Getting the most out of a barcode project

Manufacturers have a lot to look at when implementing barcodes into the warehouse. Barcode projects are expensive, but if done right, can pay off big.

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Barcodes have been around since the 1970s, but implementing a barcode project isn't always as simple as it seems. 

To get more out of a barcode project, companies should pay attention to data quality and hidden costs and should better leverage existing software. The barcode auto identification technology is created by using a numbering scheme with the alphanumeric marks generated by label making software. The Universal Product Code (UPC) governing body determines the numbering. It's basically a sequence of numbers that identify the company and then a set of numbers to identify specific products or parts. That symbology is transferred to a label via thermal transfer printers.

In starting a barcode project, most organizations realize they need that numbering scheme, barcode software and a thermal printer and the printer drivers, according to Ben Friedman, research manager at Manufacturing Insights.

But one of the most overlooked areas is simply ensuring that the information that gets printed on the label itself is accurate.

Organizations skip this step because it's expensive; but in the long run, overlooking data quality could be even more costly to the supply chain. Organizations can use a verification arm for this purpose. It's an add-on piece of hardware for the printer that reads the tag and either passes it through or rejects it.

While some barcode software, such as Seagull Scientific's Bartender, will stop a barcode from moving forward if the data has been entered incorrectly, it's really only looking at the symbology. The verification tool provides physical verification that the printed barcode is correct in the operational environment, Friedman said.

"Oftentimes, companies miss this, especially less mature ones," he said. "You need a verification tool, which performs the task of verifying that the tag is readable right after the barcode has been printed."

Examining barcode costs

In turn, while barcoding is less expensive than other forms of auto ID, there are some hidden costs. For one thing, the cost of labor has to be taken into account.

"You need to have someone to scan the tags. It still requires some manipulation of the product," said Will McNeill, Gartner Research analyst, AMR Supply Chain Leaders.

A barcode project should include not only IT but the warehouse personnel who are going to use it, since the labels are generated at the point of shipping.

"It's often mandated by IT, and the users are overlooked," Friedman said. "You need to consider their level of comfort with the technology. If it's too complex, you may be slowing them down."

Barcode integration with other systems

Organizations also need to take a look at what types of systems are in place and how readily adaptable they'll be. For example, it's a good idea to integrate a warehouse management system or an ERP system into a barcode project.

"A lot of companies need to consider middleware that will let you take barcode information and put it back into their enterprise," Friedman said. "Often, companies create the barcode tag for compliance purposes and miss an opportunity to take barcode information and use it for their own internal purposes as part of their overall ERP portfolio."

Friedman also suggests engaging IT to see whether there's a way to leverage existing systems. Most warehouses have thermal printers but may not have the ability to print the type of barcode symbology that is necessary. Some can be retrofitted, so you may not need to buy new equipment, and considering capital constraints in this economy, that's an expense that companies would probably want to avoid.

In addition, the inventory management team needs to be included during the planning stages. They will need to make sure they can get from the barcode information what they need to know about inventory levels, which is why it's critical to include inventory management, users and IT at the earliest stages.

Customizing barcode projects to manufacturing environments

In turn, another challenge is that there's really no one solution to drop in, according to McNeill.

"The manufacturing environment and physical layout varies from company to company," he said.

There may be multiple warehouses, for example, and the project being conducted in one warehouse might be different from another. The physical locations of the barcode readers need to be considered in order to determine whether they should be placed at the docking bay, for instance.

"The main challenge is that each one is almost a custom project," McNeill said. It is possible to expect too much from a barcode project, McNeill said. Once implemented, a barcode project helps an organization see where everything is, but that kind of visibility won't solve any problems if the supply chain is misguided.

"Implementing in itself is not the end benefit; it's what you do with that," McNeill said. "In some cases, it's about inaccurate shipments, so you can have visibility of what's going out the door, but if it's still getting onto the wrong truck, your problem hasn't been solved."

It's all about using the information gathered to solve the problems.

"Expecting that these systems will automatically solve all the problems in the supply chain is a big mistake," McNeill said. "You need to remodel your process based on the information you're gathering."

About the author: Catherine LaCroix is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore. She covers technology used in business, education and healthcare.

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