24 February 2020

Managing in the Location-Tracking Era

Real-time locating systems allow precise tracking of every asset. But to make the most of these technologies, slow-moving processes must be adjusted.

Shifting business operations to the cloud makes workplaces, assets, and people more connected than ever. That brings a host of changes, one of which will deliver a profound shift in how organisations operate: real-time locating systems (RTLS). Managers will be in a position to pinpoint the precise whereabouts of just about all their assets, down to the centimetre.

This is likely to happen quickly due to a technological chain reaction already underway, in which workers and machines are being outfitted with technologies that send information to the cloud continuously. To take advantage of cloud computing opportunities, businesses are investing in uplink data connectivity, particularly in the form of private LTE networks and 5G wireless, which provide faster-than-ever transfers of unprecedented amounts of data to the cloud.

Through my work at Quuppa, an RTLS provider, I’m seeing businesses across numerous industries marry this new technology with RTLS. Suddenly, managers are being inundated with location information. If they use it wisely, they can build more efficient operations, maximise scalability, and reduce infrastructure costs at every step in the supply chain. Real-time location information can help protect assets, fix problems, and get workers anything they need to finish a job or close a sale quickly.

For example, industries and governments are beginning to invest in smart ports — a great starting point, given that more than 90% of world trade is carried by sea. Implementing smart technologies at ports allows businesses to track cargo, avoid traffic jams, find shipments that go missing, and protect against theft. Such technologies can also be used to ensure that changing environmental regulations are followed, as three University of Houston professors found in a study.

But it isn’t just products that can be tracked. Managers can tag pieces of equipment with devices that allow them to be tracked as well. These devices use location-based service programs that run on RTLS. For example, at airport hangars, workers can find the exact piece of equipment they need easily, so an entire maintenance process need not come to a halt simply because a piece of specialised equipment was misplaced.

Similarly, in manufacturing, if a piece of machinery breaks down, location systems can guide managers to the exact spot at which the malfunction occurred, bypassing the guesswork that can slow operations.

These technologies could be extended all the way through a customer’s retail experience. With RTLS, stores could provide customers with the real-time location of any item using mobile devices or smart shopping carts. And businesses could track the movement of people through their stores like never before, optimising flow.

Most important, these technologies can be used to help companies protect workers, especially those who work in dangerous conditions. Managers can track miners, for example, vastly increasing the speed with which they can deliver emergency help or perform rescues when necessary.

Until now, industries have tried to achieve some of these results using only GPS technology, which involves higher costs, limited battery life, and limited spatial information. Emerging location systems involve newer, more affordable technologies such as Bluetooth Low Energy tags, which can operate for years on a single battery. GPS generally requires a clear path to the sky, making it tougher to use indoors and underground.

But to make any of these location-tracking technologies work, managers will need to update their processes, which will require a big adjustment. Slow-moving processes can effectively negate any opportunities afforded by location systems.

Traditionally, when employees need something, they must begin with paperwork. They fill out forms to submit requests, supported by their reasons for the requests. That paperwork then must be reviewed and approved by managers, who may be busy dealing with other issues. Each step of this cumbersome process invites delays that can close any window of opportunity requiring fast action.

For example, if location data shows which piece of machinery needs to be replaced and exactly where to find the replacement part, workers can get production back up to speed in very little time. But a complex, multistep process requiring manager approval to actually retrieve the replacement part from storage could negate any time saved from quickly locating the part.

Likewise, if a location system alerts an employee that a shipping route is facing a slowdown and offers a faster way to get products to their destination, that worker may need to make a split-second decision to adjust the new route. If the worker has to instead fill out a form about the new route and wait for approval, the time-sensitive opportunity may be lost.

To take advantage of RTLS in this new era, then, managers need to empower their workers to make immediate decisions when location information uncovers a challenge. Managers should also run through various potential scenarios with their teams and provide guidance on how to make decisions as they pop up — and decisions can be reviewed after the fact so workers can make future modifications.

The key is agility. As we begin a new decade, technology will take us in unforeseen directions. The businesses that succeed will be those that enable their workforces to put these technologies to use in the best, fastest, and most transformative ways.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Fabio Belloni (Twitter – @fbelloni) is cofounder and chief customer officer at Quuppa.

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