SPECIAL REPORT: Linked Auto ID Tools Boost Productivity

To boost productivity, auto ID technologies such as bar codes, RFID, and voice recognition are required. As attendees will see at the upcoming ScanTech '99 trade show, systems are becoming more powerful and easier to install and use.

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Posted on Nov 03, 2006

For manufacturers, improving the bottom line today hinges on boosting productivity. To boost productivity, automatic identification (ID) technologies such as linear and two-dimensional bar codes as well as radio frequency ID (RFID) and voice recognition hardware are required. As attendees will see at the ScanTech '99 trade show in October, systems are becoming more portable and powerful and easier to install and use. At the same time, users are demanding that vendors link automatic ID devices like bar code printers, portable data collection terminals, and wearable voice recognition gear to information systems ranging from warehouse management to enterprise resource planning (ERP) packages.  In fact, users need automated data collection and integration to leverage these systems. These elements can increase an ERP system's capability by as much as 50% by helping to expedite shipments, according to Gartner Group Inc., a research firm.  But many executives who approve the ERP and warehouse management system (WMS) purchases focus on bigger picture issues. "They want to balance the load from five manufacturing facilities [and] not worry about how to get product on the truck," says Joel Kutner, global alliance manager at Intermec Technologies Corp. "But data collection is critically important to getting the right product on the right truck at the right time."  To get maximum benefit from the underlying software, requirements must be defined, because most WMS or ERP packages don't routinely address data collection and bar code printing. Although users are encouraged to specify needs early on, system developers and makers of bar code printers and portable data collection terminals continue working to improve the connectivity of out-of-the-box products.  Those WMS packages that accommodate bar code labeling often link printers or data collection terminals and ERP systems. Otherwise, stand-alone middleware or a direct connect driver is required.  Characteristic of today's applications is one at the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. plant in Lincoln, NE. The company uses RF Navigator, a WMS from Majure Data Inc. in Roswell, GA, and an SAP ERP system. Transaction-related material-handling data-such as that generated when receiving, storing, or picking an item--is transmitted via RF to the WMS. In turn, the WMS communicates with the upstream ERP system and handles downstream data transfer for the printers attached to a server or a network. The WMS also manages label and report formatting, determines print order, and establishes a job queue.  RF Navigator uses a non-proprietary TCP/IP interface that doesn't require the user to know about specific linkages, says Stephen Critchfield, a spokesman for Majure Data. "It also takes lot of the learning curve out of integrating a new device." Handheld Data Collection Terminals Handheld data collection terminals are getting smaller and more powerful. Moreover, they are increasingly using radio frequency technology to receive and transmit data in real time.  This latest-generation hardware runs on the Windows CE or 3Com Palm Pilot operating system (OS). "Every major vendor is going to be showing Windows CE-enabled devices at ScanTech," says Barry Issberner, vice president of business development at Symbol Technologies Inc., a major bar code system maker based in Holtsville, NY.  "The Windows CE environment is where the market is going," says John Dreibelbis, marketing director at Hand Held Products, a Charlotte, NC-based portable data collection terminal maker. Until now, introduction of Windows CE units has been delayed because the company needed expensive, power-hungry processors. However, Hand Held cleared that hurdle by embedding Intel Corp.'s powerful, energy-efficient StrongArm processor in its Windows CE-based Dolphin 7400.  Windows CE also "solves a lot of real-world problems," says Issberner, by providing development tools and ways to interface to ERP systems.  "Information technology specialists like this option because it's a lot like what they are used to. Operations personnel like it because it offers a rich operating environment," he explains.  All major vendors will offer 3Com OS-based products, says Issberner. Like competing Windows CE products, they feature an intuitive graphical user interface and comprehensive development tools.  Also emerging are data collection terminals with wireless point-to-point communication links and units incorporating both laser and imaging technology to read two-dimensional (2-D) bar codes or capture and transmit image-like signatures.  As with bar code printing, middleware is used to interface data collected by handheld devices and an ERP or warehouse management system. Middleware is tailored to meet the specialized needs of a specific industry. Bar Code Printers Sales are growing 11% annually for bar code printers, a rate that should be sustained through 2005, according to the recent "U.S. Bar Code Printers Market" report by market researcher Frost & Sullivan, which also predicts growth in offshore markets.  