Visualize a typist stationed at every point of data entry in a manufacturing facility. Imagine a data acquisition process that is automated, error free and very cost effective. Is it any wonder organizations in virtually every industry are adopting barcode technology? Using pictorial representations to relay information to a computer, scanners replace typists and enter data at the rate of 40 to 200 scans per second.

Overall, barcode technology dramatically reduces data entry error and data processing time, while increasing traceability. With all of its advantages, the technology has become a widespread solution for supply chain management. When most organizations consider it for their facility, they think in terms of inventory traceability. This is the natural place to start; it is easy to scan a part and location. What most companies fail to realize, at least initially, is the potential to extend the technology throughout the facility. Any step in a process involving data entry should be considered a candidate for barcode integration.

Before Barcodes

Manufacturers have long searched for solutions to deal with quality concerns stemming from manual data entry. Often data is recorded using handwritten notes on paper or boxes, which is then entered into a computer system. This process creates several problems as the result of something as simple as a transposed number or the incorrect revision on a box.
Even when information is recorded correctly, data entry still drains efficiency. Each time a manufacturer needs to ship a part, typically an employee would manually enter or verify the part number, revision number, customer name and address. Such a process might take 45 seconds. Using barcode technology, a datasheet is scanned and a label prints with all the relevant information. Now a shipping box can be completed in five seconds.

Analyzing the Situation

Barcode technology carries such an enormous scope of possibilities that it can be difficult to determine the entry point. A big decision involves the type of barcode to use. There are many formats, from the one-dimensional variety found on retail items to the 2-D variation (such as QR codes). The data housed in each barcode depends on the technology used—a standard one-dimensional 13 digit barcode can produce 10,000 billion unique codes. This pales in comparison to 2-D barcodes which may contain about 100 times more information.
During the planning phase, project engineers and even manufacturing engineers are usually the go-to people within the organization. They possess a good understanding of the big picture and know where information needs to be gathered. The focus should be on the basic outline of deciding what data to collect and how it should interact with in-house applications such as a company’s ERP system or accounting software.
A good starting point is to put barcodes on everything. Barcodes will identify parts in process, parts that are in finished goods, for example, as well as barcodes placed at every location such as process grinding, in process deburring, packaging, and shipping. A company should expect to install handheld scanners at most workstations. However, smart phone and handheld computers are also able to scan barcodes and may be used as well. The next piece of the puzzle is to integrate this information with a company’s in-house software systems used for resource planning, inventory management, part inspection and more. 
Anyone can print barcodes that represent part numbers, but many organizations fail to carry the technology completely through its workflows and processes to realize its full potential. When thinking about software integration, it is possible to capture a small amount of intelligence on barcodes in the form of encoded commands. Therefore, at certain locations, the software may be configured to print a transfer label or machining instructions when the barcode is scanned. It might also be configured to add costs at each step of the manufacturing process to help the company trace items from a financial standpoint. The background coding intelligence might also pull data into metrology inspection software. In this instance, the inspection program would auto-populate once the part is scanned. 
  • A standard one-dimensional 13 digit barcode can produce 10,000 billion unique codes. A 2-D barcode can contain about 100 times more information.
  • Manual entry or verification of a part number and other information might take 45 seconds. Using barcode technology, shipping a box can be completed in five seconds.
  • Scanners enter data at the rate of 40 to 200 scans per second.
There are limitations to the amount of data contained within a barcode, though this is not necessarily a stumbling block. If a company wanted to store CAD nominals to help facilitate measurement routines, it could encode them into a barcode provided there are a small number of features to inspect. For more complex parts, the barcode will need to become physically larger which may prevent scanners from reading them. To get around this dilemma, a barcode could simply be coded with the part number, but relate back to the required nominals stored in the main computer’s database. Once the part is scanned, it easily acquires this information, populates the metrology software, and the inspection routine begins.

Beyond The Plant

A company considering conversion to an automatic data entry system may already be dealing with suppliers that use barcodes to label raw materials. They can easily adapt to the suppliers’ systems with an off-the-shelf barcode software solution to manage traceability of incoming items and track any quality issue back to a particular vendor, part number, or even down to the material’s lot number. 
For example, when a PO is cut for the required material of a part, it could contain the part number, a description, cost, the finished good’s part number, machining processes and even the final assembly where the part will eventually be installed. When the material arrives, a scan of the supplier’s 1-D barcode (which only contains a part number) would correlate that part with the information already contained in the purchase order.
At the other end of the process, when a part is shipped, its internal barcode used to track it through the plant, would be linked to a 1-D barcode for the customer to use. If there was ever a concern and the part needed to be tracked back through the system, all pertinent information would be easily accessible through the company’s master database.

The Next Step

With the recent passing of the 60 year anniversary of the barcode’s patent (October 1952 - U.S. patent number 2,612,994 for a ‘Classifying Apparatus and Method’), industry has taken great steps forward in reaping all the benefits it has to offer. As more organizations implement the technology onto their supply chain, they can expect to improve quality and throughput. Decreased errors, increased efficiency and traceability can only improve a bottom line.

Barcodes, Manufacturing and Metrology

Barcodes are becoming more common in manufacturing and assembly facilities. Surprisingly, these very facilities have not carried the technology through to the quality control department. This is not due to negligence, but rather an unfamiliarity of the potential to improve procedures. 
There are three possible applications for barcode technology implemented in the inspection process. 
  1. Application prior to running the parts program. Barcodes may be used on job tickets to encode a variety of information related to that job. Examples of that information include part numbers, operator employee numbers, operator instructions, and lot numbers. Barcodes could also be used to identify the part program’s filename to ensure the correct inspection routine. Metrology inspection software is able to take this information and automatically begin the inspection routine.
  2. Application during the parts program. If a company is using QR codes or other 2-D barcode technology, they have the capability to store CAD nominal values. When the individual part or its bin is scanned, the theoretical x, y, and z values are instantly pulled for each feature auto-populating the software user interface.

    This feature is beneficial to a facility that has several new parts requiring parametric programming. Previously the operator had to manually enter each new nominal value before the program was run. Now the values can be entered into a spreadsheet which is then copied and pasted into a barcode generating program. The resulting barcode is affixed to the part’s bin and contains all required information as well as the identification of the inspection routine. A scan of the barcode uploads the data and the program starts automatically. 
  3. Application after the parts program is run. Barcodes may also be placed on the parts themselves, using labels or pin stamping for example, to include information on measured features. If a quality concern surfaces, the component may be scanned and the original measurement information is revealed. The scan might also reveal information down to the materials used, lot number, vendors, machinery, and employees involved with the part’s creation. This is particularly beneficial to the aerospace, automotive, medical or energy industries where traceability must be documented for safety and recall purposes.