Let's look at the typical MIS (management information system) guy. He's managing PCL5 (printer control language 5) for his laser printers and PGL (printer graphics language) for his line printers. He's managing three or four different flavors of bar code printers. He's managing four different languages for different departments and some of the code and formats were designed by a colleague who retired five years ago. It's no surprise today's MIS managers are becoming more and more motivated to clean up these areas. Luckily for them, industry vendors are calling this "a great time to be an end user."
The bar code printer industry seems to have taken on three new trends. "The biggest one over the last year has been Web-based networking," states Terry Pruett, director of thermal products at Printronix (Irvine, CA). Previously, thermal bar code printers could be placed on a network, but users were not getting any feedback in terms of what was actually happening at the printer. There were no remote management capabilities. There was not enough capacity or compatibility. If something went wrong with the printer, someone needed to walk across the floor and figure it out, or place a service call. Today, printers have their own IP (Internet protocol) addresses, which allows users to go into the control panel of any printer in the world. From there they can globally change monitors, control the configuration, diagnose problems, instantly download upgraded firmware, and check job status. MIS managers no longer have to e-mail files to an employee or embed formats within the printer. They can do a global load of those formats simultaneously. Basically, the typical MIS guy can manage every bit of output in the company from one piece of software.
All-Encompassing Print Management
Manufacturers are looking at ways to optimize their investment in enterprise-wide systems. They're also looking at ways to manage both input and output to that system. "Today, companies can control all the labeling that is done by all their suppliers for all their products, just by using the Internet," explains Bob Karr, vice president and marketing manager at SATO America (Sunnyvale, CA). Suppliers enter a password, look up the order they are processing, and print the labels from their PC. They click on that order number and get the right format and data. If a manufacturer wants to make a change in its label, or in the data that will be in the label, it can change that information on its server. Suppliers can then print the correct labels immediately from anywhere in the world.
"I think everyone from end user to reseller to manufacturer is looking at this situation," explains Pruett. "That's why we're going to see changes." Pruett says that companies, such as WMS (warehouse management system) vendors and manufacturing execution system vendors, will start growing in terms of their influence on the printer decision. These are the companies that realize an all-encompassing print management-based solution will make their systems more efficient. "On the end user level, more and more people will move toward the enterprise-wide system," adds Pruett. "And there will be a shift because end users have other criteria to base their printer purchases on."
Add Data Validation For Complete Visibility
Web-based networking can help companies better manage their print jobs. But, what about managing accuracy? Data validation has been somewhat of a negative concept in recent years. The verifier in the printer was in control of everything, and essentially, the only option you had was to stop the printer. If it printed a bad bar code, somebody had to go out on the floor, evaluate it, and fix the problem. But now there are printers with verifiers, that require virtually no intervention. If a printer prints a bar code label that the verifier doesn't accept, the printer takes the label back inside and over-stripes it. This ensures that it won't be used. Then it reprints the label. The printer continues with the batch and will not stop the job until five consecutive labels have been struck. This information can be continually forwarded, over the network, to the host. That way the company is collecting data, as well as a history. The printer brings back a history of every batch. "Web-based networking, combined with data validation, could provide the end user with complete visibility into a closed loop bar code quality system," adds Pruett.
A remote management scenario can also assure typical MIS employees that their printers are being used efficiently. "Customers are going through ISO (International Standards Organization) 9000 procedures," explains Pruett. ISO 9000 is a standard for quality in the manufacturing and service industries. In the bar code printer industry, ISO 9000 means having a process, continually evaluating the process, documenting the process, and applying a remedy as needed. "If I were an ISO 9000 manufacturer, I would love to be able to show my trading partners that all of my processes are documented," adds Pruett. "And for all of my errors, I would love to show them a solution."
Next Stop: Windows Drivers
The one hampering factor in bar code printing over the years has been the fact that most thermal printer manufacturers have written proprietary code for their machines. Therefore, most end users have their label formats in code and, it's hard to switch out of that. "But, it's a great time to be an end user," adds Pruett. There are now tools that can help map that data. There are vendors that can take a data stream from a legacy printer, pull out the raw data that is printing on the label, reformat it to a new printer's language, and send it to that printer. However, Karr isn't convinced this is the wave of the future. "I think it's a stopgap," he says. "I think the real future is going to be in the ability to drive printers directly from Windows without using proprietary codes and languages."
Companies are creating native Windows drivers for the different versions of Windows. End users load them just as they would a desktop printer. They can then go to any native Windows application and generate a report. When users set up the page size, they enter the size of the label. Essentially, the label is printed directly from the Windows application without having to use a third party language or having to use a separate program (linking data in the Windows application to the third party label program). "You can also print full speed, from these Windows applications," adds Karr. "Printers are now fast enough that they can produce labels without the delays that we used to see."
Questions about this article? E-mail the author at StacyM@corrypub.com.