A company’s assets are of little use if employees aren’t sure where they are, where they’ve been, or where they’re going.
The data collected from each asset’s daily activities, even if it remains fixed, is invaluable.
Asset tracking can help immensely when it comes to:
- efficiency in central supply management
- reducing loss and petty theft
- attending to preventative maintenance
This post will discuss the methods and trends of asset tracking and provide a history of the practice. A discussion of each method will help you decide which is right for your company.
In this article...
Short History of Asset Tracking Methods
Asset tracking is as old as the written language. Evidence of trade within and between civilizations helped anthropologists track the intercultural flow of influence, development of economic systems, and spread of social contact.
While pen and paper methods became increasingly organized and much more efficient with the invention of RFID technology, typewriters, and word processors, it wasn’t until the advent of barcodes that asset tracking became a familiar technology to consumers as well as distributors and retailers.
In the 1980s, the arrival of desktop computers became essential for effective asset tracking, an advancement that was further refined by the development of QR codes, Bluetooth, and dedicated software for enterprise resource planning.
The recent development of GPS and smartphones revolutionized asset tracking yet again.
Now, we will analyze various asset tracking methods available today.
Tracking Assets with Pen and Paper
Indications of ancient Egyptians using papyrus to keep business and court records stretch back to 4,000 BC. Other civilizations used tablets or metal objects to take inventory of goods.
We know a great deal about the ancient Greek and Roman empires partially from the careful records they kept of daily business transactions.
The reliability of pen and paper as an asset tracking system is still reflected today.
In a pinch, if a cell phone is low on power or a QR tag is obstructed by construction material, workers can still take out a pencil and notebook and make notations to enter into a system later.
Pen and paper aren’t entirely left behind, and probably never will be.
Pros of Pen and Paper Asset Tracking Method:
- Can be used virtually anywhere
- No special equipment needed
- Extensive training not necessary
- Devices quickly replenished
- Unique identifiers possible
- Works without electrical charge or battery
- Information transfer to data systems is possible with manual entry
- Possible to pass information in-house without electronic interference
Cons of Pen and Paper as Asset Tracking Device:
- Mistakes easily made transferring data via manual entry
- Information is easily lost or accidentally destroyed in fire, natural disaster, etc
- Handwriting may be misread
- Information is not automatically dated
- Assigning unique identifiers can be difficult
- Paper information can pass into competitor’s hands
- Difficult to standardize across companies and industries
- Labor intensive
- GPS tracking is not encoded
While pen and paper can be a good substitute for other asset tracking methods, it’s proneness to errors make it less ideal as a company-wide solution, especially in big companies that operate in different locations.
Tracking Assets with Spreadsheets
When computers took up an entire room, using them to track assets or generate other business documentation didn’t seem feasible. However, the arrival of the microchip made home and office computing possible.
It was the first major revolution of asset tracking since the widespread use of typewriters.
For some time, desktop computers seemed the pinnacle of business technology.
Spreadsheet software, once basic and stored on floppy disks, gave way to the more sophisticated and integrated Office suite of offerings from Microsoft.
In addition to word processing capabilities, Microsoft and other software companies unleashed a wealth of possibilities in asset management.
Templates encouraged employees to standardize and update information. However, QR codes and smartphones are quickly rendering spreadsheets obsolete.
Pros of Spreadsheets as Asset Tracking Method:
- Easily shared across company or organization platform
- Can be saved on physical media or in cloud
- Cheaper than scanning technology
- Allows multiple editors and access
Cons of Spreadsheets as Asset Tracking Method:
- Impossible to anchor to individual items in the manner of barcodes and QR codes
- Labor intensive
- Analysis of data is limited
- Data is vulnerable to hacking and screen security breaches
- Multiple users can lead to errors and confusion
- Data errors possible and difficult to pinpoint
- Hardware crash, software failure, natural disaster, electrical failure, or a virus can wipe out data
- May require subscription cloud storage
- Requires manual updating
- Difficult to use on smartphone or tablet
Barcodes Asset Tracking
Barcodes, invented by Bernard Silver and inspired by Morse code, were patented in 1952. However, the technology to put such a concept into commercial practice did not yet exist.
The rail industry began testing an early form of bar codes to track railcars in 1961.
Although barcode scanning technology wasn’t ready for widespread retail use until 1972, by 1966, the market caught up with Bernard Silver’s concept when the National Association of Food Chains asked for proposals to form a Universal Product Code (UPC) to standardize products in the United States.
