This article was written by Helen Carmichael of gasworld and originally appeared in the December 2014 issue. It is reprinted with permission.
Cylinder tracking is an essential tool for managing a company’s prized assets. Now by deploying cloud data storage and mobile devices, Lockhouse has created another level of asset management for end-users. Helen Carmichael reports.
Recent years have seen an inexorable move towards electronic and bar code tagging and tracking of cylinders among many distribution companies. Although these strategies have saved a lot of time and paperwork, they have also revealed a few problems along the way. Companies have reported trying a number of bar coding strategies before finding the right one, and Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tagging is expensive, may have reliability issues, and also may not be totally future-proof as technology moves forward.
According to Tim Fusco, CEO of asset tracking software company TrackAbout, “for customers who are using RFID, it is expensive, and they are locked into a single track. Barcodes or QR codes are more flexible.”
QR codes (Quick Response Codes) are a type of matrix barcode (or two-dimensional barcode) originating in the Japanese automotive industry, and now cropping up increasingly on our products – which we can scan for more information using our mobile phones. By its choice of QR codes attached on a coated label, Lockhouse intends to use the devices already in everyone’s pockets to find and recover lost assets, says Lockhouse Head of Marketing and Strategy, Cassie Glessner. “Lockhouse is an internet web application,” she told gasworld. “The user scans the code on an asset with their mobile device, and brings up a specific page on that asset. Simultaneously, the location from the GPS on the user’s phone or other handheld device is paired with that asset.”
Lockhouse, then, provides a registry for gas cylinders and other assets that connects different data systems to create a more efficient information exchange between the industry and its users.
This came through a Google News Alert I have set up. It might be of particular interest to our customer base. TrackAbout’s tracking system is what I like to call “tag agnostic”. Be it 1D or 2D barcodes, RFID tags, QR-Codes, you name it, we’ll scan it.
I caught wind of an exciting research project coming out of North Dakota State University in Fargo, North Dakota. A research team, led by research engineer Cherish Bauer-Reich, has invented an RFID tag that uses the metal object on which it is mounted as its antenna! Here’s the university’s article.
RFID hasn’t made great inroads into the packaged gas and cylinder asset tracking software space due to (1) the difficulty of getting tags to work reliably when mounted on metal objects (gas cylinders) and (2) the issue with discriminating between various tags answering the siren song of the RFID reader. Hopefully with this new invention, problem #1 is on its way to being solved. Congratulations to Cherish and her team are in order. Now its up to her university’s technology transfer team to license the technology and get tags into the real world in volume.
As the university’s press release states, existing RFID tags that work on metal tend to be quite bulky. This is due to the need to create space between the antenna and the metal so the antenna can perform its intended function. A bulky tag creates a large attack surface which makes it more prone to damage. This new design promises to enable a much thinner tag, as the spacing (and antenna!) is no longer necessary.
There are still a few things that barcodes do better than RFID tags.
- Barcodes are considerably cheaper than even the cheapest RFID tags, let alone tags that work well on metals.
- You can print multiple barcodes with the same unique ID and place them on the same asset. This adds redundancy and also enables barcode scanning from multiple angles. Most RFID tags for our applications are purchased in bulk and show up in bags, so managing duplicate tags for the purpose of redundancy is not realistic. Writing tags on the fly would be one solution, but it requires more expensive rewritable tags and the hardware to write them, which adds cost.
- Barcodes are extremely thin and unlikely to be knocked off during use as easily as a tag could be.
- At no extra cost, barcodes can contain a human readable number. This is useful in many scenarios and is unusual to find on the typical RFID tags we see used in cylinder tracking applications today.
- And last but certainly not least, barcodes can be read by modern smartphones. As TrackAbout continues to extend its capabilities, we want to make sure our customers benefit from the ongoing revolution in mobile devices.
Arguably, many of these “wins” for barcodes must be balanced against the ability to scan large quantities of assets quickly and without human intervention or line-of-sight. Time is money, and scanning cylinders one at a time with a handheld scanner takes time.
As our customers will attest, there are definite use cases where automatic scanning via fixed readers would be fantastic, but we still have the need for scanning assets individually in the field. For this, the handheld scanner remains the right tool for the job. That means we still need technology that can solve the tag discrimination problem, and this ups the bar for an all-in-one RFID tag solution for the packaged gas industry.