Cognizant Senior Manager – IoT Projects
Science-fiction writer William Gibson’s quote, ‘the future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed’ has been repeated so many times it has become tech industry gospel and at BlueCats we are not inclined to argue. What some industries are doing with Real Time Location Systems and its component technologies such as Ultra-Wide Band are the future, and the tech is right on the cusp of going mainstream.
As we approach this inflection point, we are getting out the crystal ball in an attempt to peer into the future. We are asking industry leaders eleven questions (because ten was just not enough) about where RTLS is now, where it’s going and where it could go next.
Next in the series is BlueCats partner, Cognizant’s Senior Manager – IoT Projects Cognizant Connected Places, Chris Zimmardi. Author of RFID: Item Level Management; A Practical Approach, and a self-admitted cat person who holds a master’s in computer engineering from Southern Methodist University, Chris is an enthusiastic advocate for the power of technology to improve the world we live in.
- What are the top five problems that RTLS (Real Time Location Systems) will solve in the next 5-10 years?
Factory automation. Typically, manufacturing facilities use pen and paper or manual entries into a database to keep track of where things are, i.e., this is the last known location of an asset. It is much better [to] automate this process somehow and it is more justifiable to invest in a technology for specific expensive assets. It is a resounding theme, even for passive RFID, that we do not mind putting a five-cent label on something we can scan from several feet away, even though it is much more constrained in terms of location. You can account for it, because you know the location of where you scan the barcode, so you have that accountability, you’ve mass serialized something, you have a unique identifier.[An early application of passive RFID] was retailers doing inventory cycle counting in-store. But it took a long time for them to justify the cost. They were doing hand counts, closing the store, having people work overnight, that was working fine, until the [retailers] realized there were a lot of human errors involved and RFID tags were a good deterrent to theft.
For real time tracking, it is no longer tens of cents, it is dollars more [so] there must be a compelling reason to invest. An elegant example is a John Deere factory experimenting with locating expensive power tools [such as torque wrenches] real time by tagging with a Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) beacon.
If that tool is needed at another location, its unavailability is slowing down the whole assembly line and because time is money the return on investment on having an active tag is justified [by being able] to locate something quickly and continue that assembly process.
Real time monitoring of high value assets to deter theft or vandalism. Equipment that is left overnight onsite is a prime candidate. Construction companies are tagging equipment whether it is a portable generator, an entire kit or the tools that are in a small trailer. In that case the justification for tracking is the overall value of the products as real time monitoring with alerts can flag it moving in the middle of the night when it should not be or simply being somewhere where it should not be.
Predictive Analytics coupled with real time location to reduce downtime and improve the effectiveness of mission critical components. With the IoT revolution, sensing and monitoring devices can be designed into an electric generator, for example. A failure can be predicted because a certain component has been exceeding a temperature threshold for a certain amount of time. The metrics are indicating it is about to fail soon. But where is the generator? If there is a bank of them, which one is it? Coupling IoT sensing with RTLS complements each other, you know a component is about to fail and you know where it is.
“A failure can be predicted because a certain component has been exceeding a temperature threshold for a certain amount of time. The metrics are indicating it is about to fail soon. But where is the generator?”
- What is the best use of RTLS to date?
Location tracking of high value assets, including rental vehicles, construction equipment etc. are great uses but probably the best now is in supply chains with multiple stages of order fulfillment, i.e., an item goes from a manufacturer to a distribution center or centers to a retailer or end user. A lot of organizations are already doing this with barcodes, RTLS tags take the process to the next level by further automating the tracking of those items as they move through the supply chain.
- What are the top five problems that RTLS will solve in the next 20 to 30 years?
A lot of RTLS technology implementations are still a bit of a science project, because we are working with radiofrequency waves that are going to be affected by the environment and the operating conditions, i.e., multipath interference. The signal from the tag can be distorted, or impaired and you can compensate for that by having additional receivers in relative locations. You are mitigating signal degradation, apparent signal loss and reflections that can make the object that is here in reality appear that it is someplace else. All those challenges will need to be overcome.
One way those challenges may be addressed is the implementation of an RTLS system will become a design factor for companies that are constructing new manufacturing or warehousing facilities. When you are designing from the ground up to accommodate a new tracking technology, you can implement it sooner rather than later because inherent design will mitigate the interference effects of metal structures within the building.
“…the implementation of an RTLS system will become a design factor for companies that are constructing new manufacturing or warehousing facilities.”
- What is driving RTLS adoption in industry right now?
Optimization of the supply chain, particularly where you have something going through many different hands to get to the end location but also in manufacturing. What’s key is that you are gathering a lot of metrics and when all that information is available, it is easier to home in on specific bottlenecks. There might be a third party that is doing their job quickly enough, maybe they are slow through the warehouse because they are having difficulty locating items. Tracking technologies are an efficiency enabler because RTLS will provide visibility into how long it takes to find a product and ship it out the door. Without RTLS, you know something goes into warehouse and goes out the next day, but you do not know why it took as long as it did.
- What will drive RTLS adoption in your industry in 10 years’ time?
Reductions in cost and smaller form factors due to improvements in semiconductor manufacturing will make it easier to site the tag on various things and there is also the possibility of embedding tags into products, i.e., you buy something, and it is trackable out of the box.
