From Boring to Life-Altering

Here's an analysis of the exciting past year's developments in automatic identification equipment.

From Boring to Life-Altering

Since I couldn’t attend this year’s Material Handling Management Editors Roundtable, I thought I’d devote my December column to a year-end wrap-up. Before September 11, 2001 wasn’t a very exciting year for automatic data collection. There were some interesting developments but nothing earth-shaking. Obviously, all that’s changed.

The biggest change will probably be in how we view our logistics and transportation systems. Security is going to be a much bigger issue — and a much more difficult one than we might imagine. We may have to consider slightly reduced service levels in order to increase security levels.

One clear indication of how this might work is the RF-based container seals introduced by Savi in October. These seals not only detect any attempt at tampering but also broadcast status on demand. This gives carriers greater security because unsuccessful tampering attempts sometimes aren’t evident without close inspection. The RF seals can alert yard and management personnel to the attempt. We’re sure to see many more AIDC products aimed at increased security in 2002.

Shippers might also want to consider heightened security in their shipping departments. Knowing who actually packed and shipped each carton may be important. Automated pick/pack/ship systems that record employee ID can shoulder the majority of this burden (and are much more efficient anyway). But companies might want to consider more rigorous employee ID and access control (with a security bar code, magnetic stripe, or RFID device on the ID card) to warehouse and shipping facilities.

Still, life ... and business ... go on.

The World Wide Web has certainly changed the way business is conducted. We’ve already seen the adoption and wide dissemination of online bar codes. ClickStamps.com, Stamps.com and others are providing even the home user the ability to print PDF 417 for postage. Printing of shipping or return labels from the Web is also an established fact for the major carriers. Many companies have already integrated these services into their Web-based systems to facilitate returns by customers.

Foreign language labels are still a bit problematic for some companies, and online systems aren’t yet equipped to handle the human-readable portion of this equation. There are systems out there for shippers to use that do print foreign language labels either for shipping or returns (one software package cut a company’s shipping costs per package to the Pacific Rim from $30 to $8!).

Handheld terminals are creeping along in new capabilities. We’re seeing increased convergence of multiple functions in these devices but nothing at the moment to suggest a rapid acceptance in material handling — yet. The next major brouhaha may be in software. More Linux and Java-based handhelds are available — even as Pocket PC and the Windows CE suite become stronger contenders. At the moment, Windows is still the software of choice (as much because there are more Microsoft-trained programmers as anything).

Smart Labels are a good idea still waiting for a good business case (since the cost is borne by the supplier and the benefit realized by the customer). The idea of being able to scan 18 cases on a pallet as it rolls through a portal sounds appealing. But one PDF 417 on the pallet can accomplish essentially the same thing.

The motivating issue might be that RFID readers are cheap compared to PDF 417 readers. But, again, the savings are realized by the customer.

It may be that heightened security concerns may prove the business case for Smart Labels — if they can be written to at every step of the way to provide individual parcel tracking (even on a pallet). Truckload carriers have been known to break apart stretchwrapped pallets to fit them into trailers. Once broken, the pallet’s manifest is no longer valid and allows opportunities for tampering.

In sum ... 2001 (until recently) wasn’t a very exciting year for AIDC products. It’s safe to say 2002 will be.

Bert Moore

contributing editor

[email protected]

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