Tracking, one of man�s oldest and most valued skills, has long been essential to survival. While most of us no longer track game for our next meal, tracking in business is essential � and not just of products. Current businesses must be able to have real-time, or as close as possible, information on all of their processes. With the world marketplace shrinking and business practices more interwoven than ever, no business, large or small, can afford to be without sophisticated internal tracking technology. In short, pencil and paper tracking is obsolete.
Here�s the good news: Your company will save lots of time and money by adopting a barcode-based tracking system. That�s because you will be introducing accurate, evidence-based accountability. This accountability is essential to many commercial functions including the deployment and depreciation of assets, maintenance of inventory, shipping and receiving fulfillment, time and attendance, customer service, production control and so on. Expensive slippage is the result of inadequate tracking. To put it another way, whether through time wasted, assets lost or production slowed, value is not maximized.
Then, too, there is growing emphasis today on white-collar scheduling and productivity. Given the productivity tools that are now available to managers, the days of �layering-up� personnel are over. Increasingly, the managerial level is as efficiently staffed and measured as the production line.
While barcode tracking has been around for years, the refinement of mobile computing has opened opportunities previously unaffordable or unavailable for many daily challenges. Barcode is the foundation, but the operative word is �mobile.� When mobility converges with wireless data transfer, instantaneous messaging and online (Internet or intranet) access, the result is extraordinary utility with remarkable simplicity.
Parcel tracking systems, which give the ability to track parcels inside companies after receipt from carriers such as UPS, FedEx and the USPS are a result of new mobility tools. The tracking systems in this class that utilize HPCs, barcode scanning, wireless data transfer and digital signature capture are ideal platforms for numerous tracking activities beyond their original uses. Savvy users are thinking hard about their tracking challenges. The result is a plethora of creative tracking solutions utilizing these simple tools.
Parcel Tracking and Purchase Order Fulfillment
Ron Watts, manager of Distribution Services at California Polytechnic State University, Pomona (Cal Poly Pomona) knew there were parcel tracking systems on the market that would reduce processing time and enhance record keeping. �A tracking system makes sense economically,� states Watts. �It affords us the time to do more with the same amount of labor. In a production environment, saving five minutes here and there makes a big difference.� Watts tracks delivery flow and production plus his mobile staff�s location and efficiency.
Cal Poly Pomona also utilizes its parcel tracking system for three classes of deliveries: parcels, time-sensitive mail and purchase orders. Parcels and time-sensitive mail are scanned �on the fly� as they come through the door, with one of the system�s seven HPCs. Couriers carry sorted deliveries to recipients who sign digitally on the HPC for delivery verification. The parcel�s barcode is also scanned. Back at the mail center, all the HPCs are downloaded in seconds to the control PC using an infrared port. When a call comes in regarding the whereabouts of a delivery, the date, time, place and name of the person who signed are instantaneously available.
Purchase orders are tracked after delivery. First, the contents of a delivery are checked and verified upon receipt against the original purchase order. When this is accomplished, a barcode label is created which contains the PO number, the shipper�s ID number and the recipient�s name and department. Scanning this barcode at delivery provides proof of the purchase order fulfillment. Purchase orders arriving on pallets, such as paper for the computer center, are inbounded and tracked in much the same manner, only the number of pieces on a pallet and the contents are included in the label.
Work in Process
A barcode-based work in process (WIP) tracking system provides a manufacturing manager with the ability to track all job locations and job processes accurately with minimal impact on productivity. Simplicity is key. A WIP system would have a barcode scanner terminal at each job center, with serial labels and menu cards for information entry, or the mobile scanner used to deliver parts would serve this purpose.
A barcode-based WIP system not only eliminates errors and delays in manual work tracking, it keeps skilled machinists and assemblers from spending unproductive time operating arcane computer terminals.
When Chuck Alexander and Conal McBride, of LNP Engineering Plastics, needed a way to satisfy rigid process-tracking requirements specified in ISO standard 9001 and others, their new parcel tracking system was adapted for the task. Now they receive, gather and track project components through complex stages of R&D development.
Here is how LNP�s system keeps those projects flowing: R&D assigns each new project a unique lab work request (LWR) ID, expressed in text and barcode. The LWR is sent via e-mail to a remote processing area for production. As they are created, personnel scan the samples into the handheld scanner. Once the project is completed, the samples are then delivered to a holding location at the production facility for pickup. Mail services receive the samples and scan them to the delivery van. The samples are then delivered, scanned to a dock location, scanned to a storage/staging area and processed accordingly. The projects are tracked throughout all stages of development including storage. Anyone with access to the system online can locate any LWR component at a given time or location.
