|Europe I 2009
|Location services – where it is, when you need it
|Global Technology and Wireless & Mobility Lead, Global NI Dimension Data
Nadeem Ahmad is Group Technology Director for Dimension Data responsible for determining the company’s global technology strategy and direction; he has been in the technology sector for fifteen years. Mr Ahmad’s experience includes technical leadership of multi-disciplinary teams for large system integration projects, building and leading technology solution delivery organisations in Europe, and fostering partnerships and strategic alliances in conjunction with solution strategy development and implementation. Nadeem Ahmad studied engineering and computer science at university
Wireless networks and RFID (radio frequency identification) tags can help businesses pinpoint the locations of all their moveable assets. Wireless location services improve workflow by providing information about the exact location of all mobile assets, including employees. Location services can track the parts needed to keep an assembly line moving, find where urgently needed medical equipment or specialised personnel are in a hospital to immediately re-deploy them, and reduce the need to over-order equipment and supplies to guarantee their availability.
Wireless omnipotence We have all experienced the negative repercussions of losing something important, such as a set of house keys. They include increased blood pressure and the cost of an emergency locksmith. Even if the loss is only temporary, it can put you behind schedule and have a knock-on effect that can hamper your productivity and mood for the entire day. In a business environment, the inability to locate key assets or people is similarly costly and detrimental to productivity – as well as many other aspects of the operation – although usually on a far larger scale. Imagine the impact on an automobile assembly line when parts are misplaced and arrive late. If the parts aren’t found or a substitute shipment doesn’t arrive in time, then the entire assembly line could be brought to a standstill, costing the company dearly. Within a hospital, the inability to quickly locate a medical specialist or an important piece of medical equipment could even be life threatening. In an ideal world, people would have constant, real-time visibility of everything that mattered to their business that could move or be moved. This would give organisations unprecedented control over their mobile assets and allow them to optimise business processes to a previously unimagined degree. This operational revolution would, among many other things, reduce waste and costs and improve productivity and competitiveness. Thanks to recent advances in the application of wireless technology, this utopian vision is becoming reality. The full name of this emerging technology is Wireless LAN Location Based Services (LBS), but ‘location services’ will suffice for this article. In simple terms, location services improve workflow by providing information about the geographical location of all mobile assets, including employees. Key to their operation are simple devices, such as active Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags with WiFi interfaces, which are attached to portable assets to make them ‘visible’ to wireless networks. These services have already begun to bring major operational improvements to many industries, but especially healthcare, manufacturing and retail. How, though, do they deliver tangible benefits to organisations in the healthcare and manufacturing industries? The secret to success The devices attached to the mobile assets, such as WiFi-based active RFID tags, emit signals that are picked up by wireless LAN access points (APs) and sent to a ‘location engine’. The location engine sends information about the asset’s whereabouts to ‘visibility software’, which displays the data on reports and maps. Related functions, such as searches, alerts and cross-referencing with information about what an asset contains, are also possible. For example, an alert may be triggered when an asset enters a certain area, such as a warehouse. The services are enabled through three primary approaches: • choke-point – when an asset passes through a gate where ‘exciters’ are placed – usually an exit or entrance of a room, floor or building – a system alert is activated; • triangulation – to pin-point the exact location of an asset, a great many AP sensors are deployed throughout the target area; and • presence – when you only need to know whether an asset is in a specific area, rather than an exact location, the density of the AP sensors within the target zone is reduced The importance of location services Location services allow a business to monitor and optimise business processes by co-ordinating timetables, rosters and the flow of work and equipment. Important, expensive assets can be tracked to protect them from theft and loss and to enable their seamless and effective employment. This enables a greater return on investment and dramatically improves the level of utilisation of the asset. In other words, it enables the exploitation of every possible hour that an asset can be used. The positive operational effects of this are profound and far-reaching, and include greater efficiencies, reduced need for extra equipment and better customer service. When you consider that items of any size and number can be tracked, the full potential of location services to provide large-scale business benefits are clear. That is why analysts predict that the market is set to explode. For example, according to IDC, February 2008, location services are “expected to grow at a 53% CAGR over the next five years, exceeding total market size of $1 billion worldwide by 2012”. Also, “spending [on location services] as a portion of total wireless LAN spending was 6.3% in 2007 and will increase to 26.3% worldwide by 2011”. At the moment, major healthcare, manufacturing and automotive organisations are leading the way in the adoption of this technology. The main reason for this is because these industries are capital-intensive and therefore the cumulative efficiencies of location services provide compelling bottom-line benefits. Is there a doctor in the hospital? In the healthcare industry, quickly locating critical care equipment and personnel provides numerous benefits to the patient, staff and business. For example, it improves the exploitation of the working life of expensive specialist equipment, which leads to better diagnostics and treatment. Improved utilisation of equipment also results in the reduction of over-ordered assets. Synchronising equipment availability with patient needs leads to better customer service and reduced staff waiting time. As staff record better response times, their performance and even morale can improve. By tracking costly assets, the incidence of lost or stolen equipment is greatly reduced. Overall, the improvements in business processes make for a more efficient and effective business, and most importantly, better patient care. How do location services do all these things? In a typical hospital, according to IDTechEx (January 2007), the location of 15 to 20 per cent of its assets is unknown at any one time and the time spent by nurses searching for this equipment costs about US$1,900 per nurse. Moreover, when the right equipment cannot be found in time, staff will sometimes resort to renting another unit. Others keep the piece of equipment with them, once they finally have it, to avoid having to search for it again. All of this leads to over-provisioning of assets, and drives up the cost of care. With location services, these problems are eliminated. For example, when a specific unit is needed, the medical team is instantly advised of its location, and can send someone to get it. This saves hours of wasted search time and reduces short-term leasing costs. Have you seen my three thousand cars? Locating tools and major parts on a timely basis within a large area – a factory for instance – is crucial to manufacturers. For example, a key challenge in the automotive manufacturing industry is managing parts replenishment. When stock runs out, the production line employee typically has to leave the workstation to personally notify administration. Since the installation of parts must often obey a strict sequence, a lack of parts can stop production and negatively affect the plant’s performance and profitability. To guarantee a constant supply of parts on the production line, many businesses over-provision so there is always enough. This is wasteful and costly, and results in a sub-optimal use of storage space on the production line. Location services can help in this situation by allowing the employee to notify administration of low stock levels by using a nearby call button tag. This automatically sends a message through the wireless LAN that replenishment is necessary, and the specific stock for that location is then delivered. Even after production, location services provide automotive manufacturers with tangible business benefits. A distribution centre that serves a whole town or city may contain thousands of cars. By tracking the vehicles within the lot, an accurate count can be kept, and they can be quickly located and easily monitored to ensure they go through all of the correct distribution procedures and processes before being sent to the dealer. The handheld device enhances the use of location services by facilitating stock tracking and vehicle monitoring as employees move around the lot. All the relevant attributes of the vehicle can be stored and displayed by the visibility software, so that the correct vehicle or vehicles can be quickly found. Answering the ‘where?’ question Thanks to location services, early adopters are already reaping the benefits of improved workflow by knowing where the item they need is located, when they need it. For businesses that have already invested in a wireless LAN infrastructure, location services are an effective new way to exploit the capability of the network and improve its return on investment. It is important to note that the applications of location services mentioned above are merely the tip of the iceberg, and that we constantly discover new ways to use this technology to improve business processes in a wide range of sectors. While location services are not right for every business, for large public or private sector organisations that require an automated way to locate and track people and assets, it is an exciting development that demands investigation.