Magazine Article | September 1, 2002

Let Bar Code Printers Work For You

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

Integrating bar code label printers into your enterprise can take your supply chain efficiencies to the next level.

Integrated Solutions, September 2002

AIDC (automatic identification and data collection) technologies eliminate the error-prone and time-consuming activities of manual data collection and data entry, but is your enterprise using these technologies to their full potential? Experts say when it comes to bar code labeling, the most pervasive AIDC technology, companies are printing labels out of necessity for their customers, but they aren't integrating the information into their own internal systems. "Internal bar coding activity can cut costs and improve inventory turns. In today's investment climate, companies that integrate their systems can see ROI in less than a year," said David Krebs, AIDC group manager at Venture Development Corp. (Natick, MA). Now is the time to take bar code printing to the next level, and here are three ways to start.

1. Turn Compliance Into Internal Efficiency
When compliance bar code labeling first emerged, customers demanded their suppliers use specific bar code standards. Compliance, not the need for internal supply chain efficiency, prompted most companies to print bar codes. "When Ford Corp. tells you it wants bar codes on the boxes you ship, you are going to do it because you can't afford not to. Compliance was a fine reason to start, but bar codes also allow you to integrate information into your internal systems no matter what size business you are," said Bob Karr, VP and marketing manager at SATO America (Sunnyvale, CA).

In the bar code printer industry, features such as speed, print quality, or even price are no longer key selling points. Companies must evaluate a printer by its ability to integrate into the rest of the supply chain. "In the past, bar code label printing was an island of automation," said Tom Thatcher, president of Tharo Systems, Inc. (Brunswick, OH). In today's business world, that island must be bridged so companies can avoid re-keying order information. Instead, labels should be printed as a direct response to an internal activity, such as an Internet order that needs to be tracked throughout the supply chain.

One way to build an enterprise bridge to your printers is through ODBC (open database connectivity). This Microsoft initiative allows companies to open a non-Windows database, such as an Oracle database, and download the information directly to the printer in a format it understands. Another way to approach this is to create direct programming from the corporate system to the bar code printer, much like a printer driver. "Instead of your programmers learning the command language inherent to the printer, direct programming allows your company to download the necessary printer format from PC-based software," Thatcher said. This way, programmers write less code and eliminate third-party labeling software.

2. Examine All Links Of The Chain
When companies look to improve their supply chains, many look only at the bottleneck areas, but problems could occur throughout the process. "Bar codes are not a panacea," Karr said. "They are not going to fix a poor supply chain. They will simply get the information into the system faster." Companies need to review their processes from the first point of customer contact to the shipping and invoicing of products.

SATO America, a manufacturer of bar code printers, saw the value of integrating bar coding into its own enterprise years ago when it began selling its products in the United States. "We were inefficient at getting invoices out to our customers quickly and accurately. Our problems stemmed from manually collecting and tracking invoice data," Karr said. SATO's supply chain problems were affecting its international shipping. "For example, if we sent packages to Central America without our labels matching our invoices, our customers couldn't get their packages out of customs," Karr said.

Once SATO switched to an integrated bar code tracking system, it could follow an order through the warehouse from picking to packing. Integration allowed them to verify that the serial numbers and quantities matched the invoices every time, and now its supply chain execution is 99.9% error-free.

3. Remote Management: Not A Remote Possibility
Creating an automated bar code printing environment has become easier with printer-based Web servers and Ethernet connections. "From a software and a hardware standpoint we have been a serial/parallel world for a long time," Thatcher said. "Ethernet is becoming the universal connectivity methodology." Regardless of the system, Ethernet and a network interface card enable companies to tie their printers to their internal networks and create a long-distance protocol over the Internet. This enables a company to remotely control the diagnostics of all its printers from a central location. Printers are becoming more intelligent with two-way communication capabilities. For example, an end user can dial into its printer and change its parameters over the Web, or a printer can send an e-mail alert to a company employee when paper or ribbon needs to be replaced. No matter where in the building (or the world) an employee is, he can redirect the print job to another printer. Technology integration allows a company to use all the equipment in its reach to become more efficient, even down to the bar code printers. Don't let dumb terminals or islands of automation stand in the way of supply chain success.