How to Best Tag Your Tools: A Quick Look at Barcodes, RFID, and Bluetooth Tech

December 6, 2017

It is often said that an organization’s greatest asset is its workforce. There’s certainly a degree of truth to that statement, but a company’s tools and equipment — its inanimate assets — are also hugely important. These resources not only have monetary value in and of themselves, they also affect the overall efficiency and productivity of a business.

There are a number of ways to track your tools and equipment, including barcodes, radio frequency identification technology (RFID) and Bluetooth scanning (BLE).

 

Why implement a tool and equipment management system?

Before deliberating the best method of asset tracking, you might want to consider the benefits of implementing an asset management system in the first place. If you have a firm grasp of what you expect your asset management will entail, you will be in a better position to weigh up the pros and cons of each type.

Almost all businesses own and utilize physical assets in the form of tools and equipment. Depending on the nature of the trade, these could include computers and electrical equipment, office equipment, construction tools and many other vital items. Some industries, such as construction, are heavily reliant on valuable pieces of mobile equipment that can be vulnerable to theft, misplacement or damage due to a lack of proper maintenance.

Tool and equipment management can help you track these essential assets so that you know where they are at any given time and that you have the right instruments for the job. This can help improve your field productivity.

It can even help prevent theft, loss, and unnecessary damage. Assigning responsibility to an individual holds them accountable. If you are a victim of crime, tool and equipment tracking can be a vital part of identifying any recovered items. This may be a prerequisite for some insurance policies. Advanced asset management can also help you stay on top of maintenance and replacement schedules, which can be important for productivity, as well as safety and liability purposes.

 

Barcode Scanning

Small businesses and startups might rely on nothing more than memory, a handwritten list or perhaps a spreadsheet. This can be fine for a while in certain types of business but is really not suitable for those that rely heavily on their physical assets.

Barcodes are often the first go-to tracking solution for businesses that are scaling up, due to the fact that they are familiar, simple, and relatively cheap. Barcode tags are physically attached to each asset. As well as the barcode itself, the tag may contain additional information such as a helpline number for recovered items. These tags can be made of different materials to ensure that they are durable enough for any environment. You will require barcode scanners to read them, which may be fixed or mobile. Advanced programs allow barcodes to be read through mobile phone cameras, making tagging quick and easy.

Some benefits include the fact that they are cheap, easy to setup and integrate, and are universally recognized and scannable anywhere in the world. They can be used on any material without affecting accuracy and they do not store data about the asset directly on the label, meaning asset records cannot be corrupted or lost.

Some of the drawbacks are that they have a limited range and require a direct line of sight. Assets need to be scanned individually. They are read-only labels holding only the asset ID and the tags can deteriorate over time.

RFID Technology

Radio frequency identification technology utilizes radio waves to communicate between a reader and an electronic tag attached to an object. This offers significant benefits over traditional barcode scanners but at an increased cost. The tags for an RFID system can actually be quite affordable, but the readers can be very expensive and multiple readers are usually required.

Some of the benefits are that RFID tags do not require a line of sight. Some applications will also allow for multiple assets to be scanned simultaneously, which can be very handy for hard-to-reach assets or multiple assets in a container. Grease or dirt will not prevent a tag from being read, and even tags embedded in concrete are trackable.

RFID tags are read/write devices, so the data they store can be updated. The data capacity is also more extensive than what is possible with barcodes and could include items such as maintenance records, warranty information or product specifications. Where a barcode needs to be actively read, an RFID can be deciphered as it moves near a reader, which could be set, for example, at a facility entrance or exit.

One of the main drawbacks is the cost of implementing the readers. RFID readers can struggle to read data when the signal passes through certain materials including metals and liquids. The system can also experience difficulties when the signals from multiple readers or numerous responding tags overlap.

 

Bluetooth Scanning

Bluetooth scanning, also known as Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) scanning, is similar in many ways to RFID in that it uses radio signals to scan asset data. This wireless technology is familiar to many people in a consumer setting and essentially works the same way in asset management, by allowing two Bluetooth-compatible devices (the reader and the asset beacon) to communicate with each other.

The great benefit of BLE compared to RFID is that it does not require expensive dedicated readers to implement. With the right software package, in fact, it can be configured for use via apps on regular smartphones. This makes it extremely quick, easy, and relatively inexpensive to deploy. It is also a highly mobile and scalable solution. Like RFID, Bluetooth-based solutions can be used to write to an asset as well as read it, allowing you to update a range of information.

Some tags will flash or make noise when you select them from the app on your phone. This allows crew members to quickly find the tool they’re looking for. Bluetooth solutions also do what’s referred to as “active” and “passive” tracking. Active tracking means you can actively scan for all tags in the area, which is useful for collecting info on every tool in a van, or all the people at a muster point. With passive tracking, anyone who has the app open can pick up tags’ signals as they walk around on site. This means, you can be spot-on with last known locations of tools without needing the expensive hardware that RFID requires.

One of the downfalls of Bluetooth is that the tags are a bit pricey right now. Because of this, many warehouse managers may only tag the more valuable and/or larger assets, leaving smaller tools untagged. In addition, the purchased tags are quite large and may not fit on smaller assets.

 

Which method is best?

All three methods have their respective advantages and disadvantages — the right asset management system for you will depend on your needs and circumstances. Barcodes provide a relatively cheap and easy starter solution but have distinct limitations. RFID can be an effective system but can be prohibitively expensive right now.

As a standalone technology, Bluetooth scanning is perhaps the most versatile, offering a fully scalable, mobile solution that is still affordable and robust enough for most businesses’ needs. That being said, there is one last option that seems to rise above all others. A hybrid of barcode and BLE is now looking like the best method for saving money and tracking tools quickly. The barcodes should be used for all cheaper assets, and BLE tags should be used for more valuable assets. This way, everything which could put a strain on budget is tagged and easily trackable.

 

For more information about how to best track your tools and equipment, take a look at AllTrak Cloud.

 
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