Those ubiquitous barcodes on packaging and labels — essentially just a machine-readable number — are one of the quiet miracles of modern commercial life and the foundation on which are built most of the smart IT systems that run logistics, retailing and any administrative system that needs to keep track of individual items.
Those items can also be transactions, customers, sets of documents or whatever — anything that is worth identifying under a single reference number for your system. Most consumers will probably think of the grocery trade as the largest user of barcodes, but in fact up to 80pc are actually used in manufacturing, distribution and warehousing.
Barcodes are a fast and accurate way of getting information into a computer system and the basis today of the efficient logistics needed to run most large manufacturing processes or distribution networks. The track-and-trace systems that are now a key part of all logistics services would be impossible without automated barcode scanning at every waypoint transfer.
“Automation is the main driver, cutting down labour time and errors in manual keying — often twice or more — and giving a speedy return on investment,” says Robert Jones, managing director of the specialist company VisionID, which he set up in Clonmel four years ago. “Smarter technologies are also helping. Delivery van systems have been using GSM and now GPRS for years to upload information back to base from handheld scanners. In warehouses, production plants and such environments wireless networking and portable devices are actually the most cost-effective solution.”
He points out that a barcoding system can save money for any sized company when it comes to avoiding stock errors: “Companies in all industries regularly find themselves unable to find or account for perhaps thousands of euro worth of stock. Was it one box or one pallet that time? It would only take one serious error avoided to save a lot more than the cost of any such system.”
Barcoding replaces slow manual data entry and the barcode itself represents anything from a part number for a computer to a 250g pack of brand X dairy spread to a pallet of goods and its related shipping documentation. In any industry the barcode system depends on a number of components besides the labels themselves. Scanners are needed to read the labels, specialised printers produce the labels or tags and each scan feeds into the IT system that uses the information.
The importance of barcoding in the supply chain is illustrated by the fact that some major supermarket groups now set quality standards for their suppliers’ barcode labels — with fines for non-compliance. It’s not much use having world-class automated systems if the labels can’t be read. The shape of things to come can also be gauged from Wal-Mart’s announcement in the US that from 2005 all pallets delivered from its suppliers must have RFID (radio frequency identification) tags.
There are around 30 different types of barcodes in use in Ireland today, each of which can represent varying kinds and amounts of information. EAN (European Article Number) is the code familiar to supermarket consumers. Other codes are industry specific such as AIAG (Automotive Industry Action Group), used almost exclusively in the automobile industry, or HIBC (Health Industry Bar Code) used in the healthcare sector. One of the most common codes in use in this country is Code 39 — so called because each character is represented by nine bars, three of which must be wide bars.
The need for up to nine bars per character demonstrates the limitations of this type of technology. A part number with 10 characters would take up to 90 bars — requiring a sizeable enough label even considering that the white, as well as the black, bars are taken into account.
In recent years two-dimensional codes have been introduced that enable up to one kilobyte of data to be represented on a label, eg PDF 417, which looks more like a chess board than a conventional barcode. Other examples of two-dimensional codes in use today include Data Matrix and others, each a representation of overlapping codes that dramatically increase the amount of data that can fit on a single label. Improvements in scanning equipment have opened up possibilities for the increased use of two-dimensional codes.
But it is the numbering systems and conventions that underpin the use of barcodes that enable all such identification technologies to work. That is why RFID tags are gaining such rapid acceptance — they can replace printed labels and use the same numbering conventions.
RFID tags are versatile since they can also carry a printed barcode, making them compatible with existing systems. But because they can hold so much more information there are international moves towards a new universal numbering system that will allow for more data such as individual pack numbering and the manufacture or sell by dates, especially in industries such as food or pharmaceuticals. Costs are still an inhibiting factor but RFID tags are becoming cheaper all the time, although some applications such as a production line mean that a chip can be re-used when the finished product is ready for shipping.
The actual RFID tags come in all shapes, sizes and read ranges including thin and flexible smart labels that can be laminated between paper or plastic and overprinted with the barcodes. The significant advantage of all types of RFID systems is that neither contact nor line-of-sight is required — just proximity. They can be read through snow, fog, ice and a variety of substances such as paint, crusted grime and other visually and environmentally challenging conditions.
Philips and Texas Instruments are the leading smart label manufacturers. Philips has now combined barcode printing and RFID with the EAS (electronic alarm system) tagging system used in retail outlets for items such as CD/DVD cases and other small but high-value consumer goods. ‘One smart label does all’ may well be the way of the future across all distribution supply chains.
By Leslie Faughnan
Smart scanning: the key to smart systems
Handheld barcode scanners begin with light pens. These are certainly pocket-friendly but limited for any volume use because they need to be moved across in contact with the barcode label to read it. More common CCD scanners (similar to supermarket checkout devices) can read from some inches away and at different angles. Handheld laser scanners are more powerful and fixed automated models can read barcodes at distances up to perhaps six metres.
A typical handheld scanner that attaches to a PC (desktop or portable) now costs approximately €300. A self-contained model, typically running Windows CE, can retain a great deal of data and synchronise with a desktop stock control or track-and-trace system. These are the tools of today’s delivery driver, capable of relaying data back to HQ over a mobile phone connection — or receiving revised delivery instructions. Always-on GPRS technology offers further opportunities for smart systems.
Fixed scanners are the backbone of barcode control in manufacturing and logistics. A top-of-the-range laser scanner will scan standard labels of different sizes in any direction and at very high speed, eg mounted over a conveyor belt and equipped with up to three processors for reliability. Leading scanner/reader brands include Symbol, Intermec and Hand Held Products while Data Logic is the leader in fixed systems.
In manufacturing or distribution, barcode labels often need to be printed at extremely high speed. Specialist printers can achieve speeds of up to 10 inches per second. But cheap entry-level devices for a few hundred euro make it feasible for smaller businesses to use barcode systems. They also make it possible for production plants in the electronics industry, for example, to have a barcode printer at every assembly station. Zebra is the world market leader but there are many makers in the field. For smaller businesses, barcode fonts enable short runs to be printed on self-adhesive labels by standard office printers.