Mobile, Real-Time Control Of Bar Code Printers

How "Mission-Critical" Is Mission-Critical?
Mission-critical operations should never fail, but they occasionally do – usually at the most inopportune time. In an industrial setting, continuous operations are the ideal, but due to routine maintenance requirements and unforeseen developments, the term "mission-critical" has evolved to mean any activity that is essential for business function. In short, when the system goes down, the company loses money.

The modern Internet economy has expanded our view of mission-critical functions. Uninterruptable Power Supplies (UPS) – once seen only in government operations, hospitals and supercomputer centers – are now commonplace in most corporate networks. Most companies have also implemented intricate data backup systems and servers that automatically restart after power failures to ensure that any unplanned system failure has minimal impact. To further allay the fear of system downtime, most companies with 24-hour-shift cycles staff network administration positions around-the-clock to address issues as quickly as possible.

Despite all of these attempts to keep systems running, systems still fail on occasion. The only way to prepare for such failures is to a) set up the system with the most reliable equipment available and b) closely monitor the system and respond to errors as quickly as possible.

Bar Coding As A Mission-Critical IT Function
In most industrial organizations, bar coding is a mission-critical task. If the bar code system goes down, the entire production line, warehouse and/or receiving/shipping dock are likely to fail as well. In a company with 24-hour operations, the task of monitoring the system can be daunting. In a company with multi-site or multi-national operations, the task may seem impossible.

Despite the increasing demand for communication between bar coding systems and legacy/enterprise systems to provide improved data management, data integrity and operational efficiency, integration of these systems has been slow to develop. Because of the delayed adoption of bar code printers in corporate networks, bar code systems have come to be viewed as manufacturing equipment rather than IT equipment. As such, network administrators have seen bar code printing as outside their scope of responsibility.

The advent of easy-to-implement bar code integration solutions, such as Zebra's BAR-ONE®; software, has linked bar code printers physically and organizationally with the enterprise network. As bar code integration becomes more widespread, network administrators will become increasingly responsible for bar coding operations as well as more typical network management. This change will likely force administrators to either become familiar with new software, or try to adapt existing software to the task of printer management.

Neither solution is ideal. Network administrators constantly look for solutions that simplify their duties. Many have neither the time nor the will to get trained on additional software specializing in bar code printer management. Although networked bar code printers on an Ethernet network can sometimes be monitored by a common printer management application such as Hewlett Packard's HP JetAdmin™, the resulting alert usually does not provide details or may not even report an error unless manually prompted to do so.

Real-time Printer Monitoring For Mission-Critical Applications
In a perfect world, network administrators would receive instant feedback from printers when an error occurs. Without such feedback, many companies still depend on employees to notify the administrator when a printer is not working. In some large companies, this can shut down an operation for several minutes or even hours. If the incident occurs overnight, the printer could halt operations until the following morning.

With technology developed by Zebra Technologies Corporation, real-time printer monitoring is becoming a reality. Beginning with Zebra's new XiIII industrial bar code printer, every new Zebra printer features an advanced error detection system that actively searches for, and immediately reports, printer and networking errors or warning conditions. In addition to the simple online/offline notifications that have been available for some time, network administrators can now use familiar tools such as HP JetAdmin, HP Web-Admin or Zebra's own ZebraNet™ Alert to quickly identify the printer's location, the time the incident occurred, and additional, more detailed information describing the error.

Mobile Notification Of Printer Errors
Using network administration software to receive real-time notification of printer errors is only effective if the network administrator is seated at his or her desk. In most computing environments, this is rarely the case.

Accessibility to wireless technology has created new opportunities for business management and controls. It is not uncommon for cellular phone users to receive voice mail, e-mail and other forms of messaging via their phones from anywhere in the country. Several companies offer solutions that link mobile phones, laptop computers or handheld computers (personal digital assistants) with corporate enterprises to provide instant mobile access to corporate databases.

Today, this technology is progressing one step further. Now systems administrators can use wireless technology to monitor, control and configure network devices – such as bar code printers – from anywhere in the world.

The incorporation of wireless technology into the reporting features of modern, mission-critical bar code printers removes all barriers of error notification. Now, not only can network administrators receive alerts on the same central workstation that they use for routine system management, but they also can be alerted to error or warning conditions via e-mail, pagers and cellular phone messaging systems.

While this solution is elegant and effective, it is clear that there are some inherent limitations. Perhaps the biggest disadvantage is that most cellular technologies are not globally standardized, making this solution ineffective for international support.

Fortunately, this solution has one more medium: the Internet.

Web-Based Printer Monitoring And Control
Zebra's newest printers include integrated Web servers in their operating systems. These servers not only provide each TCP/IP Ethernet-configured printer with its own IP (Internet Protocol) address, but also enable network managers to monitor and adjust printer settings using common Web browsers that feature advanced security and encryption, such as the latest versions of Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Internet Explorer.

This solution is extremely intuitive; it also represents the most dynamic remote printer administration available. Each printer is capable of producing real-time reports of the printer's current state, including online/offline status, error conditions and all printing parameters. Most parameters can be adjusted by simply using pull-down menus within the Web page. The Internet even enables users to manage stored fonts, graphics and label formats.

The inclusion of the Internet as a printer-monitoring tool provides administrators and systems integrators with a common universal utility to monitor and configure printers. It also provides a new tool to configure all networked bar code printers at once, without needing to manually configure each printer. Via the Web, administrators and integrators can now "clone" printer parameters such as network configuration, burn temperature, label size, etc., to quickly and uniformly configure printers at multiple sites from one location.

For example, a company with several manufacturing plants requires all finished goods – regardless of their manufacturing location – to be uniformly tagged with a label that meets strict specifications from a large retailer. If the labels do not meet the retailer's specifications, the company risks receiving costly "chargebacks" for each unreadable or out-of-spec compliance label. To avoid this penalty, administrators can set up the parameters for each printer – including the printhead temperature, printing resolution, printing speed and label format – from one central location. When specifications change, these alterations too can be made from the central location, thereby ensuring that every printer receives the modification.

All of these tools, incorporated in Zebra's ZebraNet™ Alert and ZebraNet WebView systems, enable system administrators to monitor networked Zebra XiIII printers just as they would any other mission-critical device in the enterprise. ZebraNet PrintServer II, an optional advanced networking device, is required to take advantage of the complete feature-set of ZebraNet Alert and ZebraNet WebView.