Small suppliers take heart. A tough aspect of doing business � compliance labels � is about to become easy. Compliance labels have long been a challenge to suppliers, especially smaller suppliers with limited IS resources to �comply� with the directives of large customers. Whether you�re complying with a customer�s requirements, want your inbound freight to be labeled according to your own requirements or want merchandise return labels to have your barcodes on them, ensuring compliance has traditionally been time-consuming, frustrating and sometimes impossible.
Shipping labels require barcodes containing exact information in an exact format, which must be placed in exact positions on the label.  Companies are instructed to follow compliance label guidelines to the letter to have their products received by their larger partners. To complicate matters further, different industries have different requirements and needs. While most industries have adopted some form of the ANSI MH10.8 Guideline for Barcode Labels on Unit Loads and Transport Packages, significant variations exist between industry-specific standards, how each company implements them and even how different locations of the same company implement them.
Managing these customizations can be maddening. Is the right label format selected for the customer? Is the correct data presented in the right way? Is the right symbology used? Is the human-readable formatted correctly? Since each customer may update their requirements from time to time, the supplier has to keep up with each customer�s requirements on an ongoing basis.
What�s more, standards continue to evolve. The automotive industry, for example, recently released a label standard through the Automotive Industry Action Group (AIAG), which specifies the provision for PDF 417 stacked barcode symbols in addition to stead of established linear barcode symbols. Though a guaranteed time saver for the recipient, this efficiency will surely be an even greater challenge to some of the smaller suppliers.
Enter the Web
The Internet revolution is about to liberate suppliers. In the near future, shippers will simply download pre-formatted �e-labels� directly from the receiving company�s Web site. Although not yet commonplace, e-Labels are available today. Complete forms, such as the UPS online shipping labels, are already available on the Internet. The U.S. Postal Service and others are offering return labels via the Web. Other early adopters are placing their compliance labels on the Internet, which suppliers can print locally through their browsers on any supported thermal label printer, laser or inkjet printer (although there may be some restrictions on the use of inkjets). The e-label can easily be printed on non-label paper stock, placed in a plastic label envelope and affixed to the package. Voila! The e-label has all the various requirements and designs in place.
The advantages to e-labels are even more extensive than  what meets the eye. On a shipping label, some data is supplied by the shipper and some by the receiver. A labeling Web site run by the receiver can be tied into that company�s database or ERP system, so that purchase order numbers, ship-to instructions, dock numbers, etc. are entered from the receiver�s own data, not keyed in by the shipper. This provides the usual benefits of automation � less time, fewer errors, etc. � and also, once again, puts the power to change these items in the hands of the receiver, the one who requires the changes and can best estimate the urgency of the situation.
It is possible to set up a Web site in such a way that the supplier can check in to see a list of recently approved purchase orders, then click on the orders he wishes to fill at the time. The corresponding labels are automatically printed with data from the company�s database, data from the customer�s Web site and possibly some data keyed in at the time. In other words, the customer�s labeling Web site is a �limited portal,� if you will, to the customer�s database. The Web site provides automated, accurate access to the exact data the supplier needs to print the label � and no more.
An additional advantage is the elimination of the torment small suppliers suffered when trying to keep up with changing compliance label requirements from different customers. Though this need can�t be completely eliminated since a new requirement may involve new data, it can certainly be streamlined by the Web. Format changes and most data changes can be done by the customer himself simply by updating his labeling Web site. If it�s an urgent need for the customer, he has the power to effect the change immediately.
Changes are instantly implemented using the Internet, with no change requirements for the supplier. This ensures compliance to the letter.  If the customer�s site is tightly integrated with the supplier�s database and there are significant data content changes, then the situation may be more complex. However, the same would be true for format changes made locally. Looking at the list of companies offering online labels to their customers, most people would think, �I don�t have the resources of the U.S. Postal Service or UPS.� But Web-based labeling today does not require custom-built solutions.
Printing Online Barcodes
Dynamic barcodes required on compliance labels are not easy to produce over the Web in traditional ways. Many Web applications run in UNIX or Linux � not Windows, which is the way most barcodes are printed today. Nonetheless, there are tools available to easily create multiple dynamic barcodes that can be popped into HTML documents. Dynamic graphic images of labels or documents can be created on demand and can be viewed and printed by anyone on the Internet with a browser-supported printer.
Some applications rely on the use of specific thermal transfer barcode label printers because the resident barcode fonts can be accessed to produce the barcode symbols on the labels. This approach has very limited applicability unless, like some of the major carriers, you can control the type of printer being used.
An alternate solution is for the Web application to be written in Java. There are solutions available for putting barcodes in the application using a java bean, which is essentially a library of related functions. The bean will involve an object, such as a barcode, and give a method to do various tasks with the object � create, delete, provide data, paint and query the object. From a java program, the beans are definitely �pure java� and are platform independent.  However, from other programs, java beans may be harder to use because they require running the java environment, which may not be necessary otherwise. So, this solution has limits for users with traditional applications in the e-commerce environment, like Oracle or SAP. 
A third type of solution is barcode and label printing software that can run with Web applications written in Perl Script, C or Python Script. The software must support UNIX, Linux or NT, on which the lion�s share of Web applications are run.  Most traditional manufacturing, distribution and supply chain applications from Oracle, SAP or PeopleSoft also fit this scenario. This type of solution is easier to use and more efficient in a non-Java environment because they are a �one-pass� operation: pass the data, get the result. They also go beyond the simple barcode object and provide the capability to create full coupons or full labels with barcodes that can be printed via a browser from a Web site. These solutions offer great opportunity for vendors wanting to post compliance labels or offer return authorizations with shipping labels on their Web sites.
The industry is ripe for integrating Web-based labels into systems � whether for compliance, inbound logistics or returns. The amount of money that will be saved by Web-based printing through local browsers remains a mystery, but the numbers promise to be great. Using e-labels is guaranteed to make both shippers and receivers happy. It�s a win-win situation.
Ted Kruse is founder and president of Unibar, Inc. Contact Unibar by calling 248-299-5050 or visit