The Bluetooth SIG, the organisation that produces Bluetooth standards, has a recent post The Myths & Facts About Bluetooth Technology as a Positioning Radio. It talks about the location services in general and how they have evolved over time. It explains how Bluetooth helps solve key enterprise pain points to save tens to hundreds of billions of dollars globally through enhanced operational efficiencies, increased worker safety, and loss prevention.
In manufacturing facilities, billions of dollars are lost through unplanned downtime thanks to being unable to locate assets, tools, and equipment. In warehouses, RTLS can help automate the tracking of assets, such as pallets, which is becoming more essential with the ever-increasing size, complexity, and amount of assets stored
Despite the gains thus far, this only represents as small proportion of the opportunity because only a very small percentage of the potential addressable market in the enterprise is using RTLS.
ABI Research expects that will be a 2.5x increase in total Bluetooth RTLS deployments over the next five years, with the fastest growing segments being healthcare, warehouse and logistics, manufacturing and smart building.
Today’s just-in-time and busy manufacturing processes means that manual tracking of pallets for inbound and outbound shipments often can’t keep pace with the speed of production. Production and assembly requires the quick locating of components. Delays and inaccuracies due to lost components lead to increased costs, employee frustration and ultimately customer disappointment.
Competitive pressures are also driving the need to reduce labour thus reducing the capacity to manually search for items. Customisation using configured options and demand-driven production is also increasing the degree of inbound component searching that exacerbates the problems.
Even those companies using legacy tracking solutions find that location is only as good as the last barcode or RFID scan. Humans get lazy, make mistakes and don’t scan, causing pallets, crates and boxes to get lost. Many RFID readers don’t work reliably near metal components. Relying on a system that can’t find just a few items can be worse that a manual system that works but is slower. Bluetooth asset tracking solves these problems because the location is automatically collected in real-time and is continually updated.
Asset tracking can be applied to items such as components, pallets, cases, tools, returnable assets such as racks and cages as well as items on loan to ensure they are returned on time. It can improve worker safety and provide alerts in cases of congestion, perimeter deviation and lone worker distress. It can ensure forklifts are being fully utilised, are taking an optimum route, haven’t crashed into racking and haven’t gone out of an area.
The real-time visibility allows connected systems to generate confirmation and exception alerts and automatically trigger shipping processes, replacing costly manual workflows. Tracking outputs also allows confirmation that the correct things are loaded on the correct transport.
A Bluetooth-based real time location system (RTLS) increases visibility and allows the manufacturing process to adapt in real-time to short term business needs. It provides cost savings, greater efficiency and business intelligence that can be used to derive larger scale changes based on data rather than gut instinct. Overall reporting of input and outputs provides input to management reporting to monitor the business.
When we started BeaconZone, our aim was to encourage new scenarios beyond the over-hyped and under-successful retail marketing scenarios.
One of the issues with retail marketing with beacons is that it requires opt-in through the installation of an app. This is a large barrier if you are considering users who are ambivalent about using specific apps and beacons. The only way it’s usually viable is if you are a large brand who already has an app on customers’ smartphones.
The more interesting and successful uses of beacons involve scenarios that are ‘want-in’ or B2B rather thanconsumer ‘opt-in’. Here are just a few examples of where our beacons are being used:
Policing. There’s a move to what’s called evidence-based policing requiring proof of which police have visited which locations. Trials are taking place to replace paper based reporting with beacon-based automation.
Tours. Beacons have been purchased for use on guided walks and with museum information kiosks.
The Elderly. Several of our our customers are using beacons to keep track of elderly people in care homes and hospitals.
Smart Offices. Several of our customers are using beacons to enable the whereabouts of workers and equipment in smart offices including read time monitoring of room occupancy. We also have clients using beacons with checkin/out type applications.
Asset Tracking. We have two large-instrument manufacturer are using beacons for tracking assets. We also have a customer using beacons and gateways to track bicycles. Our beacons are also being used extensively at many sites that track location using Motorola TRBOnet two-way radio.
Events. Our long range beacons are being used outside for tracking BMX bike trials and power efficient beacons inside large arena events.
Gaming. Ingress players use our beacons.
Automotive. A large UK car manufacturer is using our beacons. Another customer, an undertaker, is using beacons with a car driving monitor app to log the time spent driving.
