Getting on board with barcoding

In 2014, barcoding turned 66. And it’s more ubiquitous, more advanced, and plays a more vital role, than ever before. Perhaps more than barcoding inventors Joseph Woodland and Bernard Silver ever imagined.

Silver was a young grad student at the Drexel Institute of Technology in Philadelphia in 1948. He overheard a conversation and blazed the trail for today’s barcoding technology. Silver heard the owner of a local food-store chain ask one of the institute’s deans a question. Would he do research into technology for capturing product information at check-outs? The dean would hear nothing of it. But Woodland and fellow grad student Silver—who was also a Drexel teacher—took up the challenge. They invented the first barcode within a few months. It was based on Morse code and 1920s movie sound-track technology. On Oct. 20, 1949, they filed a patent application.

BUILDING FIRST BARCODE READER

Silver and Drexler built the first barcode reader in 1952 when Silver was working for IBM. They built it in Silver’s living room. It was huge and impractical. More than a decade passed before technology developed to the practical point. It was 1969 by the time the first true barcode systems were installed. One was in a General Motors axle plant in Pontiac, Mich. The other was in a General Trading Company distribution warehouse in Carlsbad, Calif. In the early 1970s, American railroads started experimenting with barcode scanners for railcar identification in yard switching. That flopped when several U.S. railroads went bankrupt. It wasn’t until June 1974—after development of the standardized Universal Product Code (UPC)—that the first barcode scanner was installed at a grocery checkout in Troy, Ohio.

LAGGING BEHIND

Barcoding was revolutionary when it was invented and first implemented. Today, we take barcoding in the checkout line and on manufacturing lines for granted. It’s widely used to manage production and inventory efficiently and cost-effectively. Tullin, France,-based Metraplan Industries stakes the claim to having introduced barcoding to the veneer sector “years ago.” You will find barcoding in common use in mills today. However, here in the middle of the second decade of the 21st century, many wood manufacturing shops still lag behind.

“You have your higher, more sophisticated companies that adopt the technologies,” says Daniel Austin, vice-president of sales and operations at Multicam Canada in Concord, Ont. “The technology has been available for a long time, but in the automation world it wasn’t prevalent in your medium or small shops. They’re starting to adopt that technology more. All large shops will have it; medium, I’d say half do and half don’t; and small guys aren’t even there yet.”

NOT PRACTICAL FOR SMALL SHOPS

Nelson Davidson looks at it practically. He runs Heartland Kitchens Ltd. in Prince Albert, Sask. Davidson doesn’t use a barcode system because his shop is simply too small to make the investment worthwhile.

“If I wanted to be less hands-on in the back,” says Davidson, “I’d need something like that (barcoding), because I’m the one who tracks everything and gets it to the point where it needs to be, and puts it all together when it gets shipped out. We have stickers that we put on every piece. It works very efficiently for our size of shop.”

“For the vast majority of member shops and their smaller number of employees, I don’t think barcoding is even on the radar screen of shop owners or managers,” says Dave Grulke, executive director of the Milwaukee, Wisc.-based Cabinet Makers Association. “Our typical member has 10 or fewer employees, and is not producing more than two or three projects at the same time on their shop floors. Around half of them are CNC-equipped, and they may or may not use barcodes on parts they make for the projects they build. It would seem to be logical to think that larger shops with dozens or hundreds of employees would be more the target for barcoding technologies.”

Dave Dunn is chief instructor of the joinery program at the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT) in Burnaby, B.C. He believes investing in barcoding technology gives bigger shops an advantage. However, it just doesn’t make sense for small operations. “I don’t see it being a valuable tool for the smaller shops,” he says. The program at BCIT focuses on craftsmanship and doesn’t include barcoding.

Multicam’s Austin acknowledges that manual inven­tory management does make sense for very small operations. “They’re not necessarily at the level of where they need to know the work in progress,” he says. “They’re not really concerned about bank financing, not concerned about where they stand on a month-to-month basis. “They’re looking at, ‘Where do we stand over the course of a year?’ That type of inventory management isn’t as crucial as it would be in your larger shop, guys who have hundreds of thousands of dollars in material tied up.”

REASONS TO USE BARCODING

The federal Canada Business Network (CBN) outlines four major reasons why you should be using barcode technology:

  • it’s part of inventory-management best practices
  • it ensures accurate inventory records
  • it helps with just-in-time inventory management
  • it helps you plan for the unexpected if a supplier can’t come through

It boils down to whether you look at barcode technology as a direct cost, or an investment in your shop’s future.

“Some people get sticker shock,” says Austin.

