RFID Asset Tracking: Answers to Your Top Questions

By: on November 29, 2016

Barcoding is a technological staple that helps asset-centric companies track machinery and manage inventory and spare parts. However, it lacks the cost and time savings delivered by upgrading to radio frequency identification (RFID) asset tracking.

Unfortunately, it seems many companies face some confusion regarding RFID technology due to the volume of choices; A Gartner survey shows that 80 percent of those asking about RFID “focus on a single technology and are not aware that there are many battery options, frequencies and carriers for RFID tags.”

(The full report, “Essential Best Practices for Tracking Critical Assets Using RFID” by Tim Zimmerman, is available to Gartner clients.)

“RFID tags are like the barcodes of the future,” says Todd Edmondson, program manager at WiseTrack, an RFID software and hardware provider. “Whereas with a barcode, you can’t really do anything until you walk up to it. But RFID tags in range of a reader can transmit location or other meaningful details without requiring a human being.”

This article will answer some of the most common RFID questions to show how the technology can offer immediate visibility of your assets, streamline inventory and save money.

What Is RFID Tagging?

If the name isn’t recognizable, the common applications definitely are: RFID technology can be found in keycards that open hotel or office doors, the chips that help locate owners of lost pets, the WalMart theft detection system that beeps if someone tries to steal merchandise.

Instead of a simple sticker with a barcode, RFID tags are typically made of plastic, and they house microchips that can receive and/or transmit a signal that indicates an ID specific to that tag. Once scanned with a purpose-built handheld device or enabled smartphone, the tags return information about the item they’re attached to.

For example, you scan a tag adhered to a motor in a manufacturing plant, and the device displays the age, condition, serial number, maintenance details and any other details defined in the database.

The WiseTrack asset tracking system, a handheld scanner and a belt of RFID tags

In addition to handheld scanners and tags, an RFID setup can include a portal-based infrastructure, Edmondson says, which enables a “last seen” system.

This means, whenever a person checks out a tool with a tag on it, RFID portals attached to facility exits scan items as the person leaves, so managers know the exact time it occurred, which tool it was and who carried it out.

“You can track tools from one end of the plant to another,” he says. “If you have RFID setup, you can read the tag in my back pocket and tags on the tools, and it would place me on the second floor at 2:15.”

Using RFID tags instead of barcodes is more expensive, but certainly feasible for small companies today, and it offers greater capabilities and results when used to track assets.

We’ll describe these capabilities in more detail below.

Why Should I Use RFID Tags for Asset Tracking?

In short: RFID tagging makes locating assets much quicker and tracks assets and inventory items automatically as they’re used and moved.

“Typical asset management system should be able to provide details about the asset through its life cycle,” Edmondson says. “What we’re trying to add on top of that with the RFID layer is a significant reduction in time required to perform inventory of these items, or to track down lost or missing items.”

Here are some key differences between barcodes and RFID:

Method Barcoding RFID
Scanning Requires line of sight Can be scanned through many types of materials
Range Close to a few feet Certain tags can be scanned hundreds of feet away
Read Rate Scan one barcode at a time Scan potentially thousands of tags at once

You might now have an additional question: Why do these capabilities matter for asset tracking?

Let’s say you walk onto the manufacturing plant floor and want to retrieve the asset details for everything in the room. Using barcodes, you would need to scan each item individually. With RFID tags on assets and within range, you could simply scan all assets at once.

In addition, users can track RFID tags throughout a facility by using portals so that workers can find an asset’s location and current user instantly.

Asset tracking with RFID tags offers immediate visibility of asset details and location, which is especially useful for maintenance managers who need to monitor equipment in real-time.

How Does RFID Tagging Impact Inventory?

Proper inventory management is critical to the success of any industry that involves consistent maintenance and the use of tools to make repairs. RFID technology can add a lot of value for inventory and tool management due to it’s location tracking abilities.

Technicians and other workers need to check out tools or inventory materials for use in specific projects or tasks, and it can be a messy process without a clear plan and a system in place to help.

We’ll set up a couple scenarios to compare how this would be performed with the two different methods:

The traditional method with barcodes, Edmondson says, would be to scan each item as they’re checked out to the employee, like books in a library. This method is simple and can work well, but has some downsides:

  • It’s slow
  • It lacks the potential to help locate the items if they go missing
  • It typically requires companies to assign an employee to the checkout process

A more modern, RFID-based method offers a more efficient way. If someone needs to checkout multiple items:

  1. The employee takes the items and places them on a self-checkout table.
  2. The RFID reader in the table scans all tags attached to the items and displays them on a screen.
  3. The employee confirms the number and types of items.
  4. The employee scans their ID or personal RFID tag to assign the items to themselves.

And off they go! This way, the employee has their items and can get moving to the next job quickly. Meanwhile, the system keeps track of who is assigned those tools and how long they’ve been used.

Two sizes of RFID tags made from durable plastic and strong adhesives.
Tags also include barcodes for redundancy purposes

When integrated with a CMMS or enterprise asset management system, the asset tracking system can ID equipment that has upcoming maintenance and prevent it from being checked out.

These features add a greater level of accountability, visibility and a much more effective way to locate lost equipment.

How Do I Get Started With RFID Asset Tracking?

Small companies may think this technology is only the realm of massive corporations. That may have been true a couple decades ago, but today, the technology is affordable, scalable and offered by many different companies.

So how should you get started? The steps are, in fact, very similar to any asset tracking initiative. Edmondson offers some first few actions:

1. Start with a well-organized database of assets. Perhaps you already have a spreadsheet of your assets; you can stick with this manual method, or opt to use an asset management solution and migrate the data.

2. Group RFID-worthy assets and tag. It’s important to identify the top 10 to 15 percent of assets that keep your business running smoothly—these could be production line machinery, vehicles or hand tools. Gather your company’s management and determine which assets are most important and attach the appropriate RFID tags.

Adding an RFID tag ID to an air pressure sensor in WiseTrack’s asset tracking system

3. Create alerts in the asset tracking system. Use the software to set up alerts for each item; for an expensive voltmeter, for example, managers may want to receive an alert if the item hasn’t been scanned by a portal in three days. This time period heavily depends on the type of jobs your workers perform and how long it typically takes.

Edmondson stresses: Don’t try to tag and track every asset you have. It’s simply not necessary and can be costly. Stick to your critical assets, and add others over time as needed.

Recap and Next Steps

We hope this article has addressed your top questions about asset tracking with RFID technology and shown how it can increase visibility over the assets that keep your company moving.

“[RFID tracking] offers the ability to quickly locate items and have a much tighter sense of control and knowing what you have and where it was last seen,” Edmondson says.

Here’s a quick recap:

  • RFID tags are like advanced barcodes: more durable and easier-to-scan.
    • Asset tracking with RFID offers time and cost-saving benefits because users can quickly view every asset in a plant.
      • RFID tags can help track assets and inventory items as they’re checked out by workers or if they go missing.

      To get started:

      1. Organize your asset tracking database before implementing RFID.
        1. Identify the top 10 to 15 percent of assets your company depends on and tag those first.
          1. Set up notifications for these assets so you know if they go missing or require maintenance.

          To learn more, you can visit our asset tracking category page to find reviews, demos and pricing of top software. Or shoot me an email at taylorshort@softwareadvice.com and I’ll help answer any other questions you may have about RFID technology and asset management.

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