Security. Our beacons are being used in security systems at several sites including lone worker SOS scenarios.
Utilities. One of the largest UK water authorities is investigating the use of sensor beacons.
Insurance. We have customers using beacons for in-car presence detection.
Health. Our beacons are being used in apps/systems that help visibly impaired people find their way around buildings. Sensor beacons are being used in hospitals to monitor the temperature of refrigerated medicines.
Research. Our beacons have also been purchased by Google, Mozilla and many UK universities for use on their research projects.
Beacons have a multitude of further real uses waiting to be explored and exploited.
It’s interesting how many of our clients come to us with a problem to solve and in talking through possible solutions they often suddenly have the thought, ‘That’s IoT isn’t it?’. They weren’t looking for an IoT or Industry 4.0 solution but they got there by a different route. Indeed, it’s always best to start by solving problems rather than trying to fit technology into existing processes.
So what are the typical problems in factories? While companies usually have systems to take orders and invoice for them, what goes on in between is often a manual paper process. Knowing where an order is physically and hence how far it has been completed often requires lots of ringing round. Similarly, there are usually problems finding parts for jobs. Parts arrive in boxes or in pallets and are stored somewhere pending jobs. Finding the right pallet or box on a large site can be a challenge. It might be in storage, already on the factory floor somewhere or in transit between areas. Sometimes, delicate parts might be left in the wrong places and spoil due to excess humidity or in some cases incorrect temperature. Expensive tools and equipment tends to be shared between work areas and this can also get mislaid, lost or stolen.
All these problems cause delays in production, reduced productivity, incur penalties or future lost orders due to delayed work and cause employee frustration.
The solution is to better track jobs, parts, sub-assemblies and shared valuable tools so that they can be located on factory plans. This tracking needs to be continuous and real-time because merely scanning things in/out using barcodes is open to human error and location is otherwise only as good as the last scan. Historical data shows where things have been in the past. Analysis of this data allows blockages to be identified so that the process as a whole can be refined to improve efficiency and production.
The result is reduced downtime, less time re-ordering or re-making things that have been lost, optimum productivity and better use of skilled staff doing their job rather than searching for things.
“The Priority Matrix shows that many IoT technologies are 5 years from mainstream adoption. However only one innovation profile will reach maturity in 2 years, indoor location for assets.
So why is ‘indoor location for assets’ more likely to achieve mainstream adoption sooner than other technologies? It’s because there are clear benefits for most companies and off-the-shelf software such as our BeaconRTLS™ is already available.
Our work with companies shows they are nevertheless cautious. Companies are taking time to understand the competing asset tracking technologies and are performing, sometimes lengthy, trials to determine how new systems will integrate with existing systems. They are considering the implications of SAAS vs on-premise solutions, the availability of second-sourced beacon hardware and the compromises of accuracy vs system complexity and cost.
There are many industries where the inability to find assets leads to the requirement to have many more of those assets. This is especially so in areas, such as hospitals, where not finding things can cost lives.
It also tends to be the case that such urgently required items are also expensive as they are critical pieces of equipment. When equipment is very expensive, lack of redundancy can end up causing key staff spending their time finding things rather than doing their main job.
Even when not finding things isn’t mission critical, a lot of time, human effort and hence cost can be wasted if assets aren’t available. Examples include vehicles in fleet management, tools in construction and equipment in manufacturing.
Beacons and locating systems allow you to reduce asset redundancy, save costs and make working processes more efficient.
Bluetooth iBeacons are increasingly being used with fleet tracking. An example is Geotab who claim to be:
“World’s leading connected vehicle company, helping businesses leverage data to better manage and track their fleet”.
GeoTab has IoX extensions that extend the capabilities of their system.
One such extension is IOX-BT which monitors beacons attached to tools and equipment. This allows the system to be used to improve asset utilisation, reduce misplaced equipment, boost productivity, reduce operational costs and improve on-time delivery.
There’s lots said about the advantages of Industry 4.0 or Digital Transformation and the associated new technologies but it’s a lot harder to apply this to the context of a business that has legacy equipment and no real way of knowing where to start.
