Automated Data Collection (ADC), also known as Automated Data
Capture (ADC), Automated Identification (AutoID), Automated
Identification and Data Capture (AIDC), and by many as just "Barcoding"
consists of many technologies including some that have nothing
to do with bar codes. Voice systems, RFID, OCR,
pick-to-light, laser scanners, CCD scanners, hand-held
batch and RF terminals, vehicle-mounted computers,
and wearable computers are all part of the ADC picture.
The fear of six-figure project costs often prevent many small to
mid-sized manufacturers and distributors from taking advantage
of Automated Data Collection (ADC) technologies. The key to
implementing cost-effective ADC systems is knowing what
technologies are available and the amount of integration
required to implement them. Applying this knowledge to the
processes in your operation will help you in developing the
scope of your project. Limiting your project to or prioritizing
by those applications that have a high benefit/cost ratio will
allow you to apply these operational improvement technologies
within a reasonable budget. For example, adding a
keyboard-wedge bar-code scanner to an existing PC or terminal in
a production or warehouse area is a very low cost method for
applying ADC to existing shop-floor reporting and shipping
applications. This type of hardware is inexpensive and the only
real programming required is that needed to add a bar code to
the form (work order, pick slip, etc.)
are two major categories of bar codes, one dimensional (1D), and
two dimensional (2D). 1D barcodes are the ones we are most
familiar with and consist of many different symbologies
including UPC, Code 128, Code 39, Interleaved 2 of 5, just to
name a few (there may also be variations within a specific
symbology). The symbology you use may be dictated by supply
chain partners through a standardized compliance label program
or, if only used internally, can be chosen based upon specific
application (tip: if looking for a flexible symbology to
use internally on documents, labels, license plates, etc. you
will find Code
128 a good choice). 2D bar code symbologies such as UPS's
MaxiCode (shown right), are capable of storing more data then
their 1D counterparts and require special scanners to read them.
Although I would expect to see continued growth in the use of 2D
bar codes, most warehouse and shop floor applications will
continue to use 1D symbologies simply because the technology is
less expensive and you generally only need enough data in the
bar code to access the associated records in your inventory
system database. The 1D codes are very capable of accomplishing
this. If you're interested in more detailed information and
specs on bar codes I recommend getting a copy of The
Bar Code Book by
Roger C. Palmer.
Laser or CCD.
There are primarily two technologies used to read bar codes.
Laser scanners use a laser beam that moves back and forth across
the bar code reading the light and dark spaces. Laser
scanners have been in use for decades and are capable of
scanning bar codes at significant distances. CCD (charged
coupled device) scanners act like a small digital camera and
take a digital image of the bar code which is then decoded.
CCD scanners offer a lower cost but are limited to a shorter
scan distance (usually within a few inches, however, the
technology is advancing quickly and devices with longer scan
distances are becoming available). Because of the scan
distance limitations, users in a warehouse environment will
likely find laser scanners to be their best choice however for
applications were bar codes are read from documents — such
as in a shop-floor production-reporting application — CCD
scanners should work fine.
describes the functionality of a bar code reader to
recognize the bar code symbology being scanned thus allowing a
reader to read several different symbologies consecutively.
Most scanners come with this functionality and also allow you to
program them to read only certain symbologies (this prevents
someone from scanning the wrong bar code when multiple bar codes
Keyboard-wedge scanners connect between a computer keyboard and
and send ASCII data to the computer as if the scanner were a
keyboard. More simply put, the computer doesn't know that
a scanner is attached and treats the data as though it were key
strokes from the user. The advantage of this is that there
is no need for special software or programming on the computer.
In its simplest application you hook the scanner up, make sure
the curser is in the correct field, scan a bar code containing
the data you need such as a work order number, an item number,
or a location, and the data will immediately appear in the field
on the screen.
Although this type of application can prove to be very useful
and essentially works right "out of the box", you will find that
by taking advantage of the programmable features of some devices
you can take this functionality much further. This is
where it gets a little confusing as the programming and
functionality is a little different based upon the hardware and
software you purchase. Some keyboard-wedge scanners have
built in programming functionality, while others are programmed
on a separate wedge decoder, and there is also PC software that
can perform tasks related to the data input from a scanner.
The good news is that you don't need to be a programmer to use
this functionality. If you have ever worked with macros
you'll easily understand this type of programming. What
most of these programs allow you to do is to parse data from a
bar code (allowing you to put several pieces of data in the same
bar code such as item number and quantity, or customer number
and shipping method) and also add keystrokes not included in the
bar code such as tabs to move between fields, default data,
function keys or enter keystrokes to complete transactions.
Keyboard wedge scanners offer a low cost entry into the world of
automated data collection and can provide increases in accuracy
and productivity in many stationary data entry applications.
