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Beacons and geofencing: real time enterprise asset tracking and self-service

We are living in the era of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The World Economic Forum says the “the introduction of new technologies creates entirely new ways of serving existing needs and significantly disrupt existing industry value chains.” Internet of Things or IoT is one of these new technologies referred to. Industry experts say that over 50 billion smart devices will be connected to the IoT ecosystem  by 2020, and that figure will double by 2024.

Asset tracking is the process of tracking and verifying physical assets at different stages of its life cycle - production, shipment and usage. The accuracy of data from this process can lead to invaluable information on asset usage - answering the proverbial who, what, when, where and how’s - which promote data-backed decision making, smarter asset life cycles and augmented utilization rates. 

I’RTLS with Beacons
I’RTLS with Beacons

The powerful union of the Internet of Things (IoT) and artificial intelligence, is enabling new opportunities to the asset lifecycle and supply chain, by enabling tracking and monitoring of conditions in real-time. The most common ask from industries like retail, hospitality, entertainment and banking, who are investing in this technology, is real time location data.This data enables the design of new business models that can provide proximity based solutions, contextual notifications, indoor navigation systems and more. In the effort to mine location data, Indoor Real Time Location System or ‘I’RTLS has become consumer-accessible, thanks to the ever growing range of sensors and wireless technology such as  wifi ,bluetooth, ultra-wideband and ultrasound.

When it comes to the accuracy of such positioning solutions, combining indoor and outdoor positioning systems enables us to visualise with far greater accuracy. While GPS is revolutionizing the outdoor positioning space, there is still a margin of a few meters of error that’s allowed. But, with indoor positioning systems, the acceptable error range varies between less than 1 and 3 meters, based on the domain for which the RTLS system is deployed. And, Bluetooth is seeing increased adoption (read, almost every smart phone in the market) when it comes to wireless technology that ensures the best results.

For devices where “full” Bluetooth isn’t an available option, Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) devices are a good alternative. In terms of solutions, beacons are the most commonly used BLE devices that enable  positioning capabilities. Additionally, beacons can have additional sensors such as light, temperature, accelerometer and are also available in various form-factors; industry and military grade units have ensured an industry-wide I’RTLS related acceptance for such devices.

Beacons in the workplace

Today, workplaces are more like connected systems where people have a seamless relationship with technology. IT operations are a huge part of an employee experience and include everything from core requirements such as hardware spend optimization, hardware usage, security and auditing and more. These activities call for exceptional hardware asset management, in real-time and with high data accuracy. Real-time dashboard capabilities make it much easier to answer these questions - How do you ensure assets are secured in the protected zone? What is your inventory prediction for the next 6 months? Do you have an accurate usage pattern for this asset?
 

Platform to support BLE geofencing

Gone are the days of spreadsheet-based asset tracking. Today, enterprises can easily leverage commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) ‘asset management software and platforms. However, operational tasks like stock taking, asset assignment, audit of IT assets involve tedious manual processes with higher chances of error. These fundamental operational requirements leave organizations with the big question of how accurate, secure and audit-worthy is their tool’s data. 

BLE-based solutions enable automation to help combat these challenges. At ThoughtWorks, we have developed a platform which supports ‘Geofencing’, that can identify assets within identified boundaries. A one-time setup puts all IT devices through a beacon-based tagging process, and the device dictates the appropriate beacon. For the MVP, we have deployed a poly-beacon solution supports both Estimote and Kontakt beacons using Ibeacon protocol. In future our plan is to co-exist IBeacon along with Eddystone protocol, for business scenarios like temperature, light etc.

I'RTLS Geofencing
I'RTLS Geofencing

The office workspace layout is mapped with multiple virtual boundaries using an ‘Edge node,’ and the low cost, enterprise-grade and Arduino-based board is connected to each virtual boundary. Every beacon delivers an ‘I am here’ signal to the Edge node, coupled with the RSSI value, at 3 second intervals. The Edge node is also enabled with ‘Edge computing’ capabilities that processes information before it’s sent to the cloud for a more detailed analysis, and ML linked activities. The event-based platform is configured to send triggers and push notifications based on defined business rules. 

