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July 21 2006 03:48 PM

Many of us have been working with barcode labeling applications for years. We�ve seen them grow from rudimentary standalone printing packages to more integrated applications that allow more sophisticated designs and more complete information on the labels and in the codes. We may think that a lot of progress has been made � and we�d be right. Where we can go wrong, however, is in thinking that we�ve already seen the bulk of the progress.
You�d have to be living under a rock not to have heard about the RFID movement led by Wal-Mart and the Department of Defense, and now joined by Target and other major retailers and suppliers. This development, coupled with the ever-increasing integration that labeling systems are required to have with enterprise systems and with the supply chain, is setting the stage for seismic shifts in labeling. Every warehousing and shipping operation, large or small, will be affected.
So, even if changing over to RFID or further integration with your ERP, WMS or MRP system is a few years off, you have to consider today what the effect of new technologies will be on your operations down the road. I suggest that the immediate consequence is that we all have to do a better job of implementing our current barcode systems. We can�t afford to install or update a poorly designed system that we�ll have to rip out again in a few years.
The question is: How do we figure out what�s going to happen and how will it affect us?
Today, it makes sense to turn to specialists for the answers. Resellers, systems integrators and consultants who specialize in package handling and delivery can help manage costs, simplify processes and, most importantly, properly design systems to accommodate changing and new technologies.
Let�s explore an example: ABC Company has a labeling operation that has not been integrated into its enterprise system. In the past, data was keyed into a separate labeling application and printed on demand. Now, management requires that live data, in this case quantity and price extensions, be included in the label fields for an accompanying form. Naturally, there isn�t a lot of money to support the change.
If you look inside the organization at internal resources, there are only a few alternatives. Custom code can be written for the host application, a new ERP module can be added or, at worst, the new data can continue to be manually keyed into the label application.
Each approach has its negative: custom code can affect the core application, can take a long time to develop and can be costly to maintain; new ERP modules are expensive and can present their own integration issues; reentering the data is error prone, unreliable and expensive over the long run.
Turning to an outside reseller, consultant or system integrator opens new doors. Many of these specialists are familiar with extracting information from enterprise systems to feed labeling and shipping operations. They would be able to recommend alternative approaches that are less costly, more flexible and are adaptable for the future. In this example, they may turn to an approach that uses a virtual print file or an Internet address that collects the label data from the enterprise system and then converts it to populate the fields in your label design.
This is a simple, elegant solution that takes advantage of the consultant�s knowledge of integrating enterprise systems with label engines. It solves today�s problem and positions you for future network and Internet growth.
So, how do you find consultants who know what they are doing? There are several considerations:
Expertise: You are looking for a special breed who knows labeling and understands your particular enterprise system.
Price: For most of us, price is a consideration. If price is not an issue, you can hire one of the international systems integrators or enterprise software vendors to write custom code. For the rest of us in the real world who do have to consider cost, the lowest price is not necessarily the best value. To eliminate surprises, look for someone who has the proper combination of expertise and pricing, and then try to nail down the overall costs before starting the project. Remember, any specification changes you make after the project begins will cost you!
Right size: Find a consultant who works with your size company. Picking a vendor who is either too large or too small is looking for trouble. On one hand, the job may be too big, causing deadlines to be missed or preventing the project from ever being properly completed; on the other hand, you may not be big enough to command the level of attention and staff expertise that the project demands.
Volume: You often read about hospital ratings showing that surgeons who frequently perform specific procedures have higher success rates than others who do the operation less often. It�s the same here. You want to have someone who does this type of system integration regularly, is cur-rent on the technology and knows how to work through issues.
Chemistry: Never to be ignored, make sure that you meet the people you�ll be working with and that you are comfortable with the relationship.
References: Check references to ensure that the consultant�s performance lives up to his or her sales process. Finances should be included in the reference process. At best, poor finances can be a distraction, at worst, they can scuttle the project.
At the end of the day, you should be looking for the simplest, most cost-effective solution that not only solves today�s problem but also positions you for future corporate demands and technologies. Any change to either an enterprise system or a labeling and shipping operation can no longer be considered just a project; it is part of an overall enterprise information system that is critical to ongoing business.
Mike Lauria is research development advisor at TEKLYNX International. He has over 15 years of experience in the AIDC industry. Lauria co-founded Graftek Inc. in 1992, which developed the LABELVIEW label design software product. Graftek was acquired by TEKLYNX in 1998.