BLE Is Catching on Fast in Manufacturing—Here Are 3 Reasons Why

Ryan Spurr

Location solutions are nothing new in manufacturing. The most common include manual tracking solutions involving scanners or automated technologies like Passive RFID. But over the years, a new tracking technology has entered the mainstream: Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE). BLE is quickly being adopted compared to its peer technologies—and there are three big reasons why.

BLE Is Already Ubiquitous

First, BLE is becoming pervasive across various technologies, lowering deployment costs, and simplifying development. Unlike technologies like RFID, which require separate antennas, readers, power, and cable runs, BLE is built into many modern technology platforms you may already own or be considering. It’s compatible with many tablets, mobile devices, and smart scanner technologies, making it a clear choice when combining mobility with location solutions.

We also see that many network device companies now include BLE antennas in their access points. This is important because manufacturers can quickly deploy location capabilities across the factory, warehouse, offices, yards, or anywhere where IT manages wireless access. It also lowers the cost to deploy use cases, increases the return on investment of both the network and department initiatives, and speeds the time to value. It also has one other outstanding benefit. If a use case is successful, it can quickly scale to any facility or department with IT-managed access points, eliminating the dreaded “pilot purgatory.”

BLE Has More to Offer than Wi-Fi

Second, BLE is an active location technology, meaning it doesn’t have to wait for a tag to enter the range of an antenna to excite it. BLE solutions actively broadcast, making it an excellent option for any use case that requires near-real-time location updates. Unlike Wi-Fi-based solutions (mainly being phased out over time in favor of the newer options), the BLE standard utilizes power more efficiently, resulting in longer battery life, easier maintenance, and more capable location tags.

You Can Add BLE to Virtually Anything with Tags

Third, BLE tags come in many different sizes, shapes, and capabilities, making it easy for manufacturers to tackle that first use case. Following that first proof of concept, it can quickly move onto new use cases where form, fit, and function differ while leveraging already existing BLE-enabled access points, beacons, and mobile devices across the IT infrastructure.

Tags can be affixed in different ways, come with programmable buttons, share metadata about their health and battery life, and many can even collect additional data like temperature, humidity, or vibration. As a result, BLE tags can significantly complement any manufacturer’s smart manufacturing initiatives, such as:

  • Tool Tracking: Manufacturers have various tools from torque wrenches, dies, and specialty gear. Unfortunately, many organizations struggle with tool availability, utilization, hoarding, misplacement, and theft. For companies with internal or regulatory mandates around high-value asset tracking, ensuring accountability, possession, and location as part of audit processes may be critical. The manual processes to augment these business challenges can be costly, inaccurate, and inefficient at best. BLE tags atop of BLE-enabled access points and software can automate these tasks with existing maintenance management and capital asset management systems, freeing employees to work on more meaningful activities.
  • Product Tracking: Not all materials or products warrant tracking, but for those situations where tracking critical materials, regulated materials, or real-time visibility is vital to inform business systems or employees, BLE-location solutions are a great fit. The technology can be used to ensure products do not violate specified zones (whether driven by regulation, safety, or corporate policy), to track the flow of materials and products through crucial process points, or to make high-value products easy to find, or be tracked from production to shipping, and ensure delivery against the proper sales orders. Whatever your specific business needs, location solutions can be creatively applied to automate, improve visibility, and reduce human error or potential for undesirable escapes.
  • Employee Safety: No employee likes to be tracked (and it’s even more complicated in union shops). However, there are many situations where location solutions can positively benefit employees and their safety. Building on the BLE technology stack, multiple solutions make workplaces safer and justify location solutions from the employer and employee perspective. For example, in today’s current climate of pandemics or close contact events, BLE-based badges can make it easy to quickly assess which employees must be notified of potential close contact situations and streamline response teams tasked with sanitization. Leveraging BLE-based badges with buttons, organizations may provide employees an emergency alert feature, making it easier for an injured employee or peer to call for help and navigate safety officers or medical teams to the correct location. Lastly, mustering with BLE-based badges can ensure all employees get out quickly and safely, alerting facilities and first responders of a successful building evacuation or aiming teams to specific employees requiring assistance.

There are many ways the technology can be applied to make manufacturing smarter. It’s easy to imagine how deploying real-time location solutions can benefit your business, especially if you have specific challenges that would benefit from IoT automation. With long tag lifespans, active data communication, and endless use cases, Bluetooth Low Energy solutions are a fantastic location technology that can build upon IT-managed infrastructure, scale, and deliver automation to help manufacturers improve visibility, provide real-time integration with business systems, reduce costs, and drive productivity. If your business is looking to eliminate wasteful transactions, augment stretched-thin workforces, or add a practical automation capability to support your business goals, then engage Connection’s Manufacturing Practice to learn more about this technology and the many use cases that may benefit your organization.

Ryan Spurr is the Director of Manufacturing Strategy at Connection with 20+ years of experience in manufacturing, information technology, and portfolio leadership. He leads the Connection Manufacturing Practice, go-to-market strategy, client engagement, and advisory services focusing on operational technology (OT) and information technology that make manufacturers more digitally excellent.