It will be a lot more plug and play. There will be embedded software in gateways and tag readers that does digital signal processing to alleviate and filter out noise, basically mitigating external interference.
Essentially, someone will be able to propose a solution and then go in test the tags, receiver, gateway, make a connection to the cloud, install a dashboard on your phone et voila, we are done. We are not there yet, but if the technology becomes very, very cheap, and it works like that then you could put such a system inside your house. Then you will never lose your kids, your wallet, the TV remote or anything else for that matter again.
Something similar is working successfully right now with embedded passive RFID tags under the skin of pets. That is a good example of a technology that has matured quite a bit. You find a lost cat or dog, take it to the vet or the pound and they can scan the tag to find the owner.
“you will never lose your kids, your wallet, the TV remote or anything else for that matter again.”
- What is holding back RTLS adoption now?
The biggest hindrance or roadblock with any innovative technology is cost of ownership. As the technology improves it is going to become cheaper to produce the components [of RTLS] and it ends up being economies of scale. Passive and active tracking technologies have been very pricey so the return on investment versus what they are tracking and why they are tracking it, ends up being a big roadblock. RTLS implementations are still too much of a science project for many potential customers who want deployment to be more plug and play.
- What is likely to hold back RTLS adoption in the future?
Unless we can get the cost of ownership or cost of acquisition/ownership, down to a point where the customer can justify the ROI, RTLS is still going to remain a niche technology for high end assets, and it is not going to become ubiquitous.
The biggest hurdle is cost of acquisition but once the customer owns the system, having to replace batteries and tags after they have invested several million dollars will be somewhat of a bitter pill for them to swallow. It is okay, so now we have to replace batteries on tags. And what if the battery is dead? Where is the tag? That is one little challenge. It is not as big of a hurdle as the acquisition costs, but it is still something a lot of potential customers, not all but a lot, will not be expecting and will put them off.
- Bluetooth is now ubiquitous, UWB is just getting started but how will mainstream adoption of UWB impact your industry, business and society at large?
I think that UWB could be a game changer. Because of the physics it is more able to penetrate physical barriers and it is less adversely affected by interference. That in itself is huge, but I think UWB could be a major breakthrough for adoption of RTLS. Apple, Samsung, Google are putting UWB in their smartphones and that may be a driving force because economies of scale will drive down the price of technology and create innovations such as a smaller form factor tag that could be attached to anything you want. Then someone will be able to walk around a factory floor and easily detect where something they need is. A cell phone has Wi-Fi and an LTE or 5G connection, so it could be put in a case with a magnet and place on a wall as a gateway device for a quick and dirty way of tracking objects.
- What are the most important issues in the next 10-15 years when it comes to the interaction of humans / people / AI and RTLS systems?
Privacy is a big issue once things get back to normal, when the pandemic is over, people do not necessarily want other people to know where they are located. It will be huge because more precise location technology [such as UWB] can open up opportunities for people to be stalked and not realize it. They may have registered their phone on Facebook for some sort of a watch party event and as part of that registration the Facebook app has turned on the ‘display your location’ function. If you have a more precise real time location technology, I think that that could invite some issues in terms of security.
Artificial intelligence is software. It is an algorithm or algorithms that can collect data and make certain decisions, presumably better than humans can. Better tracking technology will augment the efficacy of an AI application by improving the logistics supply chain as an example. AI would be part of identifying bottlenecks, sending alerts, informing risks, notifying possible parties something is not going as it should be. It is a bit big brother but again the more precise real time location would augment how those software algorithms improve a process that that is under its control.
For example, COVID vaccines are part of the cold supply chain. We want to provide a product that is reliable, that is going to help inoculate people, so they will not get sick. RTLS combined with temperature sensing is going to ensure the efficacy and the shelf life of the product because it provides an accurate tracking and temperature history of the product from the manufacturer to when it finally reaches the end customer.
- In what way does RTLS/UWB represent a ‘killer app’ for you?
There is the accuracy of UWB, but to be a real killer app there needs to be better integration with customer back-end systems, preferably in a way that does not need an API. BlueCats and other companies have a cloud platform that is taking the data, ingesting it and formatting it in a way it can be exported to a customer’s back-end system. It is not a complex thing to do but sending sensor data directly to any Wi-Fi device with a specific software driver would make it more plug and play and a more efficient means of integrating and adapting RTLS for a specific customer’s environment.
- Interoperability will be a vital piece of the puzzle if UWB is to become ubiquitous like Bluetooth. How important are standards to this happening?
It is vital. But they need to be ISO standards, or IEEE rather than open standards. We do not want someone changing something so then you have a version of an existing technology which has a sole source because of how they have modified it. That defeats the purpose of standards.
Historically, passive RFID is a prime example [of what standards can achieve]. When I started in the industry, there were two big players, Simple Technology and Matrix, that both had their own air interface protocols. Both technologies worked, but there was a reluctance among retailers, who wanted to use that technology, [as they were afraid of lock-in] and [the duopoly] tended to stifle any improvements in the technology. When the industry organization launched a revised air interface protocol independent of the main players, it led to more competition and improvements in the technology, potential customers had choices and that became the impetus for more end users to adopt the technology and it grew.