This solution has a 99.95% precision rate when it comes to real time location accuracy. The 3 to 5 years battery life of beacons ensures automated asset tracking. This creates a 90X cost saving opportunity, that would otherwise be spent on asset tracking and assignment. 

Interestingly,  a study by Mobile Experts, the IoT asset tracking market will triple, from US$22 mn to US$70 mn devices by 2022. And, in Part II of this article, we will see how Geofencing, the IoT led solution is also encouraging workplace related self-service, audit compliance and contextual solutions.


Self-service 

At ThoughtWorks, self-service employee instances are created by embedding digital services into the ‘Things’ from the Internet of Things. Gone are the days where the IT assets are locked down in a store room with special permissions. Today IT assets are easily accessible for any productivity need without the need to raise a support ticket. Using beacon geo-fencing solutions, entire stocks of IT hardware are elf-service enabled. This has helped us boost our already open office culture alongside huge cost savings with respect to support tickets

We have conceptualized a hardware kiosk, for any IT hardware needs. We have started experimenting with this concept using a few devices and are already seeing greater impact with respect to employee experience and operational efficiency. 

Hardware self-service kiosk
Hardware self-service kiosk

IT hardware related support tickets reduced by 60%, which in turn reduced asset assignment and stocking costs by 40%. The RTLS data also helped us plan and predict hardware usage and stock availability much more accurately. 
With the power of indoor RTLS, there is an opportunity  for open shelves/self-serve kiosks at corporate offices. Additional usage can also be seen at museum visitor touchpoints, to track medical equipment at hospitals and to track factory equipment. This segment is expected to reach US$30.8 bn by 2024.

Integration of this indoor RTLS data with IFTTT dashboards triggers actionable workflows such as inventory refill, location -based data cloud for operational optimization. The additional opportunities to enable real-time dashboards are only limited to the available sources of input data. 


Audit compliance

IT asset auditing is a slow marathon for every enterprise, because of the numerous state regulations. More often than not business is upset, with the audit teams deployed at full force across offices. Also, reactions to an audit are akin to a post mortem, because the damage is already done.
 
Beacons and boundaries created with indoor geofencing algorithms enable proactive and realtime push notifications, which have ensured that ThoughtWorks maintains a 95% regulatory compliance adherence. The data accuracy is at 95% which facilitates an enterprise level audit to take only a few hours. 2018’s data points to an 80% drop in our IT audit cost.

We also foresee that these indoor geofencing solutions can enable and  maintain high standards compliance in security sensitive environments such as data centers, banking corporations, research labs where movement of physical assets is restricted to a certain area.
 

Contextual solutions

Offices are evolving from smart buildings to become smart workplaces, all thanks to IoT, AI and virtual beacons. With the help of intelligent systems such as  AI, chatbot-enabled indoor geofencing solutions, empower employees with access to location aware solutions such as real time indoor navigation, smart meeting rooms, pathfinding to locate devices and much more. For example, a virtual assistant can indicate the nearest printer or the closest available meeting room and an employee can use RTLS geofencing data to reach her intended destination.

Identity based intelligence
Identity based intelligence

A closed group internal survey amongst ThoughtWorkers pointed to employees saving a minimum of time by 10X, and having a friction-less experience at the workplace, which in turn increased productivity. Beacon-based smart workplaces instill autonomy and give employees the opportunity to have a bigger say in the design and purpose of the workplace.
 

Conclusion

Our research-driven experiments and implementation of the IoT led geofencing beacons platform resulted in feature rich solutions that automated workflows, provided real-time alerts, offered predictive maintenance, and meaningful insights. As an added business advantage, BLE beacons provide an affordable and adaptable infrastructure that’s both scalable and cost-effective - the perfect mix for traditional operational challenges.

A version of this artilce appeared in ELE Times.