Building an information system around barcodes and RFID tags requires long-term planning.
Most of us see the barcodes and RFID tags that pepper our packages and forms as simple extensions of the systems that record and transmit the information into the databases that drive our companies. Indeed, as barcodes and RFID tags have proliferated, they've become almost invisible in our workplaces, silently performing their intelligent magic to the benefit of the databases that receive their communications.
A Barcode Reality Check
The reality of the complexity of these technologies confronts us only when some device within these technologies needs attention or when we find we need to extend or implement new systems for our companies. Then the truth hits us: Barcode and RFID systems rely upon the quality of the labels that are printed and the physical—and often proprietary—devices that create and/or read those. Moreover, for companies that use IBM i server technologies, these realities too often force us to cobble together complex technical infrastructures to translate the information emanating from the labels into something that our IBM i applications can utilize.
Are You Ready for the Future of Barcoding?
For example, let's take the rapidly accelerating trend to use 2D barcodes that permit cell phone cameras to connect users to Web sites. 2D barcodes have been around for a while, but they're only the opening foray of things to come. There is a burgeoning technology called Mobile Multi-Colour Composite (MMCC) codes that is designed to distribute entire databases via a single barcode, without the need for network connectivity. This high-density technology holds out the promise to permit transmission of an individual barcode with personalized routing information about a product on a package to a mobile device without connecting back to an information server. All that from a single printed 2D color barcode.
All this sounds may sound exciting to your CIO or CFO who wants to move products more efficiently from plant to customer. But to implement a new printed barcode technology naturally requires purchasing a brand new barcode printer that can produce such a unique, high-density code. And therein lies the rub: the new codes themselves might be proprietary, the printers that produce them probably use proprietary programming, and the software that drives the printers often doesn't readily integrate with the IBM i. And as a result, your team is faced with implementing a slew of new devices into your infrastructure that has tenuous bridge connectivity back to the IBM i where the information is destined to be received.
The Real Impediment Is Integration
So, the real impediment to implementation of all barcode and RFID implementations is not the robust nature of the devices or the servers, but the ease of integration between the technologies: one set (the device set) that is rapidly evolving, and another set (the information server set) that is where your company has invested infrastructure that is scalable, secure, and adaptable. It's an ongoing dilemma for IT: how to meet the demands of evolving technologies without jeopardizing or overly complicating your company's investment in infrastructure.
In response to this ongoing dilemma, here are some tips on how to approach barcode and RFID systems implementation.
Ensure Code Quality—Choose barcode or RFID printers that have the most flexible integration configurations in order to meet your specific requirements for durability, legibility, and speed for the code(s) you need to create. Remember that a fast printer that doesn't produce a dependably or reliably readable code is ultimately less cost-effective than a slow printer that produces a better-quality, more-dependable label or tag. Why? Because poorly created code will slow the entire efficiency of the information system if the code fails in the workplace.
Check the Label's Material Specs—The physical labels used in the implementation of your system may be the least expensive component of the overall system but the most susceptible to environmental degradation. Remember that products, forms, and tags may experience harsh conditions or may sit for weeks, months, or even years on a stockroom shelf. If they degrade significantly over that lifecycle, your company may be forced to re-label or re-tag the entire inventory. Most label manufacturers can provide you with the specifications and limitations that their label products provide.
Prototype Before Deployment—Test the printed tags or labels thoroughly in the actual workplace over an appropriate time frame that mirrors the lifecycle that a real label or RFID will encounter. This may lengthen the time of your prototype, but it will pay dividends in the long run as you work through the obstacles of implementation before deployment of the entire system.
Simplify the Label Infrastructure—Look realistically at the infrastructure requirements for the actual creation of the labels.
- What are the elements of that infrastructure?
- Does it require custom programming to transfer the data to the OEM printer?
- Does it require intermediary server devices to feed the printers? Or can you connect relatively easily to the IBM i and the applications that deliver the data?
Remember that each device element that you add to the label infrastructure will require some programming, maintenance, and potential upgrades over time. Each newly added device may require new training, consulting, and future technical headaches. The costs associated with each device should be estimated against the ROI of the entire system. By simplifying the infrastructure, you increase the ROI and reduce the headaches associated with the technologies deployed.
Understand Hidden Expenses—The cost of designing the particular labels or tags that your company uses may be included in the parameters of the project, but over time there will undoubtedly be a need to modify those designs, incurring new costs. These costs are usually associated with the licenses for the design software, the number of individual client licenses required, and the number of different designs being implemented. These license costs can add up significantly.
