Bar coding has proven its worth, and the data collection infrastruture it created won't soon be replaced by radio frequency identification.
The critical issue of data collection is not the collecting technology, it's how the data gathered is used. Bar coding will not go away because not everyone is willing to spend a lot of money to move to a new technology when the old one works.
Successful data collection is an evolutionary strategy not a revolutionary strategy. In many cases, beginning data collection with bar coding makes the most sense—and cents. The future lies in multiple ways of data collection—bar code labels, radio frequency identification (RFID), human-readable labels and image capture—to assure backup for this critical business function. All of these forms of data collection can coexist.
By establishing a robust bar code data collection program now, a company can better position itself—with time, talent and money—to move forward into the world of RFID.
"That move into RFID will be easier with an optimized bar code system," says Ardi Batmanghleidj, president, Innovatum (Atlanta), a producer of enterprise software. "Make sure the [data collection] system is flexible enough to meet all standards and capabilities as they come on-line. Then the [bar code] system can layer in the RFID stuff on top of it in the future."
Unless a product is of high value, or is of a mission-critical nature, RFID can be difficult and expensive, and hard to cost justify. What is necessary in data collection is, well, collecting the data.
Bar codes still occupy an import niche in many manufacturing operations where each part carries a label married to the bill of materials. Scanning the label insures the right parts come together in the right place at the right time. It's a low-cost way of error proofing and quality management.
Gary Cash, vice president product management, FKI Logistex (Cincinnati), says in a manufacturing environment, business professionals already know the level of information detail that would be carried in an RFID tag. "Why not use a bar code label that will stay on the part or product for life, and save the data in a computer? Everyone is comfortable with bar coding and it's inexpensive."
Manufacturers of bar code scanners have introduced hand-held scanners that can read bar code labels and be equipped to interrogate RF tags. "We look at all the data capture technologies," says Tracy Hillstrom, manager product strategy, Intermec Technologies (Redmond, Wash.) "and all have their place in the enterprise organization. We see some convergence among the technologies."
That convergence means laser scanning is getting better at reading bad labels, formerly the province of imaging, and imaging devices are becoming capable of reading labels at longer ranges. (See box on Intermec's use of complementary metal-oxide semiconductor [CMOS] technology in a scanner.)
Part of the reason for the convergence of technologies, says Hillstrom, can be found in a company's goals. "It [the goal] might be to better gather data inside the organization with bar coding, however, when parts of your organization touch outside the company, it might be better served with RFID."
Starting any data collection program begins with determining how managers want to use the data collected. Bar coding is simple because equipment and labeling standards are well established.
One of the better places to start an automatic data collection system is with the worker, says Jerry McNerney, senior director, supply chain solutions at Symbol (Holtsville, N.Y.). "If you look at the worker and all the issues surrounding his current data collection activity, you can quickly understand what the approach to automated data collection should be."
Label design is predicated on the collection process and environment. High density, or two-dimensional labels, for example, carry more information than linear bar codes. If a label is to be read in high-or low-light conditions, that helps determine which hardware should be selected. If the receiving company has no control of the quality of labels arriving at the dock, image capture might be a better choice than laser scanning. Rugged environments, where oil or other environmental factors interfere with scanning, might require engraved, or on-part marking.
This wide array of scanning device requirements, and labels to be read, requires sophisticated software. The hardware to collect the data is the enabler, a tool for the software application. Martin Brewer, strategic director at Wavelink (Kirkland, Wash.), says those who create software for bar code scanners don't want to write multiple applications for the various devices found in distribution centers and factories. His company markets an interface application that connects various data-collecting devices to data management programs.
Automatic data collection takes human interaction out of the data-gathering equation; bar coding to a lesser degree than RFID. The larger the installation, the faster data can be collected if RFID is employed. "However," says Brewer, "RF is not 100% reliable. The backup has to be bar coding and human readable information on the label or carton. The two play well together, depending on the application at hand and what savings a company is trying to realize."
Future for bar coding
Bar codes are not going away. Collecting information via the ubiquitous bar code label will continue as RFID comes into its own over the next 10 years.
"A company with no data collection system," says FKI's Cash, "needs to walk before it runs. The amount of data that can be collected with RF will overwhelm the company if it chooses to go to RFID before it is comfortable with bar coding.
A typical entry-level scenario involves installing a bar code data collection system in a small distribution center, and testing what happens with the data collected. Then, when a move to a larger distribution center is in order, the new building can be configured to efficiently move material through zones based on the data that has been collected.
"A company must be ready to change its way of thinking," advises Cash. "Collecting data allows a company to run more efficiently and to think ahead. I think people want to spend the money for RFID, but can't quantify how they can use the data to improve the bottom line."
Bar Coding Ensures On-time Delivery for Made-to-Order Furniture Maker
American Leather (Dallas) manufactures and ships custom-made leather furniture worldwide. Each piece of furniture is made to order. The company uses a sophisticated production, inventory, ordering and shipping system based on bar code technology.
When the company switched to an Oracle-based inventory management system it realized its existing barcode and printing system was no longer adequate. To fill the gap it worked with Cognitive Solutions (Golden, Colo.) to employ an XML-enabled and Oracle-friendly barcode printing solution. The XML-enabled printers don't require any additional middleware or programming.
The solution includes label formats supported by Oracle systems for a direct connection and immediate, effective barcode and label printing capabilities.
American Leather can now quickly and cost-effectively create material labels for inventory items. It is also using Cognitive Advantage LX series printers to track product through the production cycle.
Nanotechnology Improves Bar Code Scanning
The same precise, mission-critical technology used to deploy anti-lock brakes and airbags is now helping companies better capture critical supply chain information. Intermec Technologies Corp. (Redmond, Wash.) has introduced micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS), a type of nanotechnology, to data collection equipment. The use of MEMS-based technology is the first major change in laser-based data collection in 20 years.
Because MEMS-based laser scanners read bar codes up to 40 times as fast as today's legacy equipment, workers and systems can capture information more rapidly and efficiently, speeding the flow of information through a facility and improving supply chain visibility.
Intermec worked with the Fraunhaufer Institute to develop the use of MEMS technology in data collection applications. The first MEMS-based laser scan engine to be released, the Intermec EL10, features extremely fast scan rates and separate laser emission and collection optics for increased sensitivity, supporting increased scan range and angle, as well as easier scanning of low contrast bar codes.
The EL10 can operate at 500 scans per second, with the potential to go to 4,000 scans per second, compared to standard laser scan rates of less than 50 scans per second. Its micro-mirror and associated drive motor are 1/66th the size of the mirrors used in traditional laser scanner designs, adding to its durability and compact size. In addition to increased speed and smaller size, the new MEMS-based scanning technology allows laser scanners to read more sophisticated types of bar codes, such as stacked bar codes.
The cost versus performance measurement of RFID looks like the prototypical supply-demand curve for economics. Illustration from RFID for the Real World, a white paper by FKI Logistex.