General Motors began using barcode scanning to monitor the movement of parts along a car assembly line in the late 1960s. The first UPC system was installed in a supermarket in 1974.
The more ubiquitous barcodes became, the more refined barcodes became.
Pros of Barcodes as Asset Tracking Device:
- Less expensive than other formats
- Worldwide standardization
- Faster than pen and paper
- More accurate than pen and paper
- Instantaneous updating of data
- Proven technology
- Ideal for companies and organization which do not require a great deal of information storage
Cons of Barcodes as Asset Tracking Device:
- UPC barcodes are not unique
- One-dimensional format means code can hold less data
- Damaged barcodes are difficult to scan
- Handheld, specialized equipment may be necessary
- Employee training needed
- GPS tracking is not available
- Exact lineup of scanner to barcode necessary
Barcodes wouldn’t be known worldwide if they weren’t a revolutionary idea.
However, their intensive use pointed out some areas of improvement and gave birth to more advanced codes.
Asset Tracking with QR Codes
Quick response (QR) codes were the next advancement in asset tracking technology.
Developed by Denso Wave to hold more information than barcodes, they first appeared in Japan. As with the use of barcodes, QR codes were established to increase efficiency in automobile manufacturing and part location.
They’re now seen at many tourist, retail, and transit locations, enabling anyone with a smartphone to gather such information as brochures, business contact information, website addresses, map locations, and product details.
QR codes look like white boxes containing tiny black marks. The more information the code contains, the more populated the box looks.
The use of the QR code spread, accelerated by the use of cell phones and smartphones. By 2000, QR codes developed a set of standards that could be applied internationally.
QR reading apps for smartphones pushed this form of technology still further in the 2010s.
Pros of QR Codes as Asset Tracking Method:
- Global standardization
- Two-dimensional barcodes store far more data than barcodes
- Client-facing scannability encourages interaction and repeat returns to information sources
- Rapid information dissemination
- Easily encrypted
- Individual identifiers possible
- Generally no employee training necessary
- Can store such complex information as operating instructions, schematics, and current maintenance information
- Several layers of error correction in case of damage or obstruction
- More easily readable than barcodes
- GPS tracking available
Cons of QR Codes as Asset Tagging Method:
- More expensive than barcode scanning or pen and paper
- Dependent on lighting conditions (Low contrast means that readability is affected by dark backgrounds)
- Range is shorter than barcode scanners
- Inconsistencies in printing might render code unreadable
- App on smartphone is sometimes necessary
Radio Frequency Identification (RFID)
Radio frequency identification makes use of waves on the electromagnetic spectrum. Wavelength and frequency of the waves differentiate themselves from one another.
RFID tags and readers are keyed within this range to relay information.
The beginnings of RFID technology were not commercial. It traces its origin back to radar and aircraft identification. Since World War II, RFID has become further refined for commercial use.
RFID uses three types of tags:
Active RFID tags are the largest and most expensive of the group. They are fitted with a transmitter and typically powered by a battery. Active tags have the largest readable range, sometimes up to 100 meters. They’re typically used to track such large assets as cars, cargo containers, and machinery like day spa or industrial equipment.
In addition to providing tracking capabilities, active RFID tags can also provide data about relative humidity, ambient temperature, light amounts, and vibration events. They can either act as beacons or transmit only when a reader is in range.
Like active RFID tags, semi-passive RFID tags also use a battery, antenna, and integrated circuit. However, they do not contain transmitters.
Passive tags work in concert with the reader antenna, which sends a signal that the tag then bounces back to the antenna. Passive tags are less expensive than active or semi-passive systems; they also offer greater flexibility and are widely used in retail for security or tracking.
Pros of RFID as Asset Tracking Device:
- More accurate inventory control and location than barcodes
- Can provide unique identifiers
- Allows real-time inventory interaction for clients
- Enables auto-pay at checkout points
Cons of RFID as Asset Tracking Device:
- More expensive than pen and paper
- Cannot store as much data as QR codes
- Hacked more easily than barcodes and QR codes
- Requires specialized training and equipment
Near Field Communication Method (NFC)
Near field communication uses the same technology as RFID, but on a different frequency. It is generally considered the next generation of RFID.
While it was first patented in 1983 and used sporadically in toys and other forms of consumer electronics, the early 2000s saw it integrated into the quickly-growing field of cell phones, particularly Nokia, Sony, and Samsung.
