GPS systems are a great tool for tracking vehicles and larger sized equipment if utilized properly. Managing how this larger equipment is being used and having some system in place to locate these assets in a case of theft makes them a good value compared to their costs. But what has been lacking is a method to locate and track the small to midsized equipment and tools that are just as critical to manage to keep field operations running efficiently. There may be a low cost alternative now available to fill this gap in managing this segment of your tool and equipment inventory called ‘Tile’.
I first saw this item in an article about crowd funding in the summer of 2013. The ‘Tile’ product and corresponding phone app is being promoted as a way to keep tabs of keys, laptops, bikes, luggage, back packs, etc. But what I saw was a great way to keep tabs on snow throwers, ATVs, tractors and other small to midsized snow equipment in the dead of a night before and after a snow storm. These pieces of equipment are probably not all going to be set up with GPS tracking units, but are the heart and soul of many snow operations, especially the critical 0 tolerance accounts. When equipment is stored on project sites from storm to storm without coming back to a central yard or branch of your operations, inventory control procedures are critically important. After the snow removal season these ‘Tiles’ then could be used for mowers, string trimmers, tool cases, and other midsized equipment that wouldn’t normally be GPS’d. Collectively these tools and pieces of equipment are just as sizeable portion of a company’s asset inventory as what vehicles and large equipment are, and equally critical to manage for efficient production.
First off, how does ‘Tile’ work and what are its limitations. ‘Tile’ is not a GPS or cellular based tracking device, it runs on Bluetooth technology that integrates with Bluetooth enabled cell phones running the ‘Tile’ app. The app works in two ways to find each ‘Tile’. The first active mode is when you use the app as a direct locating device that tells you when you are getting closer to the ‘Tile’ you are looking for. As you get closer to the ‘Tile’ you can ping that specific ‘Tile’ to emit a sound that helps to locate it. If you were looking for keys attached to a ‘Tile’ at home, you can find what room they are in and then use the sound to find them if they are inside a couch or in a desk drawer. I would use the ‘Tile’ in a similar way to find a particular snow blower on a job site that needs to be brought in for repairs, extremely helpful in the middle of the night on any off site location where you may have 20 snow blowers stored inside a storage container or job trailer. The second way the ‘Tile’ locating system works is by mapping the last known place where the ‘Tile’ was located by any phone running that has the ‘Tile’ app. The app then uses the phones location mapping services to generate this last known location of the ‘Tile’. All the tiles, once activated, are in constant contact with any phone that has the ‘Tile’ app on it. The more phones in your company that have the free app installed on them, the better the tracking service will be. Again, this is not a direct GPS system, the range between a ‘Tile’ and a Bluetooth enabled cell phone is a few hundred feet which is one of its limitations. The other limitation is the amount of phones running the ‘Tile’ app, if only a few people have the app the range to track locations is going to be limited initially. Over time the more people that have the app will improve its location mapping capabilities.
Knowing these limitations would I still recommend the ‘Tile’ system? Absolutely! Even with good inventory and tracking procedures in place for smaller tools and equipment, keeping tabs on all of these production assets still takes time. If a company only has 6 to 7 trucks and 2 or 3 tractors that could be on GPS, there will probably be dozens (or more) of these small to midsized pieces of equipment in need of tracking. I also believe most pieces of this size equipment is often ‘lost’ within a company internally. These pieces often will show up in other crews’ trucks or trailers or are put back in a place that makes them hard to find for someone else later on. Just like the TV show ‘Lost’, it wasn’t that people were getting off the island; it was about where were they on the island. It is also easy to track pieces to see if they have made it back to a shop for scheduled repairs or transferred to another crew as directed. All these activities take some time away from someone to manage and when these items aren’t where they should be there are always drop offs in operational efficiencies. At times when conditions are most difficult like during snow ops in the middle of the night, you may gain minutes or even hours at a time when you can least afford to lose them.
Where do I see the best use of the ‘Tile’ system? Lost or misplaced keys have always been a huge time killer. I have always had a very detailed key tracking process and have a specific number of keys I want made for each vehicle, tractor, trailer lock, and door. I would put a tile on each primary key for each vehicle and larger pieces of equipment, just the time saved to audit the process to verify all keys are where they should be between snow storms is invaluable. Finding out someone by accident has a set of keys that accidently went home with them or fell out of their pocket is huge in closing down one set of snow storm operations and preparing for the next. Snow equipment is the next most important items I would attach a ‘Tile’ to. Again, we had very specific procedures for where all equipment needed to be stored when not in use and we ID’d a lot of this equipment with a color coding and numbering system (use reflective material), but since a lot of work was done at night there were always issues getting everything to where it needed to be. Even as we would audit this equipment in pre and post storm periods, it would be time consuming to just perform the audits, even more so if we had to do it in the dark at some of our staging sites on properties we direct reported to. It would also be an easy way to audit what pieces were not just back at your operational head quarters needing repair, but knowing specifically those pieces were in the correct area of a shop area so someone knew they needed service and weren’t just in the back of a parked truck somewhere at HQ (sound familiar). Next I would use the ‘Tiles’ on the more expensive mid-sized maintenance and landscape equipment pieces that can’t be GPS’d easily. Items like mowers, tool cases, small tractors, tillers, and sod cutters (etc, etc) would be worth having some methods to quickly keep tabs on, especially if these pieces are often shared between different crews. Items can be grouped to specific crews or as similar tool groups, field managers and crew supervisors could use the app to make audits of their assigned equipment quickly and frequently. In the case of missing equipment the ‘Tile’ system creates a tracking log of where items have been so it will be easy to go to the last know location of the equipment to start locating it. For office equipment adding the ‘Tile’ to laptops or tablets that are assigned to managers or salespeople would be another low cost way to track expensive technology based items.
Some of the Pros and Cons I see to this system:
- Low monthly costs
- Weather resistant and durable for use on outdoor equipment
- Compact size and shape, easy to attach to key rings. Can use heavy duty zip ties to attach to equipment and tool cases.
- Easy to move between seasonal equipment
- Sound indicator built in on each unit
- No battery change outs
- Any device with the ‘Tile’ app helps to increase location range
- Did I mention ‘Low monthly cost’??
- App currently only available for iPhone and iPads
- Pre-order’s only, next shipments are Summer 2014
- ‘Tile’ community of app users is still developing
- Only 10 units can be assigned for each phone or tablet
There are some other similar items out in the market as well running off of the Bluetooth to smart phone platform. They tended to be more for interior items like wallets, keys, and computers and weren’t weather tight like the ‘Tile’ system. As far as cost and availability, each ‘Tile’ is pre bought and lasts for a year so no battery changes are necessary. They are currently pre-selling the ‘Tiles’ from just a single unit to groups of twelve. A single ‘Tile’ unit currently costs $19.95 (about $1.66/month/Tile); a group of twelve costs $179.55 (about $1.24/month/Tile). Downloading the app is free and is required to activate the ‘Tiles’. This relatively low cost per unit per month makes this system very manageable for integrating into any small equipment management procedures.