Thermal-transfer bar code printers featuring heat-sensitive ribbons have the largest market share, followed by direct-thermal units equipped with heat-sensitive paper and impact and laser devices. The manufacturing and industrial sector is the biggest user. Retail industry compliance labeling and supply chain efforts are the major demand drivers.  "We see a real trend toward wireless communication and portability in manufacturing," says Bob Glavin, director of marketing at Paxar Monarch Marking Systems, which makes direct-thermal/thermal-transfer printers. "It started in retail stores and moved back through the supply chain to distribution centers. Now manufacturers are tying printers into wireless networks. A lot of printers are going portable, and even stationary printers are going wireless."  Most new bar code printers are connected to a computer network. Several vendors-including Printronix, Weber Marking Systems Inc., and Zebra Technologies Corp.-offer Ethernet connectivity. "It's becoming the platform of choice for business customers," says Ralph Gabia, Printronix's senior vice president of marketing. Using Ethernet allows a customer to efficiently configure a printer network and manage its output, often remotely from the administrator's desktop PC, he says. As a result, printers can be controlled from a single location.  At ScanTech, Printronix will introduce its new T5000 thermal-transfer printer that can be directly connected to an SAP R/3 ERP system without using middleware. That printer incorporates PrintNet Plus, Printronix's year-old Ethernet local area network (LAN) connector. Printronix also plans to roll out at ScanTech continuous-form laser printers tethered to an Ethernet network, says Gabia. This connectivity allows users to pick the best printer to meet their specific needs: laser units for reports and invoicing, line matrix for high-speed and multicopy jobs, and thermal for bar code labels.  Zebra's Ethernet offering, the recently released ZebraNet PrintServer II, was developed with Extended Systems Inc., a server maker. Zebra offers its product as a factory-installed internal module on its Performance Line printers, as well as an external component for other models.  To readily mesh printers with ERP systems, direct-connect drivers or middleware are required. Vendors are eager to develop these links to tap into the fast growing ERP market. Moreover, using these linkages limits the amount of custom programming required while maintaining data integrity and network throughput speed.  Selection of a direct-connect driver or middleware depends on the customer needs and the packaged software's bias. For example, because SAP's software uses a proprietary language, a direct-connect driver is preferred to help generate reports. For customized labels and forms, middleware provides the greater flexibility required to capture SAP data that can be manipulated into a customized design, like a company-specific invoice. Using middleware, which usually resides on a Windows platform, makes the job easier because many users are familiar with the underlying operating system.  Zebra has partnered with JetForm to address this market. They've melded Zebra's Bar One bar code labeling software with JetForm's server management package to form Bar One with JetForm Central. Wacker Corp. of Menomonee Falls, WI, a maker of light construction equipment, uses the software to merge ASCII report text from its new Baan ERP system into Bar One label designs via JetForm Central to produce labels on Zebra thermal-transfer printers. It does so to avoid manual entry of serial numbers, cutting label creation time in half and improving accuracy.  Other portable printers include one from Monarch linked to a 3Com Palm Pilot handheld data collection terminal from 3Com. It competes with Datamax's Panther direct-thermal printers and Zebra's PA400.  Separately, TEC America introduced its one-pound TEC B-211, developed with Percon Inc., a wireless computer terminal maker based in Eugene, OR. It operates via an infrared serial connection on Percon's Falcon 325 wireless computer terminal. Voice-Based Automatic ID Speech recognition systems used in industrial settings have made giant technological strides. They enable hands- and eyes-free input and receipt of accurate data. Systems consist of an RF receiver, headset, and wearable computer bundled with software that converts audio into ASCII text streams and vice versa. Small, lightweight PCs with high processing power and long battery life have increased the practicality of these systems. The other critical industrial unit component, the 2.4-gigabyte RF system, appeared about 18 months ago. "We needed a high-speed radio at an economical price," says Scott Medford, vice president of business development at Syvox Corp., one of three suppliers of industrial voice recognition systems.  Syvox, which has designed and built speech engines since the mid-1980s, began developing an industrial system three years ago. It offers pick-to-voice (PTV) software with a speaker-independent speech engine. In other words, the system understands anyone using the headset.  Less advanced systems respond only to specific voices, Medford says. Any changes-a cold, nervousness, or frustration-can disrupt normal system operations and necessitate system retraining.  