In 2003, it was first used in mobile payments.
Today, NFC is the base technology for Apple Pay and Android Pay.
Customers use it to check out from their smartphone in shops and restaurants without debit or credit cards.
NFC tags are usually read-only and work at an extremely short range. While NFC can be utilized for asset tracking, it’s not nearly as useful in larger areas as RFID.
Pros of NFC as Asset Tracking Device:
- Difficult to hack; extremely secure
- Customer-friendly for tech-savvy clients
- Easily used with smartphone
- Newer technology with immense growth potential
Cons of NFC as Asset Tracking Device:
- Costs more than barcode, RFID, and QR systems
- May intimidate clients who are not tech-savvy
- Technology not as widespread or embedded as barcodes
- Smaller range than RFID, QR codes, and barcode (no more than 3 inches)
Bluetooth Low-Energy for Asset Tracking
Most of the general public is familiar with Bluetooth as a technology that pairs headphones to their laptop or cell. However, it’s also an important aspect of asset tracking.
Although some might think of it as a new innovation, Bluetooth has had plenty of time to establish its dominance.
It was invented in 1989 by Nils Rydbeck of Ericsson Mobile to design a wire-free headset. Known as “short-link radio technology,” it was brought to market in 1999.
Today, it’s hard to find a household or office not leaning on Bluetooth to streamline daily activities.
Where asset tracking is concerned, Bluetooth’s wide range (about 50 meters) sets it apart from NFC and some forms of traditional RFID.
Since Bluetooth’s radio signal is never “off,” but it doesn’t use a great deal of power, it’s good for situations in which the speed of data transfer is less important than battery life.
Low-bandwidth projects are best for Bluetooth asset tracking.
Pros of Bluetooth Low-Energy as Asset Tracking Device:
- Less expensive than other forms of asset tracking
- Well-established technology
- Enables tracking in real-time
- Compatible with nearly all smartphones and other devices
- Wide range of applications
- Low power usage
- Larger broadcast range than NFC
- Information can upload to cloud
- More secure than RFID
Cons of Bluetooth Low-Energy as Asset Tracking Device:
- Low bandwidth
- Cannot cover large areas
- Does not provide GPS
- Cloud storage costs can add up
- Might function poorly in areas crowded with many devices also using Bluetooth
- Constantly scanning for new signals
- Does not provide for precise location within buildings
- Not as secure as NFC and QR codes
- More expensive than pen and paper or spreadsheets
Global Positioning System (GPS)
The GPS era reaches back to the dawn of space exploration, which began in 1957 when the USSR launched the first successful man-made satellite, Sputnik.
Scientists were able to track Sputnik’s orbits as its radio signal moved through Earth’s atmosphere. As more satellites were launched, the accuracy and access of their navigation capabilities increased.
GPS was revolutionary in asset tracking. When active GPS tags are attached to an item, its position is transmitted via satellite or the nearest cell phone tower. This means assets can be tracked in Montana from a home office in Florida.
A less expensive form of GPS asset tracking are passive tags: code technology is paired with GPS satellites. When barcodes or QR codes are scanned, the scanned tag provides the asset’s latest location.
Pros of GPS as Asset Tracking Device:
- Employees are not needed to perform action (active tags)
- Location data is provided almost in real-time
- Clients can choose to receive alerts when an asset is moving
- No limit to coverage
Cons of GPS as Asset Tracking Device:
- Employees must scan (passive tags)
- Provides location information only
- More expensive than most other forms of asset tracking
- Power drain; requires regular recharging or replacement of batteries
- Inoperative satellites may limit usage
- May not work indoors
Asset Tracking Predictions and Trends
Few people typing away at an inventory list could have imagined GPS asset tracking or the ability to hold reams of information in a wallet-sized object. What’s next for asset tracking?
Here are some trends to watch:
- Elimination of paper in favor of cloud storage
- More real-time tracking
- Increased security of tags and data
- 3D printing of RFID tags
- Use of drones
Check our article about trends to expect for asset management for more information.
Which Asset Tracking Method is Right for You?
The unique needs of each organization call for individualized solutions. GoCodes can provide you with an asset tracking method that fits your goals.
Whether you’re working with a small office or construction sites across the world, these technological advances mean there’s a method of monitoring and understanding your assets that’s a perfect fit for you.