Maybe your company just suffered an avoidable security breach. Or perhaps you were just reviewing the labor costs of tracking your corporate keys. Many business leaders in these positions start to wonder whether automating their physical key management is worthwhile. But they want some questions answered first.

For example: 

  • Why trust an electronic key management system over your personnel? 
  • Are automated systems actually cost-effective? 
  • What are the different types of systems on the market? 

If you’re gearing up to purchase a new system, you need answers to ensure you get your money’s worth. Overbuying an enterprise-grade system for a small or medium business can cripple your budget. On the other hand, if you buy a feature-light system, you won’t get any value. Or worse, you’ll introduce security risks in your key control process. 

Fortunately, we have those answers. In this article, we’ll compare the different types of key management systems on the market today and explain how to find a system that is the right fit for your organization’s needs. 

Electronic Key Management Systems Control Access, Risks, and Costs

Your physical keys grant access to valuable locations, equipment, and vehicles. Key management is the process of controlling and tracking the use of those physical keys. The goal of key management is to improve key security, as well as improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the workflows within which those keys are used. 

No matter whether you have a security guard patrolling your facility, a driver taking a specialized vehicle out on the job, or a technician signing out an expensive electronic device, good key management practices improve how those tasks are done.

Key Management Systems Offer Many Security and Business Benefits 

Preventing Key Loss

There are both direct and indirect costs when someone in your organization loses a key. There is the direct replacement cost, of course. But if the lost key was a submaster or master, you likely also need to rekey many locks in your facility. 

Those rekeying costs can add up quickly. In addition, if you’re in a regulated or publicly-funded industry, losing keys may also expose your organization to stiff fines or cost taxpayers. 

You also are saddled with the indirect cost of lost productivity. Your staff will spend time searching for those lost keys and managing the replacement and rekeying process instead of carrying out their regular duties. And if that lost key was your only copy, you may not be able to access critical equipment or vehicles until it is replaced. 

Electronic key management systems make staff more accountable. For example, they automatically generate transaction logs, so you always know who signed out which keys and when. You can even set key curfews, so supervisors receive notifications if a staff member doesn’t return a key at the end of a shift or by a custom deadline that you set.

Improving Operations

Electronic key management systems expand your options for using keys while giving you tighter control and better insight into how keys are used. For example, you may limit workers in a particular department to accessing specific keys. Or you can restrict access by individual workers, time of day, or by custom conditions. 

You can even allow workers to reserve keys in advance if they need a specialized vehicle or piece of equipment for an important task. 

Your staff will also save time tracking down lost or misplaced keys. The automatically-generated transaction log will tell you the last known location of every key in the system, making recovery efforts more straightforward. There won’t be any more hunting around your building for an hour only to discover that someone in another department didn’t know a critical key needed to be returned by noon.

Managing Risk

Human error dramatically increases your organization's risk of losing or misplacing keys if you leave your key management entirely up to staff rather than an automated system. For example, a supervisor might forget to log a key transaction, or a tired second shift worker might accidentally bring a critical key home with them. Even small errors can add up, stall important production schedules, and lead to stolen assets or fraud. 

If you’re in a regulated industry, you also may be required to document your key security practices. An electronic key management system can quickly generate the access reports you need to in order to demonstrate compliance to regulators. 

Protecting Your Reputation 

Better key management helps contain your risk of reputational damage. If word of an expensive or just plain embarrassing key loss gets out, it can steer prospective customers to your competitors in the private sector. Or elsewhere, lead students to think their campus isn’t safe, or lead the public to think a police force is sloppy.


Understand Your Key Management Options 

No two organizations are going to have the same key management needs. So what makes sense for Company A would be overkill for B. And what is appropriate for B might be dangerously insufficient for A. 

Here are some of the different key management systems you might want to consider for your organization:

Mechanical Key Cabinets 

These secure storage cabinets offer a basic level of security and control over key distribution. However, since they’re mechanical, they do not include any automated transaction logging tools. So any logging you want to do will need to be with pen and paper or some other manual means. 

Some mechanical cabinets can lock with a master key or other mechanical access token. In low-security environments where you only want a basic level of key management, you can simply use unlocked cabinets. 

Mechanical key cabinets are suitable for organizations with lower security needs, such as property management companies, car dealerships, or other smaller organizations.

Computer-Assisted Mechanical Key Cabinets

These systems are a middle ground between mechanical and electronic key management systems. They usually include simple electronic access controls, such as a PIN-code terminal. They can also sometimes have a built-in computer that records transactions. 

PIN codes provide some level of enhanced security. However, since codes can easily be shared, they offer limited value in logging transactions.

Electronic Key Management Systems 

Electronic systems offer full automation and electronic control over all key transactions. They also provide a higher level of reporting and analytics thanks to their improved data-collection capabilities. 

Access control in these systems is usually a more advanced electronic method, such as radio-frequency identification (RFID) tokens or biometrics, like iris eye scans, fingerprint scans, or facial recognition. Computer access control terminals also allow operators to include customized features at signout or return. For example, you could include a return checklist that prompts drivers to log mileage and maintenance issues before the management system accepts a vehicle key return. 

Premium-Tier Key Management Systems Are Always Electronic 

Electronic systems are typically used in higher security settings or in organizations that want more insight and control over their keys. For example, hotels, gaming venues, large commercial property management firms, or law enforcement agencies. These organizations want real-time insight into who has which keys, where they are, and when users will return those keys. 

Electronic key management systems can also integrate with existing IT infrastructure and other networked security systems. This networking makes possible several different valuable upgrades: 

Software Management Dashboards 

The access terminals in electronic key cabinets can send information management software, usually called the system’s dashboard. Operators can access these dashboards on any authorized PC or mobile device. They can monitor key use in real time, create or modify new user accounts, manage key reservations, and generate reports. 

Security Integration 

You can connect networked key management systems to other security systems for more straightforward, streamlined central management. For example, they can integrate with asset management systems, fleet management modules, and other existing access control systems. All of these systems could share a common user database. 

Real-Time Location Services 

Key systems that include RFID sensors can provide different levels of location service—meaning, they can detect when keyrings are physically present in other locations. When you attach an RFID sensor to a key ring, the electronic cabinet can verify that the correct keys are signed out or returned when a user makes a transaction. 

In high-security settings, you can also distribute sensors around your worksite. Those sensors can relay key ring locations back to the management dashboard in real-time, so supervisors will always be aware of where critical keys are at any given moment. 

Don’t Just Compare Hardware, Evaluate Support Services Too 

Ensuring you get the right level of key management is essential if you want to see a positive return on investment. This is why it is so important to evaluate your options. But remember, key management systems are more than just the hardware mounted to your wall. Because they’re driven by powerful software and often networked to other security and business systems, they’re a living technology that will require maintenance and support. 

When comparing different key systems, make sure you also compare their providers’ service and support options. For example, will they be available to customize the hardware installation to your facility? Can they help develop access control checklists for your workflows? What about generating custom reports for your regulatory needs? 

When you ensure that your key management system is well-designed, you ensure your keys and your business are well-protected for years to come. 

Are you gearing up to make a key management system purchase?

Check out our Top 10 Purchasing Checklist for Key Management Systems & Ultimate Guide to Key Control in the Workplace 

Best Practices for Physical Key Management