New systems are more immune to high ambient noise levels present in many industrial settings. When the user signs on, he simply checks the noise level and adjusts the hardware accordingly.  Most hardware is warehouse oriented and is used for receiving, put-away, picking, or returns processing. However, many organizations use voice-based systems for product inspection.  For example, Ford Motor Co. employs a system from Vocollect, once part of Westinghouse's now-disbanded voice-recognition operation program and the largest of the three voice players. The company has an installed base of 3,000 units. The batch-based system (without RF) is used to help identify body panel alignment and paint quality defects that need to be corrected before shipping vehicles. Eliminating data entry speeds inspection.  For real-time systems, a host computer sends instructions in ASCII text strings to the voice system via RF. The wireless infrastructure works with any standard hardware. The wearable voice system translates the data into speech and delivers instructions to the operator, who verifies the information, completes the required task, and reports it to the system. In turn, the system converts speech into ASCII text strings and transmits the data back to the host.  Accuracy is ensured by system playback of the input data if necessary and through the use of check digits. In warehouses, for example, bins are numbered as well as marked with a check digit so locations can be confirmed.  Some systems enhance accuracy by personalizing the unit for each operator. "It takes 5 to 10 minutes for a typical picking system, and [it] is language- and dialect-independent," says Jeff Hill, marketing director at Voxware Inc., which makes voice-recognition products. As a result, the system recognizes non-English speakers.  Automatic voice recognition systems are comparably priced with handheld text-based systems, costing about $5,000 to $7,000 per user. However, since the voice-based systems are more accurate and promote comfort and productivity, return on investment is much greater than handhelds, Medford of Syvox Corp. says.  An added safety feature is that operators don't have to read instructions while moving around. "Employees really like it," Hill says. Voxware began addressing the warehouse market about a year ago following its purchase of Verbex Voice Systems for $5.2 million.  Despite its advantages, potential industrial users aren't clamoring for this technology. "Voice is where RFID was a few years ago," says Voxware's Hill. "Market awareness needs to be created [among industrial users]."  However, even with the current low demand, suppliers say the industry is poised for rapid growth. "The integration of RF data communications is helping the technology take off," says Patti Satterfield, Vocollect marketing director.  Another driver is the benefit the hardware offers multinational companies with operations in the Far East, where developing data-entry keyboards for languages with many characters (like Chinese) is difficult. Radio Frequency Identification Use of RFID tracks the larger role it plays in fostering ready communication between devices and software. North American RFID system shipments reached $329 million in 1998 and will expand at a 26% compound annual growth rate through 2002, says David Krebs, automatic identification/data collection project manager at Venture Development Corp. Not surprisingly, supply chain and asset management-related projects will be the big demand drivers.  The manufacturing and industrial sector in 1998 accounted for almost half of industry shipments. Almost half of its purchases were RFID tags; demand last year grew 28%.  Coming on strong is development of the so-called smart label, which consists of a flat chip attached to a conventional label, and which stores more data than conventional labels. For example, labels printed by the thermal-transfer printers from Germany's Meto International, now owned by Thorofare, NJ-based Checkpoint Systems, incorporate a thin Phillips Semiconductor chip. Users can program the read/write transponder to collect additional information about the product or logistics instructions to be printed as text, a graphic, and a bar code.  RFID systems "can significantly improve efficiencies relating to quality control and provide increased flexibility within manufacturing cycles," says Venture Development's Krebs. But using the premium-priced equipment in industrial settings featuring high temperatures, strong vibration, or oil contamination will reduce reliability somewhat.  Although read/write RFID tags are more expensive than read-only, the cost is declining and somewhat offset by the increased operating efficiency the updateable devices offer. Also, better middleware is needed to support RFID and WMS/ERP integration. Configuration tools required for seamless plant-level integration now are being introduced.  Intermec recently demonstrated how DataPass software from Acsis Inc., an Intermec reseller, integrates Intermec's Intellitag 500 RFID products and SAP R/3 ERP software. Intermec showed how RFID could track materials in real time, dynamically update or change information fields on a package or label, and rapidly and automatically scan it.

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