Alexander, customer processing lab manager, is delighted with the results. For one thing, he is able to document average turnaround time � three days. �We thought it was between five and seven days,� he states. �Before we installed this system, when one sample of pellets was misplaced, we could lose four to six weeks. We�ve eliminated those frantic searches and rushes to get a sample manufactured.� Quick turnaround is essential because often the first company to provide a solution gets the sale. And a lost sale can mean millions of dollars in revenue.
�Meeting those standards is the main reason we turned to a tracking system in the first place. The bonus is that it has saved us lots of time and money,� says Alexander. �We now have cradle-to-grave accountability for all our projects.�
Contract Fulfillment
An outsource company that supplies security personnel to a large chemical manufacturing facility needed to prove that two contract-specified tasks were indeed being performed on a round-the-clock basis. In addition to pre-set security checks, the contract called for scheduled checking and recording of levels in chemical tanks throughout the 40,000 square-foot plant.
Each location and chemical tank receives a barcode location label. When guards make their rounds carrying HPCs with a barcode scanner, each label is scanned to prove the site was checked. An automatic time-stamp proves the time the check was made. In addition, a drop-down menu allows for further reporting, which includes the tank level, the condition and also other comments.
When guards complete a shift, they digitally sign their HPCs. A completed, signed record is then ready to be printed and used as documentation to support billing and contract fulfillment.
Warranty Repair Tracking
Keeping track of returns and repairs is another everyday problem that is easily solved with portable tracking. This applies to items from the original manufacturer or a repair center.
To facilitate this process, you�ll need a file reference by item including the item�s warranty terms and warranty duration. In the absence of a warranty card return from the customer, a warranty cut-off date may be inserted through a file cross-reference by using an item serial number table.
A clock manufacturer uses its mobile tracking system to track warranties. Here�s how that works: A customer wishes to return her clock for repair. A peel away barcode label is included in the clock�s packaging to facilitate return and repair. The customer applies that barcode to the outside of the return package, which is addressed to the repair department.
When the clock is received, that barcode can be used for internal parcel tracking if desired. More importantly, that same barcode is scanned when the package reaches �repairs� to link that clock to the warranty file mentioned above. Immediately, the warranty terms are available, and a determination is made whether the repair is covered. If the warranty terms are met, the clock stays in �repairs.� If the warranty is expired or otherwise not applicable, the clock is moved and scanned into the customer service department where it stays until the customer is notified and instructions are received.
Note, all movement between departments is carried out by couriers carrying mobile HPCs and barcode scanners. The HPCs have drop-down menus for comments. For example, a clock whose warranty is expired is scanned into customer service with a notation of warranty expiration. When a clock is undergoing repair, the same barcode is scanned in order to link it to a repair location. The individual completing the repair also digitally signs the HPC, thus linking himself to the repair.
When the repair is complete, the barcode is scanned into the repackaging area and scanned again at shipping. The original file for that clock now has the added information of when and where the clock was returned, who repaired it and when it was shipped back to the owner.
This tracking system provides benefits to three company functions: customer service, warranty and repair and quality control. The first two are obvious. A customer inquiring about the status of a repair can obtain accurate, timely information. Likewise, warranty and repair personnel have accurate records. It is quality control that receives a bonus. Because the company�s products are traced through repair, there is an accurate record of failures. Thus, problem parts and materials can be assessed and eliminated.
It�s All About Ownership
The main principle in setting up a tracking system is linking an item or asset to a location through barcode scanning � the item label and the location label must occur whenever an item is moved. Many facilities now have a barcode label in every room and at key locations within rooms. When scanning occurs at a location, that location �owns� the item until it is scanned elsewhere. The added feature of digitally signing with scanning increases that ownership link. When e-mail messaging is added, you gain the ability to initiate reminders and alerts. With online searching, tracking data becomes available across the enterprise.
With just a little imagination, you can probably think of dozens of common-sense tracking applications. What about those computers that keep moving from one office to another? Shouldn�t you be tracking your files, samples or lab specimens? What about expensive pallets, reusable chemical drums or tools in your tool crib?
Most managers have ideas about processes or items that should be tracked to enhance and streamline operations. Until recently, though, the tools to carry out many tracking procedures have been expensive and complex. Now, managers are finding themselves in a creative role as they imagine how these simple, new tracking tools can be adapted to solve their problems.
One manager laughingly remarks, �You may not believe this, but I think about this [tracking] stuff in the shower. That�s where I get my best ideas.� Another enthuses, �Tracking with the new system works like a miracle. It�s so simple. Why didn�t we think of it years ago?�
Joan Hacker is director of Public Relations at A2B Tracking Solutions Inc. For more information, see, call 800-733-7592 or e-mail