solution to yield a very specific type of asset intelligence or work within a very tailored workflow. There are also differences to consider in how indoor versus outdoor location solutions might work.
While passive RFID might be the best technology platform for IT asset tracking or high-value tool and equipment tracking – scenarios where you want to improve utilization and keep inventory and replacement costs down – it is very possible that a Wi-Fi-based RTLS would be recommended for medical equipment management. UWB or WhereNet, both of which track active tags, might be the most effective technologies for tracking materials, production line progress and even people – anything constantly on the move. Then again, Bluetooth Low Energy might be recommended for people-tracking depending on the scenario (i.e. following shoppers in store via their smartphones, maintaining social and/or working distance standards and so on).
That being said, even drilling down to a specific industry or workflow doesn’t allow for us to recommend a “standard” RTLS solution. For example, a warehouse operator might need to utilize a combination of UWB and passive RFID to track forklifts and pallets while another warehouse operator finds that integrating both active and passive RFID technologies will enable workers to find freight faster and improve forklift utilization. And both of those warehouse operators may opt to utilize passive RFID tags, mobile readers and fixed readers to track IT assets used within their operations.
There are also several emerging use cases for real-time location solutions outside the industrial sectors that have traditionally embraced them. The NFL is certainly one: it uses active RFID to analyze athletes’ performances, improve training and optimize game strategies. But fleet managers in the utility, energy, public safety and transportation sectors are also finding RTLS increasingly valuable to the tracking, measurement and management of vehicle performance.
Then there’s the location engine, which typically uses multiple algorithms and technologies to provide an accurate and centralized view of location technologies such as beacons, sensors and receivers. Given how many different types of location technologies may be implemented in a single solution, not all location engines may be the right fit. The Zebra MotionWorks Enterprise platform, for example, can be deployed on-premises or in the cloud and is sold on a solution-quote basis, based on the size and capacity of the total RTLS solution. This is where discovery workshop sessions prove extremely valuable.
Once the RTLS solution provider understands the level of performance and accuracy you need, it will be easy to recommend the combination of technologies that will deliver the strongest return on investment (ROI). In fact, failing to conduct a cost-benefit analysis is one of the most common mistakes made by companies seeking to improve track-and-trace capabilities.
Don’t Lose Sight of the Big Picture or Get Too Focused on Costs vs. Benefits
There are six common mistakes made by organizations when deploying location solutions for the first time:
1. Picking an RTLS technology for the wrong reasons: In some instances, we’ve seen organizations opt for RFID because it is very accurate, even though they won’t secure an ROI because the cost is too high given their smaller size/volume. On the flipside, we’ve seen organizations select location solutions that are less expensive because they were driven solely by cost and failed to consider the total benefits – or lack thereof – for their use cases. This is why we always recommend that you conduct a cost-benefit analysis with the assistance of RTLS experts who understand the potential benefits and ROI and have demonstrated success (or failure) of certain location technologies in similar scenarios.
2. Being unprepared to “act” on the data generated by RTLS: Yes, location technologies provide real-time visibility into your operations, and that has value. But the true purpose of RTLS is to deliver actionable enterprise intelligence to decision makers and front-line workers. If you do not have processes in place to help them act on the data generated by RTLS before it “expires” then you will fail to gain any real benefit from your investment.
3. Not prioritizing change management: New technologies and processes aren’t disruptive by default. They only become disruptive when organizations fail to prioritize change management. RTLS is no exception. It is imperative that you involve end users in the implementation from the beginning and dedicate extensive resources to education and training. Don’t wait until the solution is deployed and it’s too late to make changes, either. Let end users participate in the pilot and solicit frequent feedback to ensure things are working the way you – and they – need them to work to achieve desired outcomes.
4. Forgetting that RTLS is a living, breathing technology solution: You won’t procure or implement location solutions the same way you procure or implement mobility solutions – or any other type of technology. Make sure that all of your stakeholders – leadership, IT, procurement and front-line workforce – understand the full procure-to-play process. There is a lot that will go into selecting the solution, soliciting input during refinement periods and sustaining its performance long term. It has to grow with your business and workflows.
5. Failing to measure ROI during the initial pilot phase – How will you know if the RTLS is working as it should or if adjustments are needed if you don’t measure immediate ROI? Though the short-term results may not fully reflect the long-term potential, they will at least flag any major issues before you scale beyond the point of return. Pilot performance metrics also establish a baseline that help you identify potential issues as you do scale. If you were enjoying a 99 percent accuracy rate during the pilot and that drops to 75 percent as implementation broadens, it will allow you to pause immediately to assess potential issues hindering solution performance. Were the processes not re-engineered well enough to support full implementation?
6. Neglecting to assign a “champion” to spearhead the project from day one: Given how many different functions will need to be brought into the fold at some point in your RTLS procurement, testing and deployment processes, it is critical that you identify one person to run point and drive internal participation. Someone needs to sift through all of the internal stakeholder feedback to make a cohesive recommendation on strategy, tactics, etc. and then drive the coordinated effort from start to finish.
The best way to avert these mistakes and maximize the ROI of RTLS is to find your external “champion” before you do anything else. Having a trusted third-party solution provider in your corner will ensure that you:
- Have a clear understanding of your workflow and define expectations for improvement via RTLS.
- Select the right RTLS technology and system components per your cost-benefit analysis, including the right type of fixed and/or mobile readers, printers and sensors you will need. It will also ensure you don’t forget to budget for things such as professional services and that you choose the right thermal label and inlay for printing RFID tags if you go that route. (Just like barcodes, you need high-quality RFID tags that will remain readable in a multitude of conditions and when affixed to certain materials, such as metal. That’s something often overlooked.)
- Have the right workflow-specific software tools and applications in place to analyze and redistribute the RFID-captured data in an actionable way.
- Have the right processes and Internet of Things (IoT) solutions deployed at the edge to ensure your front-line workers and/or intelligent automation solutions, such as co-bots, are empowered to act immediately.
You can learn more about the various real-time location systems available today here, or contact my team to discuss your particular needs and how RTLS may be beneficial.
*Gartner, Magic Quadrant for Indoor Location Services, Global, 13 January 2020, Tim Zimmerman, Annette Zimmermann
Gartner does not endorse any vendor, product or service depicted in its research publications, and does not advise technology users to select only those vendors with the highest ratings or other designation. Gartner research publications consist of the opinions of Gartner’s research organization and should not be construed as statements of fact. Gartner disclaims all warranties, expressed or implied, with respect to this research, including any warranties of merchantability or fitness for a particular purpose.
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