At the same time, the consulting personnel that you utilize to create the label templates may become unavailable to you—or become increasingly expensive—leaving your company with a reliance on other consultants to manage or maintain your label infrastructure. But it can be expensive to bring a new consultant up to speed to manage your system. Whenever possible, try to bring those costs into a framework that you and/or your staff can manage.
For instance, some label design software requires individual licenses for each client device used to create a new label template. Others lock the license to one physical device, such as an individual PC. If you lose the initial programmer who wrote the custom interface, you may also lose the access to the label design software, forcing your company to reinvest in licenses.
The most cost-effective solution for the long term is to find a design client that is both flexible in its licensing, robust in its adaptability to handle new requirements, and easy to use. You probably won't use the design software very often, but when you do, you will want it to be easy to use and inexpensive to obtain.
Investigate Support—Examine the support options of all the devices that you plan to implement. Unlike a simple software application, support will be stretched across a variety of venders, and what you want to avoid is the "finger pointing" that often accompanies multi-vendor support.
How do these companies handle their support? Is it simply a Web-based F.A.Q. database? Or can you actually talk to a support technician?
When you have a technical problem (and chances are you will encounter some problem during the lifecycle of the system), you may need a definitive answer immediately. After all, a production system can't wait for tentative experimenting to resolve a difficulty.
You may not ever need critical help immediately, but as your system expands, you will want your questions answered quickly and authoritatively—with or even without a support contract.
Consider Information System Integration—The greatest, most detailed problem that most of us encounter in barcode and RFID implementations is the overall integration of the information systems that the company utilizes.
This requires more than simplifying the physical infrastructure; it requires understanding how the information will arrive at its destination database or—at the other end—the destination label. It's about the software and the programming languages that are used to manipulate the data.
For most IBM i organizations, this can be either in the DDS specifications that create a particular label code or in an API that integrates into a source application, such as an ERP module.
You'll be miles ahead of the pack if you can avoid custom code implementations or non-native programming languages, but if you must modify a mission-critical application, look for a printing software application that provides a well-documented API to integrate to an existing application. This is especially valuable for IBM i sites. It can spell the difference between ramping up quickly or forcing you to invest in other technologies that complicate the infrastructure.
Know Your Vendors—Barcode and RFID tag vendors and consultants come and go, so look for those that have a long track record, that aren't tied to a particular device configuration, and that can assist you in your implementation throughout its lifecycle.
The worst situation for a company that has invested in barcode technology is to learn—months or years later—that the vendor or consultant has disappeared or no longer supports a particular technology. You will need a vendor that has the reputation and the expertise to deliver, as the equipment you are utilizing today will be replaced by the devices of the future. After all, that's why you're investing in barcode or RFID technology in the first place: You are looking to a future ROI that moves your company forward.
Keep Refreshing Your Technology and Your Knowledge—Barcode technology has been around for a long time now, but it's still advancing at a rapid pace. Keep track of where you are in the lifecycle of any particular barcode technology. Monitor the industry and look for new trends and new opportunities for implementation. And yes, certain barcodes and RFID tags do become obsolete over time.
Too often, a company invests in a barcode technology at a particular point in time only to discover years later that something has changed: some device has become obsolete; some particular code is no longer used in the industry. These companies are then faced with the prospect of inordinate expense to bring their packaging up to date with current standards.
However, with adequate knowledge and the right initial selection of technologies in printing, RFID tagging, scanning devices, and integration techniques, you can grow and expand your company's initial investment with a real finger on the ROI that company can anticipate. And when the time is ripe—if you're current in your knowledge of the possibilities—you can sprint ahead and take strategic advantage of new possibilities.
Building Barcode and RFID Systems for Tomorrow
The value of barcodes and RFID systems has never been greater in today's manufacturing and services industries. But positioning for the future value has also never been trickier for IT. Barcode and RFID is not rocket science, but it is 21st Century technology that requires considerable study and strict adherence to quality issues. Most importantly, it's a technology that continues to evolve rapidly.
The IBM i is a great base application server for these technologies, but it's just one device element of the overall information system that barcoding and RFID printing require. Understanding how to maximize that overall information system—to obtain peak performance and a decent ROI—will be an ongoing challenge for you and your staff. Choosing the right tools and devices is the first step, but choosing for the long-term lifecycle of the system will bring the greatest rewards to your company.