Getting Started with Fixed Asset Tracking
Fixed assets are the tangible things your organization uses to create value. Poor management of these things can be costly, so it’s important to put a system in place to track them.
Asset Tracking 101
Fixed assets are the tangible things your organization uses to create value. Poor management of these things can be costly, so it’s important to put a system in place to track them. Asset tracking is all about making sure that your asset records match physical reality. It’s about staying in the know about the “who, what, when, where, and how much” of your assets. What follows is a basic framework for understanding how asset tracking systems work, how to find the right one for your organization, and how to get started with fixed asset tracking.
Asset Tracking Defined
Asset tracking refers to the process of verifying the location, condition, and value of your physical assets. Before you can manage your assets, you have to know what and where they are. Once you know that, you can associate valuable information such as an asset’s last known location, who has it, and when it is due back.
Asset Tracking Systems
The combination of hardware and software that work together to help you keep track of your assets is called an asset tracking system (also referred to as an asset tracking solution). A system is made up of hardware, software, and labels. Asset tracking hardware can display, transmit, and capture encoded information about your assets; it also sends that information to an application that stores and interprets the data. Asset tracking software can generate reports that calculate and summarize information such as:
- Current asset value
- Location and movement
- Use history
- Lost or damaged assets
Asset Tracking ID Technologies
Asset tracking depends on being able to assign a unique identifier – an identification number at the very least – to each item you need to keep track of. Barcode and RFID are two ways of assigning and attaching identification to assets. The software, hardware, and labels used in most asset tracking systems will generally be based on one or both of these identification technologies.
Barcodes use a series of lines – or bars – and spaces of varying widths to encode identifying information about an item. Barcodes can be 1D or 2D and involve a range of different symbologies that are decoded using laser scanners or imagers. Alternatively, RFID tags and labels contain microchips that you can encode with an item’s identification information; the information they carry – often in greater detail than barcodes are capable of holding – is transmitted and received over radio frequency waves.
Deciding which ID format makes the most sense for you depends on several variables, including:
- What you want to track (if your assets liquid-filled or metallic, RFID might be tricky to implement)
- Where and how these items are used (if you want to be able to capture a lot of ID reads without having a direct line-of-sight between the reader and the asset, then RFID can deliver performance here that barcodes can’t match)
- Your asset tracking budget (because barcode technology tends to be less expensive to implement than RFID)
- The cost of losing assets or failing to meet external compliance requirements (if the risk of losing track of expensive or critical equipment is high, then fast, reliable RFID-tracking may be a “no-brainer”)
One of the first steps in implementing any asset tracking system involves establishing digital identities for your assets. This starts with attaching tags, which are encoded with unique identification information, to the assets you want to track. These tags can come in many different forms, including printable RFID-encoded labels, plastic RFID-encoded tags, paper and synthetic barcode stickers, and more. Whatever asset tracking system you implement will give you specific instructions on initially uploading or entering this asset tag information into the software. Once your items are tagged and in your system, you can scan a tag at any time and be able to access all of the identification information associated with that asset. You’ll also be able to account for it during audits and inventories, and update its use history, location, condition, and other details as needed.
Data Capture Devices
Data capture devices include RFID readers and barcode scanners, and are a critical piece of hardware in asset tracking systems. These devices elevate your asset tracking activities from manual data-entry tedium to automated processing: they associate your physical assets with their digital identities in the software. Some devices are capable of capturing both RFID and barcode data, giving you flexibility that you may need for tracking multiple types of assets in different locations.
Like asset tags, data capture devices also come in a number of different form factors (e.g., handheld, fixed, wearable, etc.) and offer capabilities that are designed to support a wide variety of applications and environments, so it makes sense to consider the general productivity-enhancing opportunities here – even beyond asset tracking – when weighing your hardware options.
Who Needs Asset Tracking?
Simply put, any organization that has fixed assets needs asset tracking. Publicly and privately owned companies alike must stay compliant with regulatory standards that require them to report the value of their fixed assets (we’ll talk a little more about these regulations later on in this guide).
What do we mean by fixed assets? Also referred to as property, plant, and equipment (PPE), fixed assets are any tangible items that are purchased as an investment in a company’s long-term financial gain. Fixed assets support a business’s operations and aren’t intended for sale. An asset tracking system makes it easy for anyone to maintain the up-to-date fixed assets records that are needed for calculating taxes and ensuring insurance coverage.
However, even companies with relatively few fixed assets can benefit from asset tracking systems, which can be used to track just about anything. Asset tracking can significantly cut down on the time spent searching for frequently used tools, small parts, and office equipment. Everything a company owns can be tracked, including:
- IT equipment (e.g., laptops)
- Medical equipment
- Maintenance supplies
- Educational materials
The possibilities are endless!
While some smaller businesses may try to get by without an asset tracking system, the truth is that knowing where your tangible assets are offers valuable benefits to all companies. Mismanaging your assets or operating under outdated information can severely affect anyone’s bottom line.
The Value of a Reseller
When starting your search, you’ll find different options for purchasing asset tracking systems, including: 1) directly from an asset tracking software developer/ manufacturer; and 2) working through a Value Added Reseller (VAR).
While dealing directly with a manufacturer means that you’ll be getting information about a solution straight from its maker, you also have to consider that their goal, ultimately, is to sell you their specific product. In the name of due diligence, you’ll need to reach out to manufacturers of several different systems, and the burden of sorting through each one’s marketing messages and feature sets will rest on you.
