New technologies can transform the management of assets to make them more productive and less costly to maintain. Annie Gurton reports
Just as new technologies are revolutionising supply chains, retailing and customer support, dramatic changes are taking place in the world of asset management. Whether fixed or mobile, digital or intellectual, assets form the crown jewels of any business. Competitiveness and survival depend on whether they are cherished, protected and managed efficiently.
Historically, asset management required physical checks on the location and status of plant and equipment and maintenance of all intellectual property. Asset management software has been available for some time and will compute the depreciation and value of assets. But this pales with the powers of the new generation of asset management solutions.
All checking and monitoring procedures are now automated so that physical checks are only required occasionally and assets virtually manage themselves. Not only is the need for people dramatically reduced, but assets can be proactive about service and maintenance, generating previously over-looked revenue benefits in several ways.
Unfortunately, many IT managers are just waking up to the potential commercial and financial benefits of new generation asset management or recognising their importance to strategic decision-making.
Alison Barnes, marketing communications manager with PSDI, a provider of enterprise asset management solutions with its Maximo product, says, "Enterprise asset management has been around for a while. But it is now enhanced by Web, wireless and intelligent technology and offers more than standard benefits of asset management software."
Enterprise asset management gives real-time control over the location and knowledge about use and status of assets. Armed with better knowledge of the service records and life-cycle of items, managers can consolidate asset management activity and plan for long-term development.
Even better, assets will virtually manage themselves, requesting servicing and maintenance before it is essential, ordering consumables and alerting managers when redundant. The first benefit of asset management is in savings in resources and staff.
"With use of GSM, wireless technology, embedded chips and tracking devices, it is possible to know exactly where all assets are. This reduces staff and time needed to monitor location and status of items," says Barnes.
The second benefit is the 'invisible loss' of assets when they go missing or become unusable because they are in the wrong location or not serviced.
Barnes adds, "New asset management enables a firm to manage the infrastructure of offices, plant and facilities more effectively by better scheduling and managing of maintenance-related work."
Assets are now intelligent enough use wireless application protocol to call an engineer before service or maintenance work becomes essential. Consumables like toner drums can be ordered before they run out by linking assets to the e-procurement system, eliminating paying for inventory of toner. Barnes adds, "It is also possible for production lines and manufacturing plants to keep themselves going indefinitely by requesting servicing and replacements before they are due and the system goes down. The savings on management staff and downtime can be considerable."
Gemplus, a supplier of smart embedded chips, has products to monitor medical equipment, industrial garments and books. A spokesperson for the company says, "Gemplus supplies handheld readers linked by radio to laptop computers, to identify medical units, engineering tools and record and update information in a central database. The database is accessible via corporate intranet and allows real time access to critical information about location, distribution, service and product status on a global basis."
This system has enabled a subsidiary of Bio Medical Research, BMR NeuroTech, to efficiently determine inventory shipping status and provide accurate and timely information about costly specialist medical equipment. The Gemplus technology prevents it getting lost and ensures it is in use for maximum time. The technology also enhances the power of hospital managers to make timely and well-informed decisions. In the US, Gemplus systems are used for textile identification and garment tracking. An ultra-thin tag, so fine it can be sewn to fabric, is used for expensive special work garments so people wearing them, can be tracked in real-time.
Although firms might continue using old asset management systems and processes, they will become more apparent.
John Mahon, vice-president of sales with asset management software supplier Tally Systems, explains,"While some firms are figuring out what systems they have, how they are configured, what intellectual assets they have and how they are monitored, their savvy competitors will generate extra income from previously-hidden digital assets and get better performance from plants and equipment.
"There are obvious benefits from using the new Internet and wireless-based asset management technology. It includes embedded intelligence. These are ensuring the firm is paying and receiving the right amount for software licences, so there is no risk of falling foul of the Federation Against Software Theft or losing revenue from potential clients.
"Also, mobile equipment doesn't go missing or lose out on being upgraded," adds Mahon.
"Managers can understand better the current state of enterprise and assets, making better informed decisions."
Tally's products can track all hardware and digital assets wherever located; protect mobile assets and ensure all remotely-based applications are up to date; and establish connections between leases, contracts and service agreements within financial systems and products. All TS products alert the appropriate managers when actions need to be taken, making management more pro-active and less labour-intensive.
