You've decided to use the asset tracking features built into your CMMS. That's a smart decision, because there are lots of benefits.
Tracking fixed and mobile assets helps you:
Locate your assets quickly, right when you need them
Asset tracking can tell you where something is or, with a basic check-in/check-out system, who has it or had it last. It's the same binary system used by your local library. Every book is recorded as "in" or "out," and if it's out, the system also knows who has it. In facilities maintenance management, check-in/check-out systems can be set up for shared assets. For example, the tablets technicians carry with them during their shifts to access CMMS software. The ability to "audit responsibility" extends the life of certain types of assets; everyone is a bit more careful when they know their name is attached to the last time something was used.
Make decisions about what assets to buy in the future
Is the front office constantly borrowing the IT department's projector? Did the maintenance department spend money on a welding rig that hasn't been checked out in the last six months? Tracking assets tells you more than just where things are. It tells you where they've been, and companies can use that information to make better decisions about the assets to invest in going forward.
Control your inventory with quick, accurate counts
To be successful at inventory management, you must maintain up-to-date records of the parts that the maintenance department has in inventory. Manual inventory tracking is a slow and error-prone process. And it's not hard to see why. Think of your own kitchen. Now picture the junk drawer. It's the one full of small, rarely useful, mostly valueless items. How long would it take you to produce an inventory without making any mistakes? Imagine manually inspecting and writing down every loose twist tie and all those plastic tabs for keeping bread bags closed. But with asset tracking, all you need to do is scan each item and you're done.
But you know all of this, because you've already decided to use the asset tracking features in your CMMS software.
You also know that the sooner you get started, the better. That's because the smaller the number of assets you begin with, the more quickly you can get them all into the system. And your company is growing, which means more assets, which means the longer you wait, the longer the process is going to take.
But first, there's one more important decision to make. You need to decide which type of tags to use. There's a few to choose from, but only one is going to best meet your specific needs.
Asset Tracking with Barcodes
With a long and impressive history, barcodes and barcode readers are often what people think about when they think "asset tracking."
It's easy to get up and running, as scanners and tags are increasingly inexpensive. In fact, you can likely print your own tags, and most modern smartphones and tablets work as readers using their built-in cameras. If you need something more robust than a paper sticker, it's also possible to buy tags designed for harsher environments, including ones made of durable plastics and metals.
But the barcode system is not perfect, which you already know from your own experiences at the self-checkout line at the supermarket. It can be challenging to get the readers to work, especially if the barcode has been damaged. Sometimes even a small amount of distortion makes a barcode unreadable. In the end, it’s often just a case of developing a bit of a knack for it. Notice how cashiers, who have had a lot of practice with the technology, never seem to have any problems?
Regardless of the small frustrations, there are good reasons why barcodes are so common. The technology is reliable and inexpensive. People use it because it works and they're comfortable with it.
Asset Tracking with RFID
Radio frequency identification (RFID) tags have several advantages over traditional barcodes, but they come with tradeoffs.
Barcodes can contain only a small amount of information, which is usually not a problem when using a cloud-based CMMS platform. All the information about each asset is stored online anyway. But in environments where Internet access is cost prohibitive, this limitation becomes more of a problem. RFID tags, however, can store much more information than barcodes, making them a better choice in remote locations. For example, critical service information can be stored on the tag itself, allowing for offline, computer-based maintenance management. The tags can also be set up to allow you to not only read them but also write to them, opening lots of possibilities. For example, a tag could tell you the last time it had been scanned.
Because RFID technology uses radio frequencies, scanners don't need direct line of sight. In fact, a scanner and a tag don't even have to be close to each other. The distance depends on the size and specific type of tag, but scanners can communicate with small, inexpensive tags from as far away as 300 feet. This makes scanning tags much easier for technicians, and also allows you to better protect the tags; the scanner does not need line of sight, so you can keep tags safe under protective plastic covers.
RFID tags are also faster than traditional barcodes, because you can scan several them all at the same time. Remember that junk drawer in your kitchen you were trying to inventory? Using barcodes, you'd have to pick up and read every item. With RFID tags, you could scan all the tags at once, from across the room.
A more common workplace example would be the furniture in an office building. With barcodes, you'd have to walk around and read every asset, and that could mean crawling under desks and flipping over chairs looking for barcode stickers. With RFID tags, you could stand at the door of each office and scan all the tags at the same time.
If you do decide to go with RFID tags, you'll have to start looking at passive and active versions. Quickly, passive RFID tags get their power from the scanners; they have no sources of power of their own. This lowers their cost, allows them to be smaller, and extends their lifespan. But relying on external power also tends to shorten the distance from which they can be scanned. Active tags do contain their own power supplies, allowing them to broadcast over longer distances. There's a trade-off, though. As with almost anything with an internal power supply, the lifespan is more limited. In the end, because active RFID tags are bigger and cost more, they are generally better suited to larger assets.
RFID tags are great, but not perfect. The tags and the scanners cost much more than barcode equipment. Also, if you have a lot of scanners or tags broadcasting or receiving close together at the same time, the radio signals can collide. There are ways around this issue, but it is something that needs to be kept in mind. Also, there have been persistent security concerns since the technology's introduction. Tags can hold more data than barcodes, but it's still not enough to allow for encryption. This means that under certain circumstances anyone with the right equipment can scan the tags.
So, what's the right asset tracking tag for me?
As with any technology, there are pros and cons to barcode and RFID tags. Thinking about your assets, facilities, workflows, and budget will help you choose the one that's best for you.
Part of the decision-making process should be speaking with your CMMS provider. Not only are they subject area experts, but they'll be able to tell you how best to use their software with different types of tags.