There are also wireless versions of keyboard wedge scanners
Fixed Position Scanners.
Fixed position scanners are used where a bar code is moved in
front of the scanner as opposed to the scanner being moved to
the bar code. Applications include grocery check out
counters and automated conveyor systems. Many fixed
position scanners are omni-directional which means that the bar
code does not have to be oriented any specific way to be read.
Go to Accuracybook.com's Bar
Code Scanner Links.
Portable computers come in a vast variety of designs with
varying levels of functionality. I must admit that I am
somewhat disappointed in the lack of progress made in portable
terminal design, especially with hand-held units. If you
think 386 processors, DOS operating systems, and
monochrome displays are ancient history you better think again
as these are the specs of many of the hand-held portable data
collection devices available today. On the plus side,
costs have come down over the years and I'm hopeful that more
quickly evolving technologies being developed for devices such
as PDAs will soon make portable data collection terminals
smaller, lighter, and more functional.
RF. Batch terminals are used
to collect data into files on the device and are later connected
to a computer to have the files downloaded. RF terminals
use radio frequency waves to communicate live with the host
system or network. While batch devices were heavily used
in the past and still have viable applications today, the
introduction of wireless standards has made RF technology
much more affordable and easier to maintain and implement.
devices. As previously
mentioned, I have been less than impressed with advances in
hand-held devices. I should also say that I have a lot of
problems with the basic nature of hand-held devices themselves.
First of all, "hand held" implies that you will be using one
hand to hold the device. Well, in most warehousing and
material-handling environments this is a problem since that hand
can no longer be used to handle materials or operate
controls of material-handling equipment. In addition, hand-held
terminals generally have very small LCD displays that are
usually difficult to read as well as very small, confusing
keypads that are difficult to enter data into. This
doesn't mean that these can't be valuable tools in your
operation, only that you need to be sure to consider all the
factors when implementing this type of technology.
Hand-held devices often come with integrated bar-code scanners
(as shown) however, they can be used without a scanner or with a
The standard hand-held device design (like that shown) have
little use in a warehouse outside of maybe a cycle count
program. Instead, use the pistol-grip models which
allow your workers to more quickly holster the device
between scans to make use of both their hands.
Keep the prompts as simple as possible. The prompts
should show only the bare minimum amount of data necessary
to perform the task.
Minimize or eliminate data entry on keypads. As I said
before, the keypads on these devices are difficult to use
especially with alpha characters. Limit data entry to
numeric data as much as possible and also eliminate the need
to have to enter tabs or enter keys.
Vehicle-mounted devices have several advantages over hand held
devices including larger screens (even up to full sized
screens), larger keypads similar to a standard keyboard on a
portable computer, and you can't drop, loose, or forget to
charge them. You're also more likely to find GUI user
interfaces (Windows) on vehicle mounted devices. When
using a full-screen vehicle-mounted device, integration can be
much simpler as you can use your existing programs designed for
desktop computers (although you should still consider
simplifying the screens). Obviously you need to be performing
tasks using some type of a vehicle (lift truck, tug, cart, etc)
to use a vehicle-mount device. Generally, vehicle-mounted
devices use a separate wired or wireless bar-code scanner to
input data. Tips for using vehicle-mounted devices are
similar to those for hand-helds (simple prompts, minimize data
entry) but you should also consult with your vehicle
manufacturer for recommendations on where to mount the device to
ensure safe operation of the vehicle.
Systems. Wearable systems will
likely have the most growth in coming years. Currently
offerings in wearable systems are limited and include devices
like Symbol's WS
the Gladiator) that is strapped to the wrist/forearm and uses a
small ring-type laser scanner for reading bar codes, or the
Talkman from Vocollect which
is designed for voice systems (more on voice systems below).
Wearable systems provide the functionality of hand-held devices
while still allowing workers to use both hands. I should
caution you that several hand-held manufacturers have taken
their hand-held devices, put them in a fanny pack, connected
them to a voice headset or ring scanner and call them a
"wearable system". While technically this is a wearable
system, I personally would not want to carry around the added
bulk and weight of a device designed with an LCD display and
keypad for 8 hours a day just because the manufacturer didn't
want to make the effort to design a wearable-specific device.
Go to Accuracybook.com's Portable
technology (a.k.a. Speech-based systems) has come of age in
recent years and is now a very viable and desirable solution in
warehouse and shop floor data collection applications.
Voice technology is really composed of two technologies. Voice
converts computer data into audible commands, and Speech
allows user voice input to be converted into data.
Portable voice systems consist of a headset with a microphone
and a wearable computer.
The advantages of voice systems are hands-free and eyes-free
operation that allows people to communicate with a computer the
way people communicate with each other. Applications for voice
systems include order picking, quality inspection, shipping,
receiving, cycle counting.
