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    Asset tracking
    in the 4IR

    How IoT-powered asset tracking is transforming industry

    How can we build and manage industrial workspaces so that they're maximally safe and efficient? And make them maximally comfortable for the human beings who work in them?

    These questions are among those that the industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) can give industrial managers the power to answer. In contemporary industry and logistics, connected sensor technology and the analytics applications into which it feeds data will make possible new levels of productivity — and make life better for a labor force working in safer, more supportive conditions.

    Here's an overview of what asset-tracking tech can accomplish in industry today, whether the “assets" in question are goods and equipment and other objects — or people themselves.

    From preventive to predictive maintenance

    Unplanned downtime is endemic to industry: One estimate has the typical manufacturer suffering through 800 hours of downtime every year. This downtime has a serious impact on business: Another study indicates that the manufacturing industry loses $50 billion a year to it.

    While equipment failure and attrition will always be with us, industry in the asset-tracking age has ways to minimize and even control it. Today's technology makes possible a shift from a regime of preventive to a regime of predictive maintenance — and that changes the paradigm for how we approach equipment failure.

    Now, temperature, motion, humidity, metrological, and other sensors integrated into equipment can provide a relentless stream of information testifying to that equipment's status. By feeding that info through analytical applications, industrial managers can foresee problems before they happen, and plan for them. No longer will facility management be defined in part by the reactive business of replacing a burned-out flywheel on a turbine that's fallen offline. Rather, such management will involve the predictive process of replacing that flywheel at an optimal moment before it fails, no sooner and no later — based term-of-use, failure history, and other data in volumes that would overwhelm the unaided human mind.

    The age of reacting to failure after the fact, when the lights are already off, is nearing its end.

    Keeping a machine eye on things in motion


    Asset-tracking tech can also help optimize flows of goods and material, improving efficiency and boosting ROI.

    It can do much to eliminate information siloing, for example. Managers at the production levels of vertically integrated organizations need no longer rely on static spreadsheet information about what they can expect from other levels in the way of materials and parts. They can “see" those materials and parts themselves, on both the qualitative and quantitative levels — and adjust their own work, slowing down or speeding up accordingly.

    Enterprise resource planning (ERM) stands to improve immeasurably in light of these innovations.

    Harder to steal tools — and easier to find them

    Asset-tracking technology can help even with less exalted tasks than ERM, such as simply making sure that no one loses — or steals — cargo or equipment. By digitally tagging gear and cargo using a variety of methods, managers can trace items' whereabouts at a glance, often via their own smartphones.

    The cargo theft that remains a problem in the United States, not to mention elsewhere, could become that harder to pull off.

    Down on the shop floor, asset-tracking tech can aid employees who want to find the tools and materials they need to do their jobs without getting bogged down with time-consuming searches through equipment lockers and storerooms. (According to one report, employers could shave 10 percent off labor costs if their workers spent less time looking for the tools and materials they need.) As the industrial IoT matures, digitally tagged materials and tools will lend themselves to precise inventorization, making everything visible to any worker with a digital device.

    Tracking the elusive forklift

    Asset-tracking of this sort will find useful application when it comes to tracking forklifts, which move fast and can often disappear amidst the canyons of logistics facilities and big-box stores.

    Sensor tech can also tell us much about how a forklift is used: in what locations, along what routes, and so on. How long does one forklift driver take to pick up and deliver a pallet as compared to another, and how do those drivers' safety and damaged-goods numbers compare? How fast are forklifts zipping along warehouse aisles, and what happens if we cross-reference that data with accident data?

    What we learn here may help us better train machine operators, or institute life-saving new rules for how they work, possibly using beacon tech to define where they can function or the speeds at which they're allowed to move in certain sectors.

    How people inhabit the workplace

    This transformative technology can also keep a benign eye on human workers.

    It can, for instance, generate invaluable data testifying to how machine-operators inhabit their workstations. What physical motions or tics do they tend to repeat, in a way that could promote repetitive stress injury or hurt productivity? And to what extent do their physical environments condition these motions or ticks? Tech-generated answers to these questions can lead to changes in how we design workstations, with benefits for worker productivity — and health.

    Data on the speeds at which workers walk a factory's aisles or on what doors they tend to use can drive changes in emergency evacuation protocols. They can also provide a basis for an indoor navigation system that directs workers where they need to go in the straightest, fastest way, via informational messages beamed to their smartphone apps or even via lighting clues built into the environment.

    In addition, tracking tech can improve security by creating unobtrusive, foolproof means for keeping personnel out of restricted areas, or by governing who enters those areas and under what circumstances.

    Or, yet still, by essentially keeping workers company in hazardous conditions. Consider miners, heirs to a historically dangerous profession. No longer will they have to disappear, alone, into potentially hazardous subterranean places. Tracking tech will keep a machine eye on them, and be ready to send help in case of an emergency.

    A growing role in the new industrial revolution

    Such applications are fruits of just the earliest stages of asset-tracking tech's role in industry. As manufacturing continues to digitize its way through the “Fourth Industrial Revolution" that's currently transforming how we make and move things, we'll see more of this tech's great potential. It will create new efficiencies, boost ROI, cut costs, help rationalize processes, and more.

    And maybe most importantly, it will lead to a better environment for the human worker — that flesh-and-blood “asset" that has a persistent way of remaining crucial to industry, even in our era of much-vaunted technological miracles.

    About the author

    Headshot of Ton van de Wiel
    Ton van de Wiel is the global segment lead for industrial end-users within Signify and co-founder of Interact. With over twenty years of business experience, he now works to shape tomorrow’s world of smart manufacturing and warehousing as enabled via connected lighting.

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