There are different approaches to integrating labeling and RFID tags with your System i database, and some are easier to manage than others.
Editor's Note: This article is an extraction of the white paper "Bar Code/RFID Label Printing, Avoiding the Integration Traps," which is available free from the MC Press White Paper Center.
Automated Data Collection (ADC) technologies that use bar code and radio frequency identification (RFID) labels have revolutionized how our products are packaged and transported through our supply chains. Bar code labels are now so common on products that they are considered to be the status quo for identifying and routing packages in transit. RFID tag technologies are also making tremendous headway in managing inventory at receiving docks and warehouses for many of the largest retail and government supply chains. How can we assure that these systems give us the best return on investment?
IBM has a heritage of building midrange servers that uniquely serve manufacturing and distribution organizations, proving to be instrumental in the automation of supply chains and inventory systems. Unfortunately, some companies have overly complex labeling integration schemes with the IBM System i that have turned out to be expensive, fragmented, and difficult to maintain. As a result, these IT shops find themselves trapped by poorly performing ADC implementations that are prone to error, expensive to maintain, and not scalable.
This article examines three approaches to ADC integration with IBM System i, addresses some of the traps, and discusses a better solution.
As managers, we want to view the requirements of bar code label and RFID tag printing as logical extensions of the information systems that drive our business models. But, in reality, the technical details of most ADC deployments (both bar code and RFID) have little to do with any of our IBM System i applications.
Most ADC deployments are implemented as separate technological systems that are defined by the unique, discrete engineering requirements associated with the labels or tags themselves. In order to be useful to our IBM System i application systems, ADC technologies must be first interfaced to the IBM System i and then integrated with one or more DB2 database software applications.
Engineers and systems integrators can use many different means of interfacing and integrating bar code or RFID tag printing with the IBM System i, but generally there have been three approaches:
- Modular Integration
- Embedded Integration
- System i Label-Printing Application Software
Most bar code and RFID label printer applications are designed to be modular. This model of modular integration is composed of many parts—some of which reside on the System i, some of which reside on an intermediary PC, some of which reside on a separate designer's PC. This interface and integration approach is very popular with PC technicians today for a number of reasons.
As the printer infrastructure within the organization expands, a number of problems arise:
- Control of software versions
- Operational complexity
One approach is sometimes called the "embedded integration" approach because it embeds the functional commands of the label printer inside an IBM System i application program itself. Several advantages to this integration approach include logic control, vendor support, on-demand printing, and centralized maintenance.
There are some limitations, complexities, and increased costs associated with using the embedded integration approach, however. This is especially true when compared to third-party software application suites that provide most, or all, of the advantages of embedded integration at a fraction of the cost.
Label-Printing Application Software
The System i label-printing application software approach integrates the modular characteristics of modern label printers with the integrated architecture of the System i using natively written System i code. The label-printing software is a native System i application that coordinates the DB2 database functions with the label design and print functionality of a myriad of printers connected directly to the System i.
The most difficult problem associated with the modular integration approach was that each label printer installation is configured like a string of pearls, with each pearl consisting of an individual modular element: printer hardware, connectivity method, communications protocol, printer driver, file access method, database utility, label template, application code, etc.
Compared to this modular integration approach, a comprehensive label-printing software application is much more powerful. Instead of piecing together PC protocols, print drivers, emulators, and/or third-party utility programs for integration to the IBM System i databases, the label-printing application becomes fully integrated with the DB2 database and System i functions.
The greatest problems associated with embedding label code directly into System i applications were the level of expertise required to program the system and the cost of maintaining the custom code over time.
Compared to an embedded integration approach, a comprehensive label-printing application can simplify what IT must do to create and print a label. The label application software provides a comprehensive, native IBM System i software solution that is designed for rapid deployment, ease of use, and cost-effective database integration without any programming at all.
The method by which IT chooses to integrate these expensive printers to the IBM System i should provide stability and durability to the overall information system. Building a better ADC solution for the IBM System i should start with the premise that the architecture of the System i is perfectly capable of interfacing with modular bar code and RFID label printers.
The best approach recognizes the strengths of the IBM System i and then utilizes the advanced capabilities of its architecture to deliver a system that is manageable, scalable, and secure and offers the best tools to maximize the efficiency and the accuracy of the company's information system.
For more information, download the free white paper "Bar Code/RFID Label Printing, Avoiding the Integration Traps" from the MC Press White Paper Center.