VARs, on the other hand, typically cultivate relationships with multiple manufacturers in a particular area of technology so you don’t have to. They focus on developing expertise in order to provide appropriate product offerings to a range of different types of customers. A VAR’s job is to ensure that you get the best asset tracking system for your needs.
Believe it or not, we commonly hear of companies spending time and money on asset tracking systems that they never end up using. Working with an experienced, reputable VAR can help shorten the research phase of shopping for an asset tracking system, and can increase the likelihood that you’ll end up with a solution that actually fits with the way your business operates. VARs can offer their customers several benefits, including:
- Access to a full range of products, which helps them know what options will fit your needs across a variety of criteria.
- Expertise, based on the time they’ve taken to carefully and objectively test and select the best products on the market.
- Aggressive pricing.
- Insight and expertise to pair their understanding of business with their mastery of technology.
- Assistance in discovering built-in features and benefits that you might not even have been looking for.
- Continued support and guidance throughout the system’s lifecycle.
Ultimately, an experienced VAR can do more than provide simple answers to your questions – they have perceptivity about what you may not know, can anticipate your next questions, and help you feel fully confident in your asset tracking system purchase decision.
Choosing an Asset Tracking System
Asset tracking systems comprise a combination of hardware and software. When evaluating different systems, the underlying question you need consider is this: Will this particular hardware and software technology combination offer the best solution for my company’s specific needs? The answer may well hinge on whether the system is based on RFID or barcode. As you weigh the pros and cons of these technologies, there are several factors that can help you determine the best option for you. Here is a checklist of asset tracking variables that are helpful for you to verify on your end before you begin exploring asset tracking systems:
- Environmental conditions where assets will be tracked (e.g., dusty warehouse, temperature-controlled laboratory, humid greenhouse, etc.)
- Number of assets
- Physical dimensions of assets
- Material composition of assets
- Spacing of assets (how close together are your assets?)
- Distance between assets and your data capture device (how far away will your assets be – e.g., do you need to track assets stored on high shelves or other hard-to-reach locations?)
- Existing hardware and software (e.g., will your asset tracking system need to be integrated with any other software applications?)
Once you’ve got a thorough understanding of your resources and conditions, you can begin reaching out to manufacturers and/or VARs to learn about your options and understand what different solutions offer. We highly recommend setting up demos as the best way to explore asset tracking systems, so that you can experience for yourself how each one works.
Smart Asset Tracking Software Features
Asset tracking software serves as a one-stop shop for a company’s asset data, filling in the blanks on how many assets a company has, where they are located, and how much they are worth. Think of asset tracking software as the “brains” of the asset tracking system.
With so many asset tracking software packages on the market, you’ll quickly see that not all are head-of-the-class when it comes to feature sets. Certain factors can make a huge difference in how useful the software ultimately is. Here are a few examples:
- Reporting Options – Highly configurable reporting options give you the freedom to sort and view data by categories such as location, employee, and more, rather than limiting your output to predefined data sets.
- Web-based vs. Client-based – Web-based asset tracking applications run on your wireless network, require no extra hardware or maintenance, and are accessible by employees with proper user login credentials from any mobile device with a browser and a WiFi connection. In contrast, desktop-based asset tracking applications can only be accessed from devices on your network and are a good option for companies with limited wireless access.
- User Profile Options – An important security feature, user profiles enable you to control access to the information in your asset tracking system, so that not everyone in your company will be able to see, enter, edit, or report on all data that is available. More or less access can be granted by title, function, department, etc.
What Asset Tracking Hardware Should You Use?
In an asset tracking system, the hardware does a lot of heavy lifting. Hardware components of an asset tracking system can include:
- Data capture devices (for reading asset IDs), generally –
- a handheld barcode reader attached to a laptop or mobile computer,
- a mobile computer with a built-in scan engine or RFID-reading capabilities,
- a mobile computer paired with an RFID sled, or
- a fixed barcode scanner or RFID reader
- RFID antennas (for amplifying signal strength in RFID-enabled systems)
- Laptop or mobile computer (for hosting or accessing the application)
- Printers/encoders (for creating your asset ID labels and tags)
Data capture devices can be fixed or mobile. For the purposes of asset tracking, a fixed reader can be installed at a stationary location (like a doorway, check-out desk, or other chokepoint) and read tags as they pass by or are held up to the scanner. Mobile devices, on the other hand, are portable and can include handheld RFID readers and wearable barcode scanners, handheld mobile computers that can capture barcode or RFID (sometimes both), and vehicle-mounted computers. Mobile readers let you capture data wherever your assets happen to be, while fixed readers capture data as your assets move along a known path. For most asset tracking newcomers, mobile devices will be the best fit.
Your specific hardware selections should be determined by the ID format most appropriate to your asset tracking needs, your system’s software specifications, and the environmental conditions of your business operations, as well as your assets themselves and how they are used.
A quick note about consumer-grade hardware: In our increasingly mobile culture, many companies are offering employees a BYOD (bring your own device) option for using personal technology to complete their job duties. It’s also true that many of today’s smartphones can run apps that use their built-in cameras to scan barcodes. However, when it comes to critical asset tracking activities, smartphones with scanning apps simply can’t compete – in terms of performance, speed, encryption, security, reliability, and durability – with rugged, enterprise-grade devices that are designed to withstand workplace rigors, securely accommodate multiple users, and are equipped with built-in imagers that can quickly capture the thousands of barcodes involved in a typical inventory. We highly recommend working with a professional VAR to identify the most appropriate hardware options for your system and budget.
Asset tracking software will save you time. You know, so you can spend less time taking inventory and more time doing all the other things you need to do.