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Machines with eyes: bar coding for managers.

If you have bought groceries in the last year, you have probably seen bar coding in action. The checker swipes the item across a piece of glass, and a readout overhead says, "Bread, $1.29."

Great, but what does that have to do with property management? Actually, quite a bit. The same small computers that allow grocery checkers to ring up your purchase faster also make it easier for apartment rent receipts to be processed, for checks on life-safety equipment to be automatically recorded in a computer file, and for security personnel to monitor tenant comings and goings quickly and accurately.

The technology is called optical scanning, or bar coding. With bar-code technology, a reader no larger than your hand is run across a series of black lines and white space, which holds coded information. The scanner, or wand, "reads" the information and translates the bar code into data for a PC.

For property managers who need to capture a large amount of any type of data and keep records of that data, bar coding offers an efficient, low-cost option.

Payments with one hand

One management company that has improved efficiency and lowered administrative cost with bar code technology is Steven D. Bell & Company of Greensboro, N.C. The 17-year-old firm manages approximately 2,900 condominium units, 5,400 apartments, and 1.4 million square feet of retail space.

When controller Alison Jennings began to consider replacements for the company's aging Data General minicomputer in 1989, one of the factors she looked for was the ability to streamline administrative tasks. She chose an IBM AS/400 system because of its longevity, and combined it with a custom property management program from Lambs Property Management Software in Youngstown, Ohio.

"Each month, we process 2,700 payments from unit owners and renters," says Jennings, "as well as 5,000 invoices and payroll and benefit administration for 185 employees. Our volume was such that we could not take on any additional properties without adding staff. And the first of the month was a nightmare."

Bar coding seemed to be the answer. Using a laser printer that the firm had already purchased to print MICR checks, Bell printed up yearly coupon books of charges for each of its residents. Encoded in the bar-code line was the property number, the unit number, and the tenant code.

For example, a bar code at the bottom of a receipt might contain the information that the enclosed check is from John P. Simms in unit 4-D at Pine Bluff Village, and that he is making a March 1 payment of $65.

When the bar code line is read, the property management software automatically pulls information on payments from its stored lease database. The operator simply verifies that the amount of the check matches the amount shown on the screen and, if so, pushes one button to post the payment. The program can be overridden if there is a discrepancy, and check numbers may be entered manually.

According to Jennings, training for the new equipment was minimal as all the clerks do is pass the wand slowly over the bar code. Errors have been non-existent. "We recheck the bar code printouts once a year for accuracy," she says, "but so far we have not had any false readings from the system."

The management company has not been the only one to benefit from the new technology. "We based our projections on the idea that about 75 percent of our homeowners would use the coupons. After a year, almost 90 percent do," says Jennings. She explains that condo residents find the coupons a helpful reminder to make payments and a receipt for themselves.

Because Bell used a modified ACOM printer that the company already owned to do the coupons, the payback period was approximately 90 days. If a new laser printer had been purchased, Jennings estimates the payback would have been nine months. "You need to invest in a good printer with enough speed," says Jennings. "Otherwise, running the coupons will take forever and the quality may not be high enough."

But to Jennings, the equipment cost is more than offset by reduced staff costs and the greater accuracy of bar codes. "If you are mass processing with a standard variable," concludes Jennings, "bar coding may be a great savings for you, too."

Security at the wave of a wand

If bar coding has proved efficient at tracking quantities of paper, it is equally effective at inventorying other items, from life-safety equipment to the location of cleaning personnel.

At the Houston Center Complex managed by JMB Properties, Director of Safety and Security William P. Lake uses bar coding technology to monitor and record the activities of security guards, maintenance personnel, and even cleaners.

Lake's interest in finding a system that would allow for verification of security activities arose from a lawsuit concerning the building's security. "When an attorney asked me what proof I had that the guard made the round on the night in question, I could only point to the log book kept by the officer. While I trusted my employee had done the job, I realized we had no concrete verification."

Lake's solution was a bar-code based security system developed by Facility Management Systems, Inc. (FMS), of Morton Grove, Ill. Bar codes identifying locations throughout the property, including office entrances, stairwells, storage areas, and elevators. In all, the 49-story office tower and its neighboring 11-story garage had almost 1,500 bar codes installed over a period of four to six weeks.

Each of the building's 17 security personnel was issued a wand to scan the bar codes at specific points on their security routes. As each code was scanned, the miniature computer in the wand noted the time, date, and location of the verification. The data was then uploaded into a special program on the building's PC to provide a complete record of all activities.

In addition to codes on physical locations, each officer was issued a bar-coded message sheet with 25 messages preset for the system. Thus, if a guard found a door ajar, he or she could scan a message saying "door open," followed by a message saying, "tenant still in suite." The FMS system also included a key pad so that officers could enter specialized messages directly, if necessary.

"Because the bar code can only be scanned at its physical location, the system enables us to verify that a particular officer checked a particular door at 3:00 p.m. on January 5," explains Lake. "It is very hard data that is difficult to dispute."

The system was so successful, Lake has begun to adapt it to a variety of related tracking uses. "We bar coded all of the life-safety equipment and developed a set of messages for the monthly inspection of the building. The inspector can scan each fire hose cabinet and use the message card to note if anything is missing. Most importantly, we have a record that every item was inspected." The wand can also be programmed to direct users along a specific inspection route.

Lake uses the data uploaded from the scanner wands to generate a monthly life-safety report for building management and to develop work orders of needed corrections for engineering. He is also working to adapt bar coding to track and verify engineering functions such as routine maintenance.

"If a bar code is installed inside the air handling system and can only be reached when the filter is removed, engineering can scan the code whenever the filter is changed and generate an immediate record of the work done," explains Lake.

The time and date capacity of the bar coding system also helps Lake assess the productivity of security officers and cleaning personnel. If it takes most officers 30 minutes to walk a route, but one worker consistently takes 45 minutes, the system records the discrepancy.

"We explain to the officers that it isn't Big Brother watching them," says Lake. "We show them that the time records are a way for them to prove that they are working efficiently and doing their jobs."

A new productivity technique involves issuing bar-coded badges to cleaning workers in the property and scanning the badges of each crew periodically during the work period. In that way, time spent on each task can be gauged, and workers not in their proper places can be noted.

Other uses

"I find that the bar coding system is so flexible that you are only limited by creativity in adapting it to a new use," concludes Lake. "We are now working to use the system for off-property patrols.

"The officer scans a code when he leaves the building, scans a code in his car, enters the mileage when he leaves, scans every preset checkpoint in the route, enters the mileage when he gets back, and checks in with a final scan at the entrance to the main building. We have a complete record of everything he did and when he did it."

Other potential uses include bar coding tenant badges for security verification, bar coding equipment for inventory purposes, and tracking check-out and check-in of equipment.

"Bar coding is ideal for any activity that requires the accumulation of large amounts of data and verification of performance," says Richard Holland, president of Facility Management Systems. Of course, a minimum size is necessary to justify equipment costs, but Holland estimates that any building with 250,000 square feet is a candidate for bar coding.

"And there are few upper limits or restrictions by property type," he notes. "We have bar coded hotels, shopping centers, offices, and even the Mayo Clinic. If you need to keep track of something and need to be able to prove it, bar coding may be the answer."

Mariwyn Evans is executive editor of the Journal of Property Management.
COPYRIGHT 1993 National Association of Realtors
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Computers
Author:Evans, Mariwyn
Publication:Journal of Property Management
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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