Our previous article on productivity explained how, historically, digital transformation has been only been implemented in the top 5% ‘frontier’ companies. These have tended to be very large companies with large R&D budgets that have enabled customised digital solutions. More recently, the availability of less expensive sensors and software components have extended opportunities to the SME companies. These companies are already realising gains in profitability, customer experience and operational efficiency. Unlike previous technologies, such as CRM, the newer technologies such as IoT and AI are more transformative. Companies that don’t update their processes risk being outranked by their competition with a greater possibility of going out of business. But where do you start?
The place to start is not technology but instead something you and your colleagues fortunately have lots of experience of : Your company. Take an honest look at your processes and work out the key problems that, if solved, would achieve the greatest gains. You might have ignored problems or inefficiencies for years or decades because they were thought to be insolvable. Technology might now be able to solve some of these problems. So what kind of problems? Think in terms of bottlenecks, costly workrounds, human effort-limited tasks, stoppages, downtimes, process delays, under-used equipment and even under-used people. Can you measure these things and react? Can you predict they are about to happen? This is where sensing comes in.
The next stage is connectivity. You will almost certainly need to upgrade or expand your WiFi and/or Ethernet network. It can be impractical to put sensors on everything and everyone and connect everything by WiFi/Ethernet. Instead, consider Bluetooth LE and sensor beacons to provide a low cost, low power solution for the last 50 to 100m. Bluetooth mesh can provide site-wide connectivity.
Initially implement a few key improvements that offer good payback for the effort (ROI). The improvements in efficiency, productivity, reduced costs and even customer experience should be enough to convince stakeholders to expand and better plan the digital transformation. This involves replacement of inefficient equipment and inefficient processes using, for example, robotics and 3D printing. It also involves analysing higher order information combined from multiple sources and using more advanced techniques such as AI machine learning to recognise and detect patterns to detect, classify and predict. This solves problem complexity beyond that able to be solved by the human mind or algorithmic program created by a programmer.
Tracking loaded pallets saves a significant amount of time, effort and hence cost in logistics and manufacturing. Pallets might contain stock, components or sub-assemblies. The top usecase is finding a particular pallet quickly. However, sensing need not be limited to pallets. Extending tracking to forklifts, racking and even people provides additional business benefits. For example, we have previously been asked to provide for the following scenarios:
“I need to ensure best use of my forklifts. Tell me when one hasn’t moved for 2 minutes.”
“I need to know if a forklift has crashed into racking.”
“I run a warehouse containing hazardous materials. If evacuation is needed, I need to know everyone has evacuated the building even if someone has temporarily gone off site”
These situations, and more, are solvable using Bluetooth beacons (In terms of asset tracking, beacons are sometimes called tags).
RFID and barcodes can also be used for tracking. However, the information is only as good as the last scan that might have been a long time ago after which the asset might have moved without being scanned. The advantage of beacons is that they repeatedly advertise so the information is always up to date.
Further advantages of Bluetooth tags are:
Being commodity items rather than specialist devices, tags and readers are relatively inexpensive compared to other proprietary technologies such as ultra wideband (UWB).
They consume very low power and battery lifetimes of 5 to 10 years are possible.
They are readable from handheld devices such as smartphones and tablets, providing for additional possibilities within the warehouse.
Software such as our BeaconServer™ and BeaconRTLS™ can be used to track what’s where over time, create notifications and integrate with your existing systems.
Once you have some current and historical data you can also start to do clever things such as automatically detecting and predicting over or under utilisation, finding pinch points or detecting valuable equipment about to be stolen.
Connected factory implementations require a large number of connected assets for condition-based monitoring, asset tracking, inventory (stock) management or for building automation. Bluetooth is a secure, low cost, low power and reliable solution suitable for use in connected factories. In this post, we examine the reasoning behind some out-of-date thinking on industrial wireless, uncover the real problems in factories and provide some explanations how Bluetooth overcomes these challenges.
Operations teams are usually very sceptical about industrial wireless. They have usually tried proprietary industry solutions using wireless with mixed results. They might have experienced how connections, such as WiFi, can become unreliable in the more electrically noisy areas of factories. The usual approach is to use cable. However, this can become expensive and time consuming. Using cable isn’t possible when assets are moving and becomes impractical when the number of connected items becomes large as in the case of connected factories. As we shall explain, Bluetooth is intrinsically more reliable than WiFi even through they share the same 2.4GHz frequency band.