Ultimately, all assets will be linked and accessible by authorised managers using Internet and wireless technology.
Robin Mannings, principal consultant with BT's Mobility division, says, "There are still issues to be clarified like standards. There needs to be more widespread agreement so products and asset management systems can talk. New computer mark-up languages under XML will provide convergence of existing variations and render asset information accessible from devices across many different electronic access channels."
Mannings also predicts biometric control systems will be used to ensure only authorised managers have access to information and they will control the systems by voice. Eventually, all access systems for status information will be electronic.
He says, "The integration between new technologies is evolving. At the moment, power of asset is only in the imagination. But the point is those companies, which ignore it will be last to adopt it when it moves to fast, intelligent automated systems. The business benefits and bottom line advantages new technology asset management will deliver will set forward-thinking enterprises apart from the rest."
t Planes, phones & automobiles: IBM's wireless application proposals, p50
Keep tabs on your assets
The barcode is already used extensively for management of plant and equipment assets. Soon, GSM telephones with integral barcode readers will automatically meter asset identity, location, service and usage status and send information with a timestamp to the central database and server using the new GSM packetdata system General Packet Radio System (GPRS).
Mobile devices and items will be on an Internet connection which will not be charged by the unit of time (as with data calls) or per message (as with the SMS services). GPRS is becoming the de facto standard for mobile data and communications links, including asset management applications.
One dimensional bar codes will be replaced by other printed media like 2D barcodes and pictorial watermarks. Eventually it will be possible to use printed radio frequency identity tags, even on wet and live assets.
Bluetooth is likely to become adopted for asset management. Suzanne Stuart-Smith, of standards consultancy e-centre, says, "Radio will also be used increasingly for asset control. Information will be put on Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tag which will send signals to automatically link to central servers. It will no longer be necessary to use scanners because radio waves will transfer required information."
Stuart-Smith points out the Home Office has recently created a 'chipping of goods' initiative and is providing funds to use RFID more widely. "The incentive behind the Home Office's move is reducing crime and increasing ability to track and provenance of goods. But there are other benefits for businesses which adopt technology."
GSM technology tracks mobile assets
The challenge of tracking mobile and remote workers' equipment is more challenging than monitoring items permanently in one location.
A Global Positioning by Satellite (GPS) system called PurpleFinder exploiting Web and satellite technology is being marketed by a firm called Pole Star. PurpleFinder features the ability to locate assets in a remote or off-site location in real-time, communicating with assets using embedded chips and micro-modems and monitor items with sensors and diagnostics. It then reports to authorised managers.
Julian Longstone, vice-president marketing with Pole Star, says, "PurpleFinder uses GPS in conjunction with land-based communication services to provide global, two-way, real-time Web-access to standard and exception-based asset positions, messages and monitored data. It is a simple, easy, flexible and cost-effective way to track fleet, IT and engineer's equipment and other assets. All that is required is a simple transceiver unit for each asset connected to an Internet-enabled device. No other special hardware or software is required."
As well as management, PurpleFinder has a specific role in fleet and route management and other applications. Longstone says, "Managers in many types of enterprise need ways to monitor assets which are moved away from a central location."
Benefits include reduction in theft, because prospective thieves know the item is being tracked, better use of assets as they are not 'lost' and no more confusion about identity and life cycle of specific products, because each is tagged.
He adds, "PurpleFinder is widely used in marine environments. We are building its presence in container tracking and fleet control. There are also new land mobile applications coming online.'
Benefits of smart assets
- Assets do not get lost (because location is not known)
- Assets are maintained better. Engineers are alerted of maintenance requirements before service is needed
- Assets can order own consumables direct from the suppliers, saving time
- Assets are pre-sold before the lifecycle is reached, enabling best prices to be recouped
- Assets are used more effectively within enterprises, avoiding the need for renting or purchase of unnecessary duplicates
- Helpdesk support is more effective
- Digital assets are logged more accurately and in more detail
- Illicit flaunting of copyright or patents is minimised
- Charges for use of copyrighted material is made automatically
- Licences are managed more efficiently
- Can include digitised photographs and other graphics. Systems can search and monitor the Internet for illicit use of copyrighted material