The Case For Verifying Bar Codes

VARs that know bar code verification can realize a 35% to 40% profit margin when they sell a bar code solution. VARs that don't know bar code verification — and want those healthy margins — need to read this article.

There isn't a product made today that doesn't have a bar code associated with it somewhere in its life cycle. The bar code, invented in 1975, is probably the least-expensive and most-reliable method of entering data. Bar code verification is the most-certain way to assure that you are printing good codes.

We have seen the bar code undergo three distinct phases. During phase one (1975-90), bar codes were printed, but not widely used.

During phase two (1990-98), bar codes were a productivity enhancement tool. If a code did not scan, a back-up system (a person) was in place. Grocery stores are an example of an industry in phase two. If the code does not scan, the cashier manually inputs the data. Problems that occur here are productivity bottlenecks, potential human error, and the requirement of a higher level of training.

Phase three is upon us; bar codes are enterprise critical. Highly automated systems, which have no manual back-up data entry system, require bar codes that are readable every time. We see examples of phase three industries in automated material handling, medical, and large retail store chains to name a few.

Perfect Printing Can't Be Guaranteed
So, how does a company get to phase three? Simple — print perfect bar codes or check the bar codes immediately after or during the printing process. Despite what a printer manufacturer may say, there is no perfect print process. Thermal printers may have ribbon wrinkles or burned-out print head elements. Also, they may have improper heat and speed settings or an incorrect marriage of the ribbon and face stock. Impact printers may have misaligned print hammers or a ribbon that has been used excessively. Laser printers may have fuser problems, low toner, or a face stock that is improperly coated.

Despite these facts, printers today are high quality. Any printer type, if properly maintained, will print good bar codes most of the time. However, this could make the problem worse. Knowing that the printer is likely to print a good code means that inspection becomes a lower priority. Companies cannot afford to have someone constantly inspecting the bar codes. This means that bar codes go unchecked. Enter the need for verification.

Facts About Bar Code Verification
A verifier is not the same as a scanner. A scanner is typically a mass-produced item that provides machine recognition of the data encoded in a bar code symbol. Using a scanner to read a bar code only ensures that the scanned bar code has some region on it that is readable by that scanner. Therefore, the better the scanner, the less bar code quality assurance is maintained. A verifier, on the other hand, is a precision instrument that predicts how well the bar code will be read by any scanner. It should decode, measure, and check formatting of even the most inferior symbol. Also, it indicates deficient areas so that corrective action may take place.

Where Should A Verification System Be Placed?
Verification should take place right after or during the printing process and before the bar codes enter the system. If you are printing bar codes for others to scan, you should verify with the philosophy that any bad bar codes should be reprinted. If you are receiving bar codes from others, you should verify them before allowing those bar codes into your system.

Why should verification systems be instituted? Bar codes should be verified to ensure that the bridge between printing and scanning is accurate, to minimize faulty scanning, and to ensure that inferior codes do not enter the system. Inferior codes cost time, productivity, and money. If a code does not read at all, the slow, error-prone manual data entry process occurs. This causes bottlenecks and may stop enterprise-critical applications. If the code reads after several attempts, there is a waste of time and a chance of repetitive movement injuries. And, if a code reads with errors, the database may become contaminated.

Verification systems should also be instituted to help VARs bring a value-add solution to the table. VARs that know verification separate themselves from their competition. End users view an educated VAR as a resource, not just a supplier. The system can also put more money into the reseller's pocket. Verification systems can easily be sold at list price or with minimum concessions. This allows the VAR to realize a 35% to 40% margin. The VAR is not selling just a printer, but a printing solution.

Which Industries Need Verification?
Every industry that has a high cost associated with printing bad bar codes should have a verification system in place. Let's face it — if the cost of printing a bad bar code is non-existent or minimal, there is no need to check the code. However, the converse is also true. If printing a bad bar code results in fines, loss of business, costly redundant work, or other potentially high-cost repercussions, then a verification system is warranted. Among the industries that need verification:
  • Suppliers to major retail chains need to avoid getting fined for non-readable bar codes.
  • Companies printing bar codes directly onto corrugated materials need to ensure readability of the code against low contrast.
  • Print houses providing bar codes printed on presses can avoid costly redundant work by implementing a verification system.
  • Medical and pharmaceutical suppliers need to ensure products are properly marked to avoid dispensation of incorrect materials.
  • Chemical companies need to ensure properly marked products to avoid costly fines and lawsuits.
  • Suppliers to the automotive industry need to ensure labels meet Automotive Industry Action Group (AIAG) specifications.
One last thought… if a company is spending thousands of dollars on an automatic identification and data collection (AIDC) system with labeling and inventory control, shouldn't it ensure that the bar codes for that system can be read?

Charles Wilson, RJS