Magazine Article | June 1, 2001

Retailers, The Supply Chain, And Consumers Alike Grasp The Bar Code Scanner

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

Recent trends and product enhancements show that it's not just warehouses using RFID anymore. Could consumers benefit also? See how everyone is making use of the constantly evolving bar code scanners.

Integrated Solutions, June 2001

Four new trends within the bar code scanner industry have prompted recent product enhancements. First, from a technology standpoint, is an emphasis on CCD or linear imaging. "CCD is becoming a viable alternative to laser-based scanning," explains Dan Bodnar, director of marketing for the Data Capture Business at Intermec. "For example, in the past, CCD has been viewed as a contact or near-contact type of scanner. In other words, you have to be very close to the bar code in order to properly scan it." By having to be this close to the bar code, users are also limited in how wide the bar code can be. Today, with some of the advances in processing and in LED (light emitting diode) technology, users are now getting CCD scanners that are on par in performance with standard range laser scanners. This represents 80% of the market. Users can now scan distances from the bar code outward of 16-19 inches on UPC-type code and these scanners have no problem reading the wide code characters.

The benefit of CCD over laser, now that the two are on what Bodnar calls "equal scanning performance," is that in certain instances users actually get better scanning performances because of the CCD's ability to have faster scan rates. A typical laser scanner scans about 32 scans a second. CCD now scans more than 200 scans per second. "That translates into quickly being able to read faded or damaged bar codes compared to a laser scanner," adds Bodnar. Another benefit of CCD is that it is a completely solid scanner. No moving parts means longer useful life. As Pat Curry of Hand Held Products (Skaneateles Falls, NY) explains, "CCD technology provides fewer regulatory concerns and longer mean time between failures than other scanning technologies. For example, many wide-angle CCD scanners are designed for integration into equipment that requires bar code reading capability, but they may also be used as a stand-alone unit providing bar code information as serial data."

2-D Imagers Embrace CMOS Technology
A second trend seems to be an increase in 2-D imagers. "There is a lot of activity in the aerospace, automotive, and telecommunications markets to move toward 2-D types of symbologies," says Bodnar. These markets are moving toward area-based imagers and in those situations the generations of imagers coming up are embracing CMOS technology (a low cost, low power consuming technology). Because of this, the market is starting to see a performance increase in imagers, as well as price reduction. Curry agrees. "There are all-purpose data collection terminals featuring a CMOS digital image camera and integrated image-processor," she explains. "These types of scanners can decode linear bar codes, stacked linear and matrix codes, as well as provide OCR (optical character recognition) functionality."

Third, RFID is starting to take off both within the warehouse as well as within the retail market space. "For example," illustrates Bodnar, "we're working with one of our business partners, Sensormatic. They are largely involved in the electronic article surveillance arena (security tags that are embedded into products so consumers can't steal items from retail stores without setting off an alarm). What Sensormatic wants to do is combine EAS (electronic article surveillance) with the ability of RFID to have a distributed database." What this means is, stores can actually store information within the tag embedded in the item. That tag then becomes a database. Bodnar gives an example of an Intermec customer - a video rental chain. "This customer actually embedded the smart tag into the video cassettes and that then becomes a way to decrement inventory. In the past it was very time-consuming for employees to scan each video. Now employees walk through the aisles and the Intermec's 1555 RFID/bar code reader automatically scans each video tag from 6 feet away. Bodnar says this particular video store computed the annual savings across the chain, and it was a $60 million labor savings.

Curry also mentions the Dolphin 7400RF Hand Held Portable Data Terminal, which can also be used for inventory management. The Dolphin decodes 2-D symbologies such as PDF417, MaxiCode, QR Code, and Data Matrix.

Decrementing inventory via bar code scanners is also gaining acceptance in the warehouse management arena. Bodnar says, "The cradle-to-grave tracking concept is also very important in certain applications across the supply chain, especially if you're tracking reusable containers such as pallets." Pallets are constantly being recycled. Today many companies attach a tag to the pallet, which becomes a distributed database. If the company wants to add something to the pallet at the last minute, they have the ability to do that and then quickly update that tag. The tag then becomes a permanent part of that pallet, and it essentially becomes a "smart pallet."

Portable, For The Web Scanning Consumer
Fourth, is a trend driven primarily by the business-to-consumer (B2C) market. "There is a concept called Web scanning," explains Bodnar. "And the most notable applications are probably the print-to-Web applications where the bar code is embedded in an advertisement or editorial. A very inexpensive, very portable, and very small bar code scanner is used to scan the bar code. If you're reading the advertisement or editorial in front of your PC terminal, you scan the bar code and it automatically launches you to an advertiser's site to gain specific information in the advertisement. Or if it was an editorial piece you were reading, it might launch you to a site where you can find additional editorial content."

These kinds of scanners are approximately the size of a car door opener. They can also store bar codes in case you are reading the advertisement or editorial on the train instead of at your PC. "Many scanners incorporate a low power, high-resolution digital camera to capture signatures, airbills, or damaged cartons in a mobile data collection terminal," adds Curry.

Another Intermec business partner has created a database of 80 million UPC codes. The company takes the codes and actually links them to the manufacturers. This way, when a user scans a bar code on a bottle of wine or on a book using the small, portable scanners explained earlier, the user downloads that to a PC, then launches the advertiser's Web site. From there the user can gather information such as pricing comparisons and local retailers within their zip code. The database provides real-time data relevant to the consumer.

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