IBM/Zebra Alliance: Maximize the ROI of Mobile Assets

Mobile asset management is a special challenge

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Operations managers are already familiar with the critical importance of effective asset management. As the lackluster economy continues, best-in-class real time asset management solutions can help organizations compensate by getting more value from all their assets—and in more ways. They can use existing assets for longer periods of time, and invest the money they would have spent replacing them more strategically.

That sounds simple enough. But mobile assets imply a special challenge for organizations today—and they require special solutions well suited to that challenge.

Why should this be the case? In a mobile infrastructure, assets are much harder to monitor. Their status levels can't be tracked over a wired infrastructure, such as a conventional cabled IP network, because they occupy no fixed location. And because they can't easily be tracked, it's harder to maintain them appropriately over time, making changes or adjustments as required by changing conditions or business strategies. Maximizing the ROI generated by mobile assets, therefore, is no simple feat.

In the special case of human assets—the workforce—another complexity applies: safety. In organizations such as energy producers, for instance, operational guidelines may determine where and when employees should be, to minimize the risk of injury, but enforcing those guidelines is awkward at best. No asset is quite as mobile as a roving employee.

IBM and Zebra Technologies join forces to solve the mobile asset puzzle

"In the special case of human assets—the workforce—another complexity applies: safety. In organizations such as energy producers, for instance, operational guidelines may determine where and when employees should be, to minimize the risk of injury, but enforcing those guidelines is awkward at best. No asset is quite as mobile as a roving employee."

Fortunately, as the need has appeared, IBM and Zebra Technologies have stepped up to the plate to meet it by forming an IBM Global Technology Solutions (GTS) alliance. Together, these two leaders have developed a joint solution, comprised of best-in-class offerings drawn from their respective portfolios, specifically to make mobile asset management as easy, cost-effective, and comprehensive as possible. Zebra, in fact, is IBM's preferred partner for mobile asset tracking and monitoring in the industrial marketplace.

How does the solution work? Essentially, Zebra delivers two different clusters of hardware solutions—sensor tags, base stations, and other elements—that broadcast and receive mobile asset status data over radio waves. This information, relayed over the IP network to IBM's Real-Time Asset Locator (RTAL) offering, is then analyzed and utilized in any way the business requires. As mobile asset conditions change, requiring maintenance, upgrades, reconfiguration, or replacement, the organization is continually apprised of that change and can take any action needed to improve that asset's business value.

Different radio standards for different business requirements

Part of the strength of the solution lies in the way it supports different operational purposes and asset groups via different implementations. Specifically, Zebra hardware supports two fundamentally distinct forms of radio technologies: ultra wideband (UWB) and ISO 24730. Each is well suited to particular tasks.

The first, UWB, is handled by the Zebra Dart solution portfolio, and takes advantage of the special performance advantages of UWB—namely, that it can broadcast a great deal of information very quickly, albeit only over a relatively limited maximum range of about 150 feet indoors, or 650 feet outdoors. For assets that generate high data volumes rapidly, environments like high-value manufacturing, or high-value asset tracking in general, UWB is a great choice.

The second, ISO 24730, is handled by the Zebra WhereTag offerings. ISO 24730 has a substantially greater range—350 feet indoors or up to 3,200 feet outdoors—but its theoretical maximum data transmission rate is much lower than UWB's. Typically, it's well suited to environments, such as large asset manufacturing, outdoor storage, or facility vehicles and equipment, that generate less data but may vary from location to location quite a bit.

Turn raw asset data into actionable intelligence

Once mobile asset information has made its way over the air to the IP network, and from there to IBM Real-Time Asset Locator, the process of turning that data into business intelligence can begin. This is RTAL's job, and it happens via a processing engine that takes the data and compares it to target circumstances to determine if an event should be generated. For instance, if a component within an asset is no longer functioning, or its expiration point has been exceeded, that will trigger a replacement event—notifying the organization not just that that asset needs maintenance, but also specifying exactly what that maintenance should be.

For organizations that have also made the investment in the IBM Maximo enterprise asset management solution, even more power is available because RTAL and Maximo integrate seamlessly. This gives the organization the chance to leverage asset data in a much richer, broader range of ways.

Who has been using mobile assets? When, and for how long? Where in the organization? Does that conflict or comply with security policies? How should asset performance be taken into account in future budgeting, to replace that class of asset? Questions such as these, critical to mobile asset ROI, can easily be asked and answered.

In this way, the IBM/Zebra solution helps organizations identify, track, manage, and optimize mobile assets with incredible speed, clarity, and comprehensiveness—despite the fact that the physical location of those assets is unpredictable and indeed may frequently change.

IBM and Zebra: Collaborating to maximize employee safety

To see how the joint solution might deliver these compelling benefits in a real-world scenario, consider the recent case of energy-industry leader British Petroleum (BP). BP's primary motive to improve mobile asset monitoring concerned the most mission-critical asset of all: the human workforce.

What BP required, essentially, was enhanced disaster planning and recovery—a better outcome through more accurate, recently-updated information. Evacuating a large number of employees from a given refinery or drilling installation, in the face of an unexpected problem, is no simple feat, particularly when their number and location is unclear. While policies may govern how employees should respond to a disaster, it's crucial to verify that they actually have responded that way.

In consultation with IBM, BP was able to identify and specify its needs in more detail—and come up with possible approaches to address them. Through UWB tags worn by all employees, BP would be able to track and visualize their locations in real time, and under specific conditions, trigger a policy-driven sequence of events to maximize their safety. Because different conditions would dictate a different response, the solution would also need to be able to respond intelligently, generating the right sequence to match any given disaster.

An abstract description like that, however, is one thing; and up-and-running implementation is another.

Key to the actual IBM solution delivered—a first for the energy industry—was the Zebra Dart technology. These solutions were used to broadcast employee UWB sensor data, receive it, and route it through the IP infrastructure to IBM's rule-driven business process engine and visualization system for execution.

The outcome for BP? Dramatically superior evacuation preparation strategies. Simplified compliance with occupational safety guidelines (including future guidelines). And above all, a safer and more secure environment for the organization's most crucial asset: its workforce.

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