According to the CBN, “The costs of having a bar coding system need not be expensive. You can choose a system as simple as your needs.”
Barcoding systems for internal production and inventory management don’t have to follow the international GS1 (formerly the UPC) standard barcode on all retail packaging. Today’s CNC machines can generate their own barcodes. Equipment generally can be ordered with factory-built technology, or barcoding can be added later.

“To add that option right out of the gate, some people don’t necessarily see the value,” says Austin, “but…it’s one that can be easily added after the fact. So people say, ‘You know, in three years, I’ll revisit it.’ Some people do. The majority don’t and probably should.”

BIG PAYOFF WITH BARCODING

Lovech Ltd. MDF Doors and Custom Projects in Concord, Ont., is unlike many other shop its size. It is one small-to-medium shop that has invested in barcode technology. The man in charge of daily operations is younger than the average shop owner in Canada. At 27, Emile Pironkov is carrying on a family craftsmanship tradition began in Bulgaria 50 years ago. But he grew up in the age of technology. Lovech started using barcoding technology on its CNC routers two years ago. Pironkov says investing in barcoding technology was extremely important for the company started by his father.

“If we didn’t, we would not be where we are today,” Pironkov says. “Because that basically pushed us to the next step and we were able to take the business to the next level. We’re very flexible in what we can do now.”

The value of barcoding is clear to Austin. “It’s better inventory management; it allows you to track your parts better; it just creates an overall organized scenario as opposed to having 20 parts and wondering how you put them all together or how they go in the box or get assembled on site,” he says.

RISKING FUTURE SUCCESS

Back out in Prince Albert, Heartland Kitchens’ owner recalls working in one large shop that didn’t use barcoding but should have been doing so. According to Davidson, you had no idea where pieces were going from station to station. “Sometimes you were looking all over the place for that one piece,” he recalls.

The wood industry is highly competitive today. Both Austin and Pironkov believe shops that don’t invest in barcode technology, are putting their future ability to compete—to survive—at risk. “I think it’s going to be tougher and tougher for people to succeed doing everything manually,” affirms Pironkov.

However, BCIT’s Dunn counters. He thinks there is always going to be a niche for the smaller shops. That is because the larger ones aren’t capable of producing the one-offs, he says.

Austin gets concerned when he encounters old-school shop owners who aren’t investing in technology. Including CNC machines with barcoding. “It’s obviously a concern from a productivity standpoint,” he says. “I go into shops that are still using handsaws to do all their cabinet making…. It’s concerning to see all these shops that are essentially not going to be able to compete. You see, they’re really on the road into an abyss; they won’t be able to survive the next 10 years.” 

SEEING  VALUE

But Austin candidly admits that manufacturers and distributors, like Multicam, are somewhat responsible for the lagging use of barcoding technology in many shops. “It’s an option that we have, and it’s something I’ve never diligently pushed,” he says. “I’ve only quoted it when someone has asked for it.”

Austin says when your buyers are very price-sensitive, it’s a question of whether they see the value of a barcode reader versus the value of  another option. An automatic tool-changer or a dust collector, for example. “It’s figuring what the customer’s budget is, what options we can add, and which ones they get the most value from,” he says. “It’s very challenging to know whether barcoding is an option that will provide a greater return on investment than another option.”

With barcoding, says Austin, equipment manufacturers and distributors walk a sales tight-rope. “Do we push the technology and we’re adding in more price than we should, where you have the next distributor saying ‘No, you guys don’t need that, why would you buy that?’ and then we have priced ourselves out of the market.” Therefore, he says at trade shows, they don’t really promote the technology as much as they should.

“In the market, for a technology to be accepted, it also has to be the manufacturer or the distributor pushing that technology, because we’re the ones who influence buying habits,” he says. “If we’re not going into a shop and actively saying, ‘You have to have barcode reading,’ then do they really know if they should have it or not?”

KEEPING UP WITH TECHNOLOGY

As barcode technology evolves, shops not investing in it will lag even further behind. The next evolution has already appeared on the forestry side of the wood industry. Since 2005, four mills in Quebec have been using radio frequency identification detection (RFID) technology for loading and weighing log trucks. The system is called Virtual Authorization for Transportation, or Virtual AT. It was developed by Balance Bourbeau/Inspec-Tech of Montreal.

More recently, ultra-high-frequency RFID technology has been developed for use in mills. A wedge-shaped chip is inserted in the end of a log. An RFID reader sends the log to the proper sorting and sawing area. Eventually, there will be an RFID ripple effect into the rest of the wood industry.

“I’ve heard a little bit about RFID,” says Austin. “We Canadians tend to be very slow at adopting technology from a manufacturing standpoint. First you need that marketplace acceptance; all your big players doing it, and the mediums starting to get involved; the small people are still years and years away from it.” 

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