The “blip-blip” sound you hear when a milk carton passes over a scanner at your local supermarket means the supermarket’s data system is reading a bar code. The information encoded there might include the milk’s price, expiration date, and store arrival date. Scanning the code also helps a store manager track the store’s inventory. As an IT manager, you can use bar codes similarly in your organization.

How bar codes work
Bar codes consist of series of parallel bars and blank spaces of varying widths. The markings encode strings of data into the printed symbol. A bar code reader, or scanner, issues a light source across the pattern that measures the intensity of light reflected back by the blank spaces. What the scanner reads is decoded back to its original data, data that can be processed by a special application. “Bar codes are just a readable font, no different from True Type or Times Roman,” said Kevin Price, the president of AccuCode, a systems integrator and value-added reseller (VAR) of data collection and data management technologies.

IT managers can make their own codes or buy pre-made ones, which are available from a number of manufacturers. Pat Morrow, senior director of scanning product marketing for Symbol Technologies, a mobile data management systems and services company, said his company started out printing their own bar codes on Emery labels. However, Morrow said, pre-made codes are small and inexpensive but durable.

You can program a software application to affix any type of alphanumeric data to a bar code. For example, a bar code for a shipping label in your organization might start with a numeric code, such as 101. You program the software to recognize each bar code that begins with 101 as a shipping label. Managers may have to follow specific industry standards, but for the most part, you can create your own rules for how bar codes are used and read in your organization. “Anybody can use the technology any way they want to,” said Price.

A simple bar code creation application such as SpeedBar can cost $155. A more robust data management system to process the bar codes, from Label Solutions, can start at $495.

In addition, many scanning options are available. Some PDAs and Pocket PCs have built-in scanners. Others scanners are small enough to wear on a wrist or finger. Some can sync to a network’s database application by grounded or wireless connections. Dealer price for a regular PDA with a built-in scanner is about $620. Pocket PC versions are around $899. Simpler scanners can come in below $400, Morrow said.

The price of other scanning devices varies depending on the type of scanner. Hand-held scanners can cost from $300 to $700. Scanners that read 2D bar codes (bar codes capable of storing more data than normal codes) may cost more than $1,000 each.

Regardless of the method of collection and processing, with bar codes, IT managers can:

  • Monitor the hardware and software each employee uses.
  • Follow the movements of mobile workers.
  • Track inventory of spare parts.

According to a recent TechRepublic poll, the majority of members are not using bar code technology. However, it’s a powerful technology that’s simple to use. Here’s some information that might make nonadopters reconsider.

Most do not use bar code technology to track equipment

Tracking equipment
Managers in medium- to large-size organizations can use bar code technology to track equipment. For instance, Morrow’s IT department keeps a bar code sticker on monitors, laptops, and other items. With a scanner, an IT manager can read equipment codes in conjunction with a second code on a user’s office door or workstation. This process tracks the equipment a user is working with. For example, Morrow recently switched offices. He said when the IT team takes a few quick scans of the bar codes on the equipment, they’ll be able to tell the IT manager what equipment is in Morrow’s new office and whether Morrow transferred any old equipment to his new location.

This practice is useful for medium- to large-size organizations, organizations with a fluctuating workforce, and those that must track equipment for tax purposes. “Since a lot of times that’s on your capital books, you’re really supposed to keep track of where it is before (you) write it off,” said Morrow.

Monitoring field employees
Paul Deegan, IT director for manufacturer Air Express, Inc., uses bar codes to track the company’s mobile workforce as they visit the gas stations and self-serve car washes that use Air Express’s industrial air pumps and vacuums.

Workers collect quarters from Air Express machines by removing the full safe from the machine and replacing it with an empty one. They scan the code on the full safe before removing it and then scan the code on the empty safe before placing it in the machine. The full safe is scanned again when it’s returned to the organization’s home office, where it’s weighed before being opened and its contents counted.

All of this information is recorded by hand-held scanners and sent back to Deegan’s organization. The information is routed through a data store and can be queried and processed. This process allows Deegan and his organization to keep tabs on where mobile workers are and how much money is collected from field machines. Even the time an employee spends at a particular location is sent back to the home office via bar codes.

Tracking spare parts and products
Deegan also uses bar codes to track his inventory of spare parts. A field employee checks the operational status of a machine when he removes money from it. If the machine needs a new part or other mechanical attention, the field employee scans the bar code on the machine, then scans the code affixed to the broken part. This tells Deegan which machine is not working and what’s wrong with it. After a worker isolates the broken part, he finds a replacement part and scans the code on it before placing it into the machine. When this information is sent back to the home office, Deegan knows which new part was removed from his organization’s inventory.

These are just a few examples of what bar code technology can do to help an organization keep track of its equipment, whether in the office or on the road. The technology’s use is virtually unlimited. Undoubtedly, there is a home for it in your organization.