Industry Insights

IoT-Enabled Asset Tracking for Laboratory Equipment

Managing equipment isn't easy, especially in a laboratory setting, but IoT can help!

December 8, 2020

Managing inventory can be a challenging task for any business, especially at scale. Laboratories and research facilities are no exception, maintaining a wide variety of glassware and small tools, chemicals, instruments, and expensive machinery. Ineffective inventory management can lead to lost, misplaced, or even stolen equipment - resulting in lost time searching for tools, potential danger and cost in improper storage, and a hefty cost to replace equipment that cannot be found.

When you consider the difficulty of replacing certain equipment that may not be widely available, and the fact that labs and research facilities are often tightly constrained by budgets, these mistakes can quickly turn disastrous. 

Fortunately, this is one of many use cases where IoT can provide significant value. If implemented properly, a well-managed IoT-enabled equipment tracking solution can:

  • save those responsible for inventory management valuable time and resources
  • automate tedious and repetitive tasks
  • greatly reduce the possibility of human error. 
  • In the case that equipment does get misplaced, it can be far easier to find, again saving time and potentially the cost of replacing that item.

Implementing such a solution, however, does have its fair share of challenges. Tracking assets indoors can be more difficult than outdoor GPS tracking, as assets can move between rooms and floors in the same complex. Walls and ceilings provide barriers for signals, and when many signals are interrupted, the value the system provides disappears. As with all implementations, choosing the right components is key. Here are some ways this has been done in the past:

  1. RFID Tags and Physical Scanners - RFID, or Radio Frequency Identification, is a technology that uses electromagnetic fields to send data from tag to sensor. You may have interacted with these in the form of key fobs in an apartment complex. The tags themselves don’t require a power supply and can be very small and easy to apply. Someone can scan items in and out using these tags and the scanner can send data to the cloud via WiFi. These make it very easy to track indoor items without the hassle of dealing with network communication from the devices themselves, although at the cost of real time location tracking and a bit more manual work
  2. Bluetooth enabled chips and Wifi Devices - Bluetooth trackers have been in fashion for quite some time now. You may have noticed companies like Tile or Chipolo selling consumer trackers for your keys and wallet. These battery powered devices use bluetooth to transmit location data to your smartphone, which then sends this data to the cloud, allowing you to receive staggered updates of the location of your items. However, these aren’t the most reliable connection-wise, and large scale battery replacement can add an extra layer of complexity to your management system that you may not be willing to take on. The benefit is a more hands on approach that allows you to see where items are close to real time, and reduces human error as well.
  3. Smart Video Tracking - this is an up and coming technology that has been found to be successful in limited use. It enlists video cameras with real time image recognition to classify various items, and check them in and out simply by having the item leave the video feed. Amazon Go grocery stores use these to track items that people take off the shelves, and charging them once they leave, automating the entire checkout process. This convenience can easily be applied to lab inventory, which can eliminate the need for individual sensors that have to be maintained, in favor of a hands-off approach. However, because it is a newer solution, it can be quite difficult at this time to implement, but it will be exciting to see how this technology evolves and where it can be used effectively in the future.

Once you bring in and provision the trackers, you need something to actually manage all of them. Typically this is done through a dashboard that gives you an overview of the data your trackers are sending. In this case, we might want to know how many items are checked out, what labs they are in, quantities of each type, different categories of items, where they are in the storage room, etc. This dashboard can have different views and visualizations which can help you understand the state of your inventory at a glance. It's that easy!

Every lab will have its own needs that may require some combination of the above hardware solutions, and the central dashboard can be customized to show you the information you want to see. It is important to remember that the value that an IoT solution can bring is heavily dependent on how it is implemented. But the time and money spent initially designing such a solid and reliable system will be sure to pay off years and years ahead. Indeed, the future of inventory tracking is in the Internet of Things, and it will be exciting to see the creative ways in which businesses use it to add value. 

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