Other Voices: Real-time locating systems and the supply chain

August 08, 2012 - MMH Editorial

Editor’s Note: The following column by Adebayo Onigbanjo, Product Marketing, Location Solutions for Zebra Technologies (http://www.zebra.com/content/dam/zebra/white-papers/en-us/understanding-rtls-vdc.pdf), is part of Modern’s Other Voices column. The series, published on Wednesdays, features ideas, opinions and insights from end users, analysts, systems integraters and OEMs. Click on the link (/article/how_to_submit_a_column_to_other_voices) to learn about submitting a column for consideration. We invite Tier 1 WMS suppliers to weigh in as well.

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Real-time locating system (RTLS) deployments in manufacturing, transportation and logistics, and other verticals are growing faster than ever. Part of that interest may be due to the rate at which organizations are realizing benefits from these technologies.  A recent survey from VDC Research (http://www.vdcresearch.com/) of organizations with RTLS deployments found that more than 50 percent of respondents noted it took less than a year to see a return on investment. Before an organization deploys an RTLS solution, there are some important questions it needs to address: what it is, how it’s used and how to take the first steps.

Understanding RTLS

RTLS is the most advanced and cost effective way to identify and track many different types of assets, personnel and transactions. However, there is an important distinction between RTLS and asset tracking solutions – RTLS is automatic and continuous. In other words, while traditional asset tracking can tell approximately where an item is in a facility, RTLS solutions provide immediate information on precisely where something is or has been – and in some instances, what it has done – via constant communication between the system and the object being tracked.

Using RTLS Solutions

RTLS solutions are beneficial to supply chain management. Supply chain managers oversee the movement and storage of raw materials, inventory, work in progress and finished goods from the point of origin through to the point of consumption. RTLS solutions give those managers visibility into making sure everything is where it’s supposed to be at a given moment, while also helping track excess and monitor efficiencies to make sure the supply chain is running in a lean environment. By allowing supply chain professionals complete visibility into their facilities, they can make better business decisions, increasing profitability.

According to VDC, there are specific challenges or characteristics that can help an organization determine if it should consider evaluating or adopting RTLS solutions. Some of these include:
• There is a large installed base of mission critical and/or mobile assets.
• The supply or value chain is complex and is comprised of multiple product sets/types.
• There is a desire to provide more value to the customer and improve their satisfaction.
• A need exists to reduce order-to-cash cycle time, improve throughput and streamline processes.
• Employee management and safety is critical to the success of the business.
Taking the First Steps

Deploying RTLS does not have to be complex or an expensive process.

Businesses looking to implement RTLS should focus their initial efforts on one or two less complex business issues, all the while keeping the overall vision in mind. Starting small will help an organization demonstrate ROI faster and justify additional investments. It will also help facilitate scale, expansion and further integration in the future.

No matter what size the deployment, it’s important to create a blueprint. One new tool, System Builder, the industry’s first planning, deployment and management tool for time-based RTLS systems, help customers design scalable and customized solutions to address their specific supply chain needs.

And finally, RTLS is a solution and needs to be thought of as such. It is important for organizations to work with total solutions providers when deploying RTLS vs. companies offering only part of the solution (e.g., hardware). Total solutions providers are capable of providing enterprises with a complete and comprehensive offering and are typically more experienced with real-world deployments and users. 


Today, RTLS solutions are proven with an increasingly attractive ROI. While its use is growing, there are still some important basics to understand before attempting to select, deploy and gain the most business value from these technologies. Those organizations that work to understand the technologies and properly plan for a deployment realize important benefits: more efficient operations, cost reductions and better decision-making.

While it may seem like a complex and costly process to deploy an RTLS solution, starting small offers many advantages to an organization over the long-term.

More information on RTLS is available in the white paper “Understanding RTLS” developed by VDC Research and sponsored by Zebra Technologies: http://www.zebra.com/content/dam/zebra/white-papers/en-us/understanding-rtls-vdc.pdf


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About the Author

Bob Trebilcock, editorial director, has covered materials handling, technology, logistics and supply chain topics for nearly 30 years. In addition to Supply Chain Management Review, he is also Executive Editor of Modern Materials Handling. A graduate of Bowling Green State University, Trebilcock lives in Keene, NH. He can be reached at 603-357-0484.


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