The introduction of IoT devices in tech stacks has greatly increased the number of assets in an enterprise. There will be 27.1 billion connected IoT devices in 2025, according to IoT Analytics. Asset management today has to not only track these IoT devices, machines, and people — it must do so efficiently.
One technology that can can be used to accomplish this is Bluetooth. This technology uses radio waves to exchange information between enabled devices over a short distance. For industrial asset management, though, the version of Bluetooth that we use might be overkill, consuming too much power. Another version of Bluetooth called Bluetooth Low Energy communicates by activating only occasionally to relay information. Because it “sleeps” most of the time, it consumes less power. As a result, BLE is emerging as one option for managing IoT devices and other assets.
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Knowing where assets are in enterprises is one of the keys to efficiency. For example, in a hospital setting, sharing two portable ultrasound machines on one floor might make fiscal sense, but medical professionals need to know where the machines are so they can be used at the right place at the right time. Asset tracking is important to business operations and in optimizing resource allocation.
Technologies used for asset tracking vary depending on the sophistication of network infrastructure and end goals. Six of them include:
Bluetooth, Bluetooth Low Energy or Bluetooth Beacons
Bluetooth uses radio waves for communication between the asset and the receiver that aggregates the information. While traditional Bluetooth is best for household and consumer use, the industrial equivalent, BLE, only activates as needed, thereby being smarter about power consumption. Bluetooth beacons are a type of device that use BLE to relay information.
Radio frequency IDentification (RFID) also uses radio waves for communication, like Bluetooth. An antenna identifies the signal relayed by an RFID tag, which contains information about the asset like lot number, origin etc. An RFID reader receives the information and transmits it to a database. RFID solutions are extremely effective, although the costs of scanners and tags add up quickly.
Ultra-wideband (UWB) technology relays information in short pulses over a large bandwidth, which also makes it consume low power. Unlike Bluetooth however, which uses signal strengths to determine location, UWB uses the principle of time of flight (ToF), which means it calculates the distance and time a light beam travels to gauge location. UWB measurements are accurate but need specialty equipment, an expense that might be difficult to justify when managing assets at scale.
NB-IoT (NarrowBand IoT)
An able competitor to Bluetooth, the narrowband IoT solution bypasses wireless data transfers altogether and instead uses a special low-power wide-area cellular network (LPWAN) to transmit information. Because this technology uses low power, it works well for asset management of large-scale IoT deployment.
This popular technology uses radio frequencies for wireless communication. The biggest advantage of using Wi-Fi is that the infrastructure is often already in place and most enterprises will need only mild reconfigurations to have their asset management processes piggyback on Wi-Fi. On the flip side, Wi-Fi signals suffer distortions more readily, which can adversely affect accuracy.
Other cellular technologies are viable options for asset tracking, but they tend to be more expensive and use more power, so they are a better choice for assets that require connectivity for other reasons (such as a connected machine that collects and sends data to the cloud) and/or those that can provide an external power source. Cellular is a great option for deployments which need a longer range, a global reach, or where security is a top concern.
Recommended reading: NB-IoT and Cat-M1 (LTE-M) vs. Cat-1: How to choose the right LTE IoT standard
For any communication technology to work, you need an object that will relay data, another that will capture and aggregate the data and forward it to a system that can read it.
In BLE, this process works through a combination of components called tags, readers, and a tracking platform.
BLE tags act like beacons; they are hardware transmitters that relay information from the asset at periodic intervals.
The BLE receiver serves to catch this information from the tags and pass it on. Bluetooth receivers can be fixed units in a facility, specially designed to read tag information. As an asset travels past, the receiver picks the signal from the asset and passes it on. One of the advantages of BLE technology is that enterprises can recruit cell phones as receivers as long as they have the corresponding applications running.
Asset management software processes and analyzes the data, and a central tracking platform serves as a window into the aggregated and analyzed information.
The specific architecture for BLE implementations will depend on the connectivity infrastructure, the end-use case for the assets, and the level of granularity needed at all times. For greater precision, enterprises will have to commission more fixed-station receivers. Ultimately the rollout of BLE will also depend on how often (and where) companies need the asset tracking data. Understanding where to dig deep and where to not, is important to overall asset management strategy as well.
Recommended reading: What is an IoT platform and how do you choose the right one for your business?
Bluetooth, especially BLE, has a range of advantages that make it a capable candidate for asset management, but there are also significant limitations. Here we explore these advantages and disadvantages to determine if Bluetooth is right for your use case.
Benefits of using Bluetooth technology for asset tracking include:
- Preserves battery life. BLE needs only a single coin-cell battery to power it for years. Since the technology sends data periodically in small packets, it needs to consume power only when it is active and can be dormant the rest of the time.
- Can work with slight modifications to existing infrastructure. BLE can be configured to work with employees’ smartphones to perform necessary functions. Enterprises need not tie up capital expenditures on expensive scanning and reading equipment.
- Communication protocols use one-many and many-many relay patterns, which means the solution is less hardware intensive and more economically viable. A single “mesh” can aggregate information from many assets, which decreases reliance on multiple gateways to the cloud.
- Accuracy. BLE location data is accurate, and while the range is around ten feet, the granularity can be partially improved with the use of more beacons. BLE data transfer is also fast, so real-time information is reliable.
Disadvantages of using Bluetooth for asset tracking:
- Security may be an issue. Bluetooth is weaker on security when compared to WIFI or cellular standards. There are more vulnerabilities in security with Bluetooth and there is a higher likelihood of a hacker gaining access to a wireless device through a Bluetooth connection.
- Latency. With BLE, many devices are competing for access to the same part of the radio spectrum and this can cause signal interference. This interference may result in loss of coverage.
- Transmission distance. BLE is really only a good solution for short-range situations where the asset will remain within range of devices that can recieve its signal.
Recommended reading: Eight common IoT connectivity technologies and use cases
A variety of industries can use BLE technology for asset management.
The heavy-duty equipment used in manufacturing are important assets, and BLE can help monitor these health and usage. In smart factories, collaborative robots moving from one production line to the other need to be tracked and accounted for. Optimal asset management using BLE will keep downtime under control, an important key performance indicator for the industry.
Given the enormous pressures today’s supply chains face, enterprises are eager to make asset tracking in the logistics hub a top priority. Sorting tunnels on a large scale, down to warehouse flow, can all be managed with BLE technology.
Given the spiraling costs of healthcare, medical facilities are looking to make processes more efficient. Using assets such as medical and diagnostic equipment efficiently is a key goal, one which BLE technology facilitates. Tags on ultrasound machines, IV delivery stations, and even medicines can all streamline the the management of precious assets.
With a hybrid workforce and employees logging into company networks from all over the world, IT departments have to keep a close eye on assets and make sure they are functioning in a secure environment. Shadow units, which are devices that fly under the radar, are becoming increasingly prevalent, and pose a cybersecurity problem. BLE-enabled asset management helps resolve these challenges.
Recommended reading: Ten best asset tracking systems
Get Connected with Hologram
While Bluetooth is a good option for some asset tracking use cases, it may not be the right choice if you have a large deployment and are looking for a scalable option. If you’re designing or deploying a cellular asset tracking device, choose the IoT SIM card that’s secure, future-proof, and equipped with eUICC capabilities. Hologram's SIMs can connect to cell networks around the world, providing seamless global coverage without the headache of carrier negotiations.