Business everywhere may be going digital, but physical keys will be part of security plans for a long time to come. And for good reason. Lock and key security provides an excellent level of security and access control, and it’s affordable for businesses of all sizes.

But keys need to be properly managed or business assets will be at risk. Those keys are worth more than just the metal they’re made from. They grant access to your facility, your material assets, your fleet, and your staff. That means your keys should be valued and protected just as much.

That’s what a key management system is supposed to do: protect everything you care about in your business. But what exactly does a key management system look like? And how exactly does it help a business function? Let’s find out.

What is Physical Key Management?

Key management is the process of controlling which locations and assets in your organization can be accessed, directing who can access them, and when they can access them. Depending on an organization’s individual risks or regulatory needs, the system may also record different information about how keys are used.

There are many ways to implement a key management system. Some businesses manage their keys with a simple pegboard and a pen-and-paper log book. Other businesses who need better control or insight choose an electronic key management system.

Why Use a Key Management System?


At a high level, managing key access improves how your organization uses its assets and protects them. The process of documenting how they’re used in your organization also turns physical keys into sources of useful business intelligence.

Specifically, key management helps you:

  • Reduce Costs: Your keys are always accounted for, so re-keying costs drop and productivity stays high when staff don’t waste time searching for misplaced keys.
  • Manage Risk: Good key management systems give you tracking and auditing of key use in real-time. You instantly know if keys haven’t been returned or if someone is trying to access a secure location at an unexpected time.
  • Prevent Losses: Not just lost keys, but with a complete ‘chain-of-custody’ transaction log built into a key management system, your personnel are fully accountable for how they use secured assets.
  • Improve Operations: You get tighter control on what happens in your facility. You can restrict key access to certain shifts, set timed key returns so work happens fast, and staff can reserve keys to ensure they’re available for time-sensitive tasks.

All of this boils down to one essential fact: good key management is just another form of good business management.

→ Download Best Practices for Physical Key Management to begin building a  secure key control program for your organization.

What a Key Management System Looks Like

Now that you have a better understanding of what a key management system can offer, let’s talk about what one actually looks like. A key management system is usually built from four main components:

Key Cabinets:key-management-cabinet

Keys are secured in a locked key cabinet. There’s an outer locking door and in certain models, individual lock slots for key rings. With that feature, the system will only unlock the key ring someone selects and are authorized to access, so they can’t log a sign out for one key ring and take another.

The key cabinets and cabinet key modules can be customized to fit different numbers of keys and different sized key rings.

Smart Terminal:

That outer locking door only opens after personnel authenticate themselves on the system’s smart terminal. This is a terminal that accepts one or more authentication types. For example, Real Time Networks’ key cabinets can accept PIN codes, RFID fobs, swipe cards, or different biometrics like fingerprints or iris scans.

Also, through the management portal for your key system (More on that below) you can configure required checklists on the terminal when staff sign out or return keys. For example, you can require drivers to log mileage and maintenance notes when they return vehicle keys at the end of a shift.

Key Fobs:KeyTracer-RFID-Key-Fobs

In advanced key management systems, each key ring has a fob attached to it, that allows the cabinet to track whether a key has been taken or returned. Different systems use different technologies to track key sets. Key rings in some management systems like Real Time Networks’ have RFID tags embedded in their key rings to verify keys upon return. RFID is a short range wireless technology, usually used for machine-to-machine communication. In advanced setups, you can even distribute RFID readers around a high security facility so keys can be tracked in real time as they’re carried around.

Key Management Software:

Our key management software is called RTNHub. It lets you manage everything in a KeyTracer system, including alarms, reports, and personnel access. This is where the real power of a key management system comes in. Not just in securing key rings, but enhancing work associated with those keys.

Let’s look at a couple examples.

What Can Key Management Actually Do For Me?

Manage Temp Workers:

Contractors, temp workers, and outsourced staff may need access to keys, but they may not have the same investment in your organization that full-time staff have. We worked with one tech company whose new product was leaked online when outsourced cleaning staff took a cell phone pic in a secured lab. They had no idea who did it since keys weren’t tracked.

We set up a key management system for them that streamlined one-time key sign-outs without compromising user logging. After hours work remained efficient and workers became accountable.

Manage Work Schedules:

All aspects of key transactions can be adjusted and recorded in the RTNHub portal. One customer needed our help setting ‘key curfews’ on sensitive asset keys to make sure sensitive material inspections happened on time.

Normally customers use key curfews to enforce returns at the end of shifts, but our system is flexible enough that it can be used for this kind of workflow as well.

Manage Driver Licensing:

Real Time Networks deployed a license monitoring tool in a key management system to track license expiration dates on specialized equipment. This client’s supervisors were notified by email as license expirations approached. And employees were locked out of accessing keys if they let their licenses expire. This way the company could avoid expensive moving violations and bad PR by preventing unlicensed accidents.

Final Thoughts

A key management system does more than just secure keys. If a workflow includes a key somewhere in the process then there’s a good chance a key management system can improve that work.

Download our guide, Best Practices for Physical Key Management to learn more about the critical components of key control.

Best Practices for Physical Key Management