Tech Talk: Keeping Track of Your Tools

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Ken Barksdale tells the true story of a wanna-be entrepreneur with a brilliant idea: He would embed a GPS tracking device in a pair of sneakers. The device would enable Mom and Dad to monitor Junior’s every movement. They would know whom he is hanging out with, where he is going and what he is doing. No longer could Junior insist that he is studying at the library when he is really cruising Main Street looking for trouble.
Instant success!

The budding entrepreneur sold 750,000 pairs of sneakers just on the idea alone – with no product, not even a mockup. It was that good an idea.
But now he had to produce a shoe that would do what he claimed. And he did: The sneakers would have been a comfortable fit for a kid with a size 19 foot. The antenna was a big round disk on the tongue of the sneakers. The heel was five by six inches, making it look as if the wearer had a club foot. And it lost the satellite when the wearer went indoors or even under a tree.

The product flopped, of course, and a lot of people, especially the investors, were sorely disappointed.

Barksdale, the president of Global Tracking Group, Baltimore, tells the story to illustrate the shortcomings of global positioning (GPS) or radio frequency identification devices (RFID) to keep track of the kind of tools and equipment that rural builders are most likely to use – and lose. The difference is that GPS depends on contact with a satellite; RFID devices emit a signal that can be tracked.

Barksdale’s company makes a real-time GPS tracking device. He anticipates that some day soon the technology will advance to the point where it is practical for small contractors. But not yet. It’s too big, too expensive and too fragile.

Barksdale’s product, the UBI-5000, is 2½ inches long, ¾ inch thick and 1¼ inch wide. Each unit costs $200 and it works only on line-of-sight. The main obstacle is the battery – a familiar complaint from electric-car manufacturers. Three-fourths of the length of the UBI-5000 is battery, and it holds its charge for only a week. For the battery to last longer it would have to be larger, and it’s already too big to be practical for most hand tools.

But the technology of energy storage is moving fast. Some very smart people backed by deep-pocket investors are working on the problem. For example, the price of the UBI-5000’s battery has dropped enough in the past year for Barksdale to reduce the price of his unit from $300. The size of the unit dropped by a similar factor.

“GPS technology reinvents itself every year,” he said. “There’s nothing obvious on the horizon just now because business generally is slow, but it will pick up.”

Another problem is the fragility of the device. Barksdale hasn’t tried it on a nail gun, for example, but he doubts that it would last long.
Current customers are finding interesting applications, such as suspicious spouses and sting operations. One hunter set up a camera on a stand to monitor deer movements. It didn’t take long for the camera to grow legs, but the hunter had implanted a UBI-5000 device, and the police were able to locate the camera and arrest the thieves. Another customer sets the device in an appliance in model homes that are subject to invasion. Boats, trailers and leased equipment offer similarly suitable markets.

Tool manufacturers are well aware of the potential market. Bosch used to sell a line of tools in which it had embedded RFID chips, but the usual problems with price, size and fragility held back sales. Sears marketed a similar product until a year or so ago when it, too, was withdrawn. DeWalt for several years has been selling a line called Mobile Lock (www.dewaltmobilelock.com).

Not to be outdone, IntelliTrack of Hunt Valley, Md., publishes software that supports RFID devices that builders could use to track tools and equipment they want to monitor. The IntelliTrack system is internally integrated and does not depend on satellite communication. The biggest catch, again, is cost, which starts at $15,000 for a complete system.

Instead, director of marketing Will Daniel suggests that rural builders consider a bar code system. It won’t enable you to locate a missing tool or equipment, but it will provide positive control and facilitate taking inventory. There will be no doubt about who has what and when it was checked out. A complete system consists of software from IntelliTrack, a scanner similar to units in grocery stores and a bar-code printer. The cost for all the components comes to about $2,000 including a service agreement, which is required for only the first year. The scanners and printers are generic, so some savings might be possible by shopping. An IntelliTrack associate, Aptec International of Evergreen, Co., makes bar code labels small enough to fit on a screwdriver. Daniel recommends pre-printed asset tags, which leave a residue if someone tries to remove them.

Call 410-771-3060 for a referral to an IntelliTrack regional representative or visit the company’s Web site at www.intellitrack.net.

None of these solutions are likely to be as effective (or as cheap) as a really long rubber band, but they will minimize problems of inventory control and provide managers with positive accountability over expensive tools and equipment.

 
IntelliTrack has a complete software system for tracking tools and equipment (above left). An associate, Aptec International, makes bar code labels small enough to fit on a screwdriver (left) that can be read with bar code readers like these from Motorola (above).

Other articles in the October 2010 issue of Rural Builder

2011 Buyers’ Guide

Horse Barn of a Different Color
Finding and keeping good help
Money Talk: The tax record defense
Jobsite tools big and small

Why You Should Freeze Your Tools
by Christopher Schwarz

Cooling your tooling to -320° can double or triple the time between sharpenings. It’s inexpensive and companies that offer deep cryogenic freezing are becoming more common.

Learn more

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