Speech recognition capabilities have been gradually improving
through better software and hardware, however, this is not yet a
perfected technology. To compensate for problems
associated with speech recognition, you really need to limit the
speech input to a fairly short list of keywords and phrases for
commands, and primarily numeric characters for voice data input.
Alpha characters would have to be spoken phonetically ( Alpha, Bravo,Charlie,
. . . Zulu) to
maintain an acceptable level of accuracy. Fortunately,
many warehouse and shop floor tasks can be performed very
effectively within these limitations.
Go to Accuracybook.com's Voice
RFID, Radio Frequency Identification.
Refers to devices attached to an object that
transmit data to an RFID receiver. These devices can be
large pieces of hardware the size of a small book like those attached
to ocean containers, or very small devices inserted into a label
on a package. RFID has advantages over bar codes such as
the ability to hold more data, the ability to change the stored
data as processing occurs, does not require line-of-site to
transfer data, and is very effective in harsh environments where
bar code labels won't work. RFID is not without it's own
problems , RF signals can be compromised by materials such as
metals and liquids.
A little RFID vocabulary:
Active tags are
RFID tags that contain their own power source (battery)
and have longer read ranges.
Passive tags are
powered by the signal generated from the reader device.
have their data changed.
Read only tags are
programmed once and their data cannot be changed.
product code) is a set of standards designed to utilize
RFID technology for the tracking of individual items as
well as cases and pallets. EPC is similar to UPC used
for bar code tracking of consumer goods.
(global tag) is an international RFID standard that can
be used for general asset tracking.
RFID Reader, also
known as an interrogator, is a device that reads RFID
Although RFID technology is getting a lot of attention these
days it still tends to be cost prohibitive for most inventory
tracking applications. As chip prices go down you will
continue to see growth in the application of RFID, however, as
in the case of 2D bar codes, many warehouse and shop floor
application simply don't require this added functionality. The
low cost 1D bar code will likely continue to be the technology
of choice for many inventory tracking applications. More info on
RFID is available at my RFID
Go to Accuracybook.com's RFID
Optical character recognition (OCR)
For years OCR has been used in mail sorting and document
management, but has had very little application in warehouse and
manufacturing operations primarily because it is not as accurate
as bar code technology. While I don't necessarily see OCR
entering the warehouse in the near future, I'm not ready to
write off the technology. As hardware and software
improves we may see this "old" technology make a comeback.
The primary advantage of OCR is that it can read the same
characters that a human can read, eliminating the need for both
a bar code and human readable text on labels, documents, etc. It
also provides the ability to input data from documents
that do not include bar coded information.
Although some may argue whether or not a
pick-to-light system is an ADC technology, the fact is they
accomplish some of the same tasks. Pick-to-light
of lights and LED displays for each pick location. The
system uses software to light the next pick and display the
quantity to pick. Pick-to-light
systems have the advantage of not only increasing accuracy, but
also increasing productivity. Since
hardware is required for each pick location, pick-to-light
systems are easier to cost justify where very high picks per SKU
flow rack and horizontal carousels are good applications for
pick to light. In
batch picking, pick to light is also incorporated into the cart
or rack that holds the cartons or totes that you are picking
into (put-to-light). See
article on Order
Integration of ADC Technology
While hardware costs of ADC equipment continue to come down, the
cost of integration will often prove to be the project buster.
Software and Integration costs will often be several times the
cost of the hardware, especially in smaller operations where
only a few devices will be used.
Integration of ADC technologies is also far from standardized.
For example, when implementing an RF system with portable
terminals, one integrator may create a program on the terminals
that will write directly to the file on the host system, another
may create programs on a separate server to do this, another may
write or modify a program on your host system and use terminal
emulation software, and another may use a screen mapping tool to
reformat an existing program to be used on the portable device.
Make sure you do your homework and talk to several integrators
to ensure you are getting the best solution. Also make
sure you participate heavily in equipment selection and
program/process design (prompts, data input) to ensure you get a
system that provides the highest levels of accuracy and
There are also integration tools available that allow
non-programmers (you will need some pretty good computer skills
though) to integrate these technologies with host systems.
These tools will not have the functionality and flexibility of a
good custom written program but may be adequate for simple
Warehouse Management Systems (WMS) often come with interfaces to
specific ADC equipment. If your looking to add ADC to your
warehouse you may want to first look at a WMS (read
my article on WMS).
One of the biggest mistakes made when
developing an ADC project is that people approach ADC as an "all
or nothing" project. The end result being that the when
the project is quoted it tends to come in too costly to ever get
implemented. There is rarely significant financial benefit
to using the "big bang" approach to ADC projects, so start small
with the processes that can best benefit from the application of
ADC and add on other processes later.