More than ever, the term peripheral is a particularly apt label for the bar code printer. Companies are pushing their bar code labeling operations further out into the enterprise - to the periphery and beyond. "We're seeing more and more situations where companies need to print bar code labels somewhere other than from a printing station near a conveyor or production line," says Jim O'Hagan, director of technology transfer for bar code printer vendor Zebra Technologies Corp. For example, manufacturers of heavy equipment may produce, label, and warehouse finished goods days or weeks before receiving orders. These items may be large, heavy, difficult to move, and perhaps even stored outside. "Manufacturers don't always want to bring items back to a bar code printing station to relabel them for shipping to particular customers. Instead, they want to take bar code printing to the items," O'Hagan says. Enabling this push of printers out to the periphery are advances in two key areas: 1) the integration of wireless capabilities in portable printers; 2) the use of software tools for centrally monitoring and managing remote printers.
Connect Printers To A WLAN
According to O'Hagan, the establishment of the 802.11b standard for wireless transmission should drive higher adoption rates for wirelessly enabled devices, including mobile printers. The open standard allows adopters to buy different types of wireless terminals from different vendors and make them work for different purposes on the same system. "Previously, many companies were reluctant to take the leap into wireless devices because they weren't sure if the proprietary products and systems they purchased were going to be around for a while," O'Hagan says. "But, 802.11b gives users a migration path from whichever wireless devices they buy today."
Making wireless RF (radio frequency)-enabled printers part of a WLAN (wireless LAN) infrastructure is also useful even if the printer isn't going to be moved far. In many manufacturing environments, quality control and continuous improvement initiatives can cause frequent changes to the way production lines and processes are laid out. So, even bar code printers that remain stationary during the production process may need to be moved to a different position in a new scheme. Moving wireless systems and peripherals is a lot easier and faster than rewiring the cabling infrastructure for a production line or an entire facility. "Companies want to get returns on changes to their processes, but they don't want to have to wait for the data processing infrastructure to catch up," O'Hagan says.
Remote Printers, Local Monitoring
As companies increase the number of bar code printers - both wired and wireless - scattered across the enterprise, they risk increasing the labor needed to monitor, maintain, and manage each individual printer. When printers require maintenance, for example, shop floor employees often have to contact an IT staff member. Productivity for both departments is affected. The shop floor now has a bar code printer offline, causing delays in printing or forcing items to be rerouted. Rather than remaining focused on network and application performance, the IT staff ends up wasting time traveling to the printer to determine what the problem is.
Fortunately, remote printer management tools can reduce much of the inefficiency. Management tools enable companies to track printer usage, make changes to label configurations, and do software upgrades, all from a single browser-based interface. "Web-based printer management enables real-time diagnostics and system-wide configuration," explains Andrei Hall, senior VP, sales and marketing for bar code printer vendor Printronix. "From a central administrator's workstation, you can do printer setups, validate bar codes, and receive error notifications from any printer in the enterprise." According to Hall, a key feature of remote management tools is the ability to send alerts whenever a printer begins to issue bad bar codes. "A centralized monitoring system creates a closed loop in terms of quality control. You can look campus-wide or enterprise-wide - even globally - and see if your bar codes are accurate and scannable," Hall says.
O'Hagan agrees there is a trend toward centralized network management, including remote management of the peripherals that tie into enterprise applications. Companies that formerly had disparate systems in various facilities are putting centralized systems like ERP [enterprise resource planning] in place. These systems have specific requirements for how different types of peripherals communicate with them. "The need to get systems to talk to each other is particularly true in companies that have undergone mergers and acquisitions," O'Hagan says. "So, we're seeing people using tools like XML [extensible markup language] and SNMP [simple network management protocol] to create interfaces and data flows between networked devices and systems."