There’s usually lots of electrical noise in an industrial environment that tends to be one of two types:
Electromagnetic radiation emitted by equipment. This typically includes engines, charging devices, frequency converters, power converters and welding. It also includes transmissions from other radio equipment such as DECT phones and mobile telephones.
Multipath propagation which is reflection of radio signals off, usually metallic, surfaces and received again slightly later.
It’s important to understand how Bluetooth and other competing technologies react to these types of interference. There’s a useful study (pdf) by Linköping University, Swedish Defence Research Agency (FOI) and the University of Gävle on noise industrial environments.
Noise in industrial environments tends to follow the following spectral pattern:
There’s usually lots of electrical noise up to about 500MHz. This means wireless communication using lower frequencies, such as two way radio, exhibits a lot of noise. Pertinently, several wireless solutions for industrial applications use frequencies in the 30–80 MHz and 400–450 MHz bands. Bluetooth’s and WiFi’s 2.4GHz frequency is well above 500MHz so exhibits better reliability than some industrial wireless solutions. Incidentally, in the above charts, the peaks around 900 MHz and 1800 MHz mobile phone signals and 1880–1890 MHz come from DECT phones.
The magnitude of multipath propoagation depends on the environment. It’s greatest in buildings having highly reflective, usually metallic, floors, walls and roofs. If you imagine a radio signal wave being received and then received again nanoseconds later, you can imagine how both the amplitude (peaks) and the phase of the received signal becomes distorted over time. Bluetooth uses Adaptive Frequency Hopping (AFH) which means that packets transferred consecutively in time do not use the same frequency. Thus each packet acts like a single narrowband transmission and there’s less affect of one packet on the next one. However, what is more affected is amplitude which manifests itself as the received overall signal strength (RSSI). RSSI is often used by Bluetooth applications to infer distance from sender to receiver. We will mention mitigations for varying RSSI later.
It’s important to consider what happens when there is electrical noise. It turns out that technologies invented to ensure reliable transmission behave much less well in noisy situations. One such technique is carrier sense multiple access (CSMA), used by WLAN (WiFi), that listens to the channel before transmitting and waits until a free channel is observed. CSMA and automatic auto repeat (ARQ) also have re-transmission mechanisms. The retrying can also incur significant extra traffic that can overwhelm the communication in noisy environment. Bluetooth doesn’t use such schemes.
The previously mentioned research classifies different wireless technologies according to the delay when used in noisy environments:
Bluetooth (and WISA) is a good choice for noisier environments. It’s particularly suited for applications with lower data rates and sending at periodic intervals.
A final consideration is interference between Bluetooth and other technologies, such as WiFi, that use similar 2.4GHz frequencies. As mentioned in a previous post, there’s negligible overlap between Bluetooth and WiFi channel frequencies.
In summary, Bluetooth is more suited to electrically noisy environments and also offers low cost, low power and secure wireless communication.
These conclusions correlate well with our own empirical observations. We have found that Bluetooth advertising is still received in environments we have measured, using a RF spectrum analyser, to be electrically noisy around 2.4GHz . We believe this is because Bluetooth advertising hops across three frequencies such that there’s less likelihood of noise on all three. Advertising is also very short, typically taking 1 or 2 ms, making the coincidence of the noise and the advertising less likely than would be the case of a longer transmission.
It has been our experience that solutions using Bluetooth advertising are more reliable than those using Bluetooth (GATT) connections, especially in noisy environments when it’s difficult to maintain the chatty protocol of a connection over a long time period. In noisy situations, advertising is usually seen on a future transmit/scan if the first advertising is lost. By coincidence or design, Bluetooth Mesh is built on communication via advertising rather than connection and for this reason is also reliable on the factory floor.
However, using Bluetooth isn’t a silver bullet. There are situations where factories, or more usually parts of factories, have reflective surfaces or unusual radio frequency (RF) characteristics stretching into unforeseen frequencies. Poorer performing WiFi also needs to be considered in context of choosing between Ethernet and WiFi gateways and Bluetooth mesh.
It’s important to do a site survey including RF spectral analysis. This will uncover nuances of particular critical locations or coverage that can drive subsequent hardware planning. It can also feed into requirements for software processing, for example particular settings for processing within a real time locating system (RTLS) to cater for more varying RSSI.