By Tom Condon, RPA, FMA
Published in the July 2005 issue of Today’s Facility Manager
No matter how facility managers maintain assets, they probably need to identify those items as property of the organization. They’ll also need to track the maintenance performed on those assets. There are simple and inexpensive methods available, while others are more complex. The simplest is a tag with a number. Essentially, this is “no-tech,” because it is not associated with any technology. The advantage there is clear; it is an inexpensive way to declare that an item belongs to the organization.
However, if facility managers oversee a large number of items or are using computerized maintenance management software (CMMS) to handle assets, they will most likely want to use a tag that can be read by a machine. Bar codes are a simple and time proven method of machine readable tagging. Developed in the 1960s, bar codes quickly became the standard for this type of tagging.
Bar codes represent numbers through printed shapes that can be read reliably by a scanner. Text is converted to a bar code through software that changes it to a printed image conforming to standardized formats called codecs. Different codecs offer various capacities and levels of reliability.
There are two main types of bar codes: one-dimensional (1-D) and two-dimensional (2-D). One-dimensional bar codes are the type seen on items in the grocery store: a series of black bars in a row on a white background.
These do have a few drawbacks, however. The primary drawback is the limited amount of information that can be entered into a tag. The capacity of most bar codes is 32 characters, and the bar code grows larger with every bit of information. So, while a bar code version of a three-digit number is fairly small, encoding 20 or 30 digits results in a tag that is about 6″ long.
One solution for encoding larger amounts of information is the 2-D bar code, such as the type seen on UPS packages (see image). This uses both the length and width of the tag to encode information and can fit much more information in a smaller space than 1-D varieties.
One 2-D format, called “Aztec Code,” allows for up to 3,832 numeric or 3,067 alphabetic characters. That is 1.9 kilobytes of data—enough to store approximately half the text in this article.
The next step up in asset tagging is Radio Frequency Identification (RFID). This technology ranges from inexpensive tags that cost less than a nickel each, with a reach of a few inches, all the way up to battery powered models. The battery powered models are used in various applications, including the electronic toll collection systems used on many roadways. With a range of up to 30′, these models can cost as much as $20 or more and are often used to track large, mobile equipment.
One major advantage of RFID is that it allows a reader to detect RFID tags without direct contact or line of sight. Think of a bar code that doesn’t have to be seen to be read. RFID is wireless, so it does not require a physical connection between the tag and the reader. This is useful if facility managers want to conceal the tag within a piece of equipment to prevent wear or tampering.
RFID also holds far more data than bar codes. RFID tags selling for less than 5¢ each hold as much as eight kilobytes of data or over 10 copies of this article. Some RFID tags even have the ability to change the stored data as processing occurs, allowing a reader to update the tag with new information. Organizations are using this function to store maintenance data, including service records, parts lists, or other data related to that equipment.
A sophisticated example of RFID occurs in the U.S. military, which uses the technology to track crates of supplies sent to the Middle East. An antenna inside a truck trailer detects RFID tags on the crates and transfers the information to a ruggedized, on board computer inside the trailer. The computer then uses a GPS antenna mounted on the truck to determine location and sends inventory/location data to a satellite via an on board radio transmitter. A logistics manager can check the status of an item—regardless of its location on the planet.
The latest evolution in asset tagging is Local Positioning Systems (LPS). These systems use a tag to transmit radio signals to receivers mounted in the ceilings of the facility. An item with an LPS tag can be located anywhere in the facility simply by checking a computerized floor plan.
These systems are extremely useful in scenarios where critical mobile equipment needs to be located quickly, such as in hospitals. In fact, even people have been tracked with LPS tags; in some high security facilities, all employees and visitors are issued LPS tags and can be located instantly in the building. Cook County Hospital in Chicago uses linked LPS tags to ensure that newborns are not moved without authorization; if this does occur, an alarm is activated. This prevents accidental or intentional mismatching of mothers and newborns.
There is a wide range of bar code readers available, from simple devices that plug into a laptop to top-of-the-line scanners. Symbol and Intermec are two of the largest makers of bar code scanners, with a wide range of products.
A big part of facility managers’ strategies for asset tagging will depend on the kind of software that is used for CMMS or inventory management. A number of CMMS packages, such as Maximo by MRO or 7i by Datastream, feature comprehensive inventory and asset management bar code systems. These include scanner software as well as a label design and printing module.
If a facility manager does not have asset management or inventory management software to generate bar codes, there are software packages that can be used. Label Matrix is one inexpensive bar code software package. It enables the user to choose from various data sources ranging from database tables to Excel spreadsheets in order to create labels with a drag-and-drop interface.
With the need to maximize assets—and to track their impact on the bottom line—more important than ever, facility managers can look to the options in asset tagging to keep tabs on these crucial items.
Condon, a Facility Technologist and former facility manager, is one of the contributing authors for BOMI Institute’s revised Technologies In Facilities Management textbook. He works for System Development Integration, a Chicago, IL-based firm committed to improving the performance, quality, and reliability of client business through the use of technology.