Summary

Real-time location services, also called real-time location systems or RTLS, automatically identify and track assets and people within a fixed location.

In most cases, RTLS works by affixing a tracking tag to an asset. An asset can be any moving physical object, from a large piece of equipment to the smallest of spare parts. RTLS technology can also track human beings, perhaps finding a particular project worker or the nearest specialist in a busy hospital.

As the asset moves in the building or yard, the tag sends radiofrequency signals to an array of fixed-position receivers. The receivers send the information they collect from each tag to a positioning algorithm, also called the RTLS platform, which typically runs on a cloud server.

This algorithm determines the location of the assets. The more receivers a system has, the more precisely it can triangulate an item’s location. As these receivers have to be installed at fixed and known locations, they are often referred to as anchors.

The process is similar in concept to GPS, but there are some key differences. Most importantly, RTLS is geared toward applications within buildings or on obstructed outdoor sites, which lack open views to orbiting satellites.

RTLS is also superior to GPS in terms of accuracy. RTLS could pinpoint the exact location of a car in a manufacturer’s parking lot, for example, whereas GPS might only be able to a zone containing multiple cars.

RTLS is a developing technology, and its potential use cases are very broad. Many are yet to be discovered, but its disruptive capabilities are already evident across multiple industries.

Manufacturing and Revision

Consider a scenario where one large engine manufacturer has a machine revision and maintenance plant. Whenever one of the company’s engines needs inspection or repair, customers send the engine to the plant for complete disassembly, analysis, and reassembly.

This is an extremely delicate, end-to-end process. As part of the revision, technicians take apart the entire engine down to the tiniest screw. They examine every engine component for wear and tear, reconditioning parts as needed before reassembling the engine.

If the team misplaces even one piece, the entire revision process can suffer delays. What’s more, depending on if and when they find the part, the lost piece can increase costs and potentially even present a security risk.

RTLS helps to keep the revision process on track in two ways. First, it provides location data for all parts, both when they are inside the revision warehouse and, for larger parts or subassemblies, when they are in temporary storage warehouses. Secondly, the tags monitor the integrity of the parts via real-time detection of vibration, shock, and unwanted tilt.

The result is a more streamlined revision process with less likelihood of costly parts going missing.

Construction

In another scenario, the management of an 85,000-square-meter construction site needs to track 4,000 people, most of whom are subcontractors. Personnel tracking has been around for a while, but traditional methods have depended on passive radio frequency identification (RFID) and GPS technology.

Passive RFID has multiple limitations. For one, the wearer has to bring their RFID badge close to an RFID reader, which disturbs the operational efficiency. The process is error-prone and requires training of the wearer.

In addition, it is neither practical nor cost-effective to install mains-powered RFID readers on a construction site. RFID people tracking is primarily of use in indoor environments where locking doors compartmentalize the building, effectively forcing people to use their RFID badge to move through.

GPS has two main limitations. First, it is power-hungry. This leads to one of two things:

  • A short battery life, measured in weeks to months at most
  • Updates that take between 15min and a few hours, making the technology ineffective for tracking people

In addition, because GPS only works reliably when the device has a clear view of the sky, it functions poorly indoors.

RTLS offers a superior solution that features accurate real-time visibility into every person’s whereabouts with an update rate of every five minutes. It even provides teams with an automatic “man down” alert function that automatically detects when someone falls, allowing for faster response and potentially an increased likelihood of survival after the fall.

For increased safety, the RTLS badge also integrates a panic button that a person can press to signal an emergency.

The system can also signal operational inefficiencies by alerting supervisors and managers to wait times. As a result, the RTLS solution improves the safety as well as the efficiency of a site.

Pharmaceuticals

The sensitivity of pharmaceutical products can challenge traditional tracking systems, which are unable to provide the real-time asset condition information that maintains the viability of a product.

RTLS offers a unified solution for asset tracking and condition monitoring, even in the largest warehouses. Monitoring capabilities include:

  • Ambient temperature
  • Surface temperature
  • Humidity
  • Light exposure
  • Volatile organic compounds
  • Equivalent CO2

If conditions shift, the RTLS algorithm can facilitate alerts to the appropriate personnel, allowing for timely correction and avoiding product spoilage. The same technology can also track the asset and its costly components within the warehouse, protecting asset count and providing key data about product age.

RTLS is also an extremely scalable solution. Growth is simply a matter of adding anchors and gateways, a process that requires no reconfiguration of the system itself. Should the manufacturer need to track a different product or expand its production, the same infrastructure still applies.

Key Take-Aways

These use cases are a few of the most notable applications of RTLS technology, but there are many more. Across industries, RTLS has proven useful in preserving human and material assets, saving money as well as time.

Statistics show that RTLS can reduce the supply chain losses that cost a combined $125 billion a year, simply by alerting personnel to triggered events like temperature changes and impact. Its combined indoor-outdoor functionality makes it a superior solution over traditional options, and its infrastructure is minimal enough that it remains accessible.

RTLS is already one of the biggest win-wins in supply chain logistics, and its impact continues to grow.