It may seem obvious, but if physical keys give access to your organization’s important spaces, assets, and people, they should get just as much protection as those spaces, assets, and people. 

There are very real financial and operational risks if you don’t know who is going where with your keys. A university recently came to us for a physical key management solution after a global master went missing. A locksmith quoted them $500,000 to rekey all of the locks. Even run-of-the-mill vehicle key fobs cost anywhere from $200-500 to replace, which can add up. 

Losing keys can also shut down entire workflows that depend on them. When you think about it that way, key management systems aren’t just for security departments. They’re whole-business tools. If you have an electronic key management system to track how employees and contractors use your keys, it transforms them from simple access control tools into sources of real business intelligence. 

Let’s see what an electronic key control system looks like and then look at some of the most interesting applications for them that we’ve helped develop.

What is Physical Key Management? 

Key management is the collective name for all the business activities involved in securing, tracking, and distributing physical keys. Physical key management systems also control the costs of using physical keys for enterprise-wide access control. They reduce overhead through automation. They also reduce and often eliminate the need for re-keying whole facilities due to key loss or security breaches. 

The Core Components of a Smart Key Management System

The Key Cabinets 

Different vendors sell various-sized cabinets with different locking methods. The most common are locking hooks or slots. For example, Real Time Networks’ KeyTracer cabinets use circular locking key slots, with the locking mechanism hidden behind the back panel. The slots light up after personnel authenticate themselves, making key removal and return simple. 

Key control cabinets come in various sizes with different module options. In one facility, you may have a large number of individual keys you want packed efficiently. But at another location, you may have only a few large key rings that need extra hanging space. 



With KeyTracer, the cabinets are accessed using a touchscreen. These can be configured to use several authentication options, including PIN code, RFID fob, swipe card, or biometric sign-ins like a fingerprint, facial scanning, or iris eye scans. 




RFID Tags 

These next two components are where the real power lies. RFID is short-range wireless technology, usually used for machine-to-machine communication. KeyTracer uses passive RFID tags to authenticate the keys with the cabinets for accuracy and accountability. You can add active RFID tags to communicate with sensors distributed throughout your facility using one of our real time location solutions. 



Management Software

Our management software is called RTNHub. It lets you manage everything in a KeyTracer system, including alarms, reports, and personnel access—really, the entire workflow surrounding keys. This flexibility is why our customers have solved such a wide range of problems using KeyTracer systems. 




Free Guide - Best Practices for Physical Key Management
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Best Practices for Physical Key Management

Why Should I Use a Key Management System? 

Why invest your people’s time, energy, and your company’s money into an electronic key system if you already have a pen-and-paper process you think works? At the most basic level, physical key management systems offer three advantages over manual key tracking processes: 

  1. They include key storage boxes, or cabinets
  2. Automatically distribute them 
  3. And enhance how effectively your organization uses keys thanks to new insights generated by smart technology analytics. 

The best physical key management systems provide other specific benefits as well. 



Reduced costs 

Key management systems keep your employees accountable for key use. Supervisors won’t waste time hunting down missing keys. The key system will always have an accurate record of which ones are where. Key losses will drop and so will rekeying costs. 

Improved risk management 

Key management systems generate detailed transaction logs automatically, so you’ll have an airtight record of who used which keys and when. Staff members are fully accountable for keys in their possession. 

Process control and optimization 

Key trackers also offer better control over repeatable processes, a core tenet of Lean business management. Lean is a popular set of management practices whose use is shown to improve efficiency and eliminate waste. The methodology originated in the manufacturing sector but today is popular across industries. 

The core principle of Lean is to reduce and eliminate variance and non-value-adding activities. Ideally, you want as many business processes as possible to be standardized, repeatable, error-free and shown to add value for your company or your customers. Therefore, identifying processes you can automate is a common task under Lean. 

Turn Keys into Business Intelligence — Use Cases 

Protect Pharmaceuticals with Key Curfews

RTNHub lets you set sign-out curfews on keys. Some of our customers use this feature to tie it to a shift schedule, like 8:00 am to 5:00 pm, to help ensure staff members don’t accidentally take keys home. But we helped one pharmaceutical manufacturer solve a unique challenge using a different kind of key curfew. 

They had large, locking freezers that held temperature-sensitive medicine valued at millions of dollars per bag. If the freezers were left open, the medicine would degrade. So we helped them deploy a key curfew system with 15-minute timers. Staff assigned to check freezers needed to use and return keys promptly, or supervisors would be alerted to the personnel and the freezer in question. 

Keep Tabs on Contractors 

A tech company came to us when they found out KeyTracer would allow their managers to grant one-time key access to temporary or rotating workers, like their outsourced cleaning staff. A contracted worker had previously snapped a phone pic of a prototype held in a locked office and leaked it on social media. 

Since that worker only had to grab a key from a manual key pegboard system with no oversight, the company could not identify which individual had leaked their product or even which night the photo was taken. Efficiently logging one-time key access would keep cleaners working and accountable. 

Gather Vehicle Fleet Data 

A large telecom purchased KeyTracer systems for all of their facilities specifically to use the fleet key management module in RTNHub that integrated with their trucks’ onboard telematics GPS units. They were looking for more live fleet data. They suspected they could run their fleet more efficiently but weren’t sure exactly how. 

We also helped them program vehicle fault codes into the authentication panel so drivers could log service notes for mechanics when they returned keys. At some of their sites, we even enabled rotating key unlocks. It turned out some of their crew were used to taking the same truck repeatedly, racking up the miles, while other trucks sat in the lot for weeks at a time. This automatic rotation spread out the wear and tear across every vehicle in their fleet. 

Manage Forklift Certifications

In certain jurisdictions, employees must maintain a safety certification to operate warehouse forklifts. Non-compliance can result in severe penalties for the employee and the business. 

So, much like KeyTracer can lock out vehicle keys for employees with expired driver’s licenses, we modified this customer’s KeyTracer installation so that forklift keys would not unlock for employees with expired safety certifications. This protected everyone and automated one of their time-consuming certification monitoring jobs. 

Powerful, Flexible Business Support 

We often hear from our customers that they didn’t think to consider a physical key management solution for one of their other business problems until they came to us with a very specific security concern. If the workflow involves hard keys somewhere, there’s a good chance a key management system can improve it. 

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