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Bar Coding and the Maintenance Department.

Tom Singer is an Information Technology consultant who specializes in the design, development and implementation of Computerized Maintenance Management System (CMMS) and Warehouse Management System (WMS) solutions. He is a project manager with Tompkins Associates, an international engineering-based consulting firm headquartered in Raleigh, NC. Tom invites IMPO readers to e-mail their CMMS questions to:

Bar codes are a common aspect of our daily lives. Walk into any grocery store or retail outlet and you will see them in use. Pick up any package or letter you have recently received and they will appear on the address label. They are on the products we buy, the equipment we use and the property we own.

In the workplace, bar codes are used by distributors and manufacturers in a myriad of ways. We place them on our office assets to better track and manage them. Our suppliers and carriers depend on them to accurately move product through the supply chain.

But how common is their use in maintenance management? Not very. I have installed my share of maintenance-management bar-coding applications, but I believe these are the exception, not the rule. Bar coding may not be for everyone, but I believe many maintenance departments could achieve substantial benefits from it.

Bar-code basics

In its most familiar form, a bar code is nothing more than a pattern of alternating dark stripes or blocks and white spaces. Information is encoded into these patterns by varying the width of the stripes and spaces. It is decoded by illuminating the pattern and translating the resulting reflection into a string of characters or digits.

We only have to visit the local grocery store to see how it works. The clerk passes an item over a fixed laser scanner at checkout. The scanner reads the product number encoded in the Universal Product Code (UPC) bar code on the item's packaging. The system's software uses the product number to look up the item's price in the store's database. Speed and accuracy

Bar coding is part of a general family of technologies called Automatic Data Collection (ADC). As its name implies the major focus of ADC is the automation of data entry. Bar coding accomplishes this by replacing the keying of information into a computer with a quick scan of a bar-code label.

What can bar coding do for a maintenance department? It can:

* Reduce the time spent on entering data into computer systems. Scanning a bar code takes less time than manual entry.

* Increase the accuracy of information entered. Even the best data-entry clerk will make keying mistakes. The accuracy rate of bar-code scans is nearly 100%.

* Reduce paperwork. Combined with hand-held computers and portable data terminals, bar coding can make certain applications both paperless and mobile, allowing information to be recorded as the activity occurs.

* Make asset and parts management easier. Bar codes are a simple, reliable mechanism for identifying parts, equipment and tools. Their use makes tracking and controlling materials and resources less time-consuming and more accurate.

Adding bar codes to an existing application can be as simple as hooking up a scanner and keyboard wedge to a desktop PC. Bar-code menus of data sets such as failure codes, employee numbers or safety permit codes are then printed using a PC bar-code labeling package. Users then scan the menu instead of keying the data. The most practical use of bar codes, however, is obtained through software vendors that provide packages specifically designed to capitalize on their capabilities.

Bar-code solutions for maintenance

CMMS and asset-management software vendors are the primary suppliers of bar-coding solutions for maintenance management. Their solutions are usually add-on modules to their base-system packages. These add-ons are designed for specific applications that capitalize on the advantages of bar coding. They include:

* parts issuing, receiving and counting

* asset control

* tools tracking

* labor recording

* work-order processing.

My favorite candidate for bar coding is the maintenance storeroom. I have seen too much valuable time wasted in storerooms issuing parts to craftspeople. This wasted time includes the craftsperson waiting for parts, as well as the storeroom attendant recording the transactions. I have also heard too many storeroom managers complain they lacked time for cycle counting, despite inventory-accuracy problems that plagued their operations. Bar coding is a solution to both of these problems.

Many CMMS vendors provide storeroom bar-code modules that utilize a hand-held computer or data terminal with a built-in or attached scanner. Work-order forms and bin labels are bar-coded. To issue a part, the user scans the work-order number, part number and location bar codes, and then enters the issue quantity. The process is simple and reliable. The hand-held device usually communicates with the CMMS package through a docking cradle and upload program. However, the dropping price of hardware will probably make radio frequency and wireless solutions increasingly popular.

These bar-code modules usually provide receiving and counting functions. The first physical count performed using one of these packages will go a long way toward paying off acquisition costs. Depending on the concurrence of auditors, bar coding may even allow a storeroom to substitute its annual physical counting with an ongoing cycle-counting program.

Overcoming pitfalls

Bar coding can't overcome poor procedures. A barcode module is not the answer for a storeroom whose item master file is improperly defined, security is lax and layout is inefficient. In this situation, resources would be better applied to rectifying these problems instead of implementing a bar-code solution.

When considering bar coding for your maintenance operation, make sure that you:

* Clearly define what you are trying to accomplish. Bar coding should not be implemented because it sounds like a neat technology. It should address specific needs.

* Don't assume that the application works the way you want it to work. Evaluate it step by step against your operational needs. Check the vendor's references to make sure that the package is easy to use and reliable.

* Get buy-in from all parties involved. Imposing bar coding on prospective users that aren't convinced of its values is doomed to failure.

* Are prepared to invest the resources necessary for a successful implementation. Bar coding requires set-up work. Equipment must be acquired and installed, items labeled and users trained. It is pointless to acquire a package unless you are prepared to make this additional investment.

The cost of bar-coding equipment and software has dropped dramatically in recent years. More and more maintenance solution providers are getting into the game. It may be the right solution for you.
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Author:Singer, Tom
Publication:Industrial Maintenance & Plant Operation
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 1999
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