As we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the barcode, it is easy to reflect back on how it has positively impacted distribution center operations over the years and to ponder how barcode scanning will improve operations in the years to come. The question is – will the barcode continue to play a central role in DC operations, and if so, in what ways?
There is no denying that the use of barcode technology in DC operations has been a major contributing factor to the operating efficiencies gained in DC’s around the world over the past four decades, driving significant increases in productivity and accuracy.
Prior to the extensive use of barcodes and automated data capture equipment, the main form of communication and task management in the distribution center was paper. Paper based processes are always the least accurate and productive and the most error prone. In spite of this, research we recently completed in conjunction with Vanson Bourne uncovered that paper was still being used in critical workflows in 23 percent of distribution operations in Western Europe and an astounding 27 percent in North America.
These statistics support the belief that there is still room for growth in the utilization of barcodes across the industry. However, we do not believe that the growth will emanate solely from first-time adopters. Rather, current barcode technology users will also continue to reap future benefits from barcodes, as the technology continues to evolve, solving new business problems and streamlining operations in ways never imagined.
Basic DC workflows such as receiving, putaway, replenishment, picking and loading have been a main focus for deploying barcode solutions and have driven most of the past success. And while these critical work processes will still be foundational, distribution operations are changing due to increased demand velocity from the omni-channel effect, and increased compliance and regulatory requirements tied to recent food safety laws. As a result, barcodes will be central to the future success of DC operations.
The “Get it Now” culture driving the increased demand velocity through the DC has put unprecedented pressure on operational throughput. For those operations supporting direct-to-consumer business models the luxury of time has disappeared. It is imperative to success that these organizations expedite the movement of merchandise through the facility. Therefore, increased accuracy, decreased dock to stock cycle time, the Perfect Order metric and the efficiency of the returns process will be the KPI’s most crucial to maintaining customer satisfaction and thus future profit. Automated data capture and the barcode will be a key element to this success.
As has recently been demonstrated with various food recalls, consumer safety as it relates to what we eat has never been more important. The recent passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act has put increased focus and pressure on food growers, manufacturers, processors, wholesalers and retailers to comply with more stringent and timely recall processes. The only way to ensure consumer safety and brand and revenue protection is through automated data capture solutions. Paper just won’t cut it – figuratively. Applying GS1 compliant barcodes (including Voice pick codes) at the Point of Harvest and using this technology to track the discrete batch and/or lot information all the way to the Point of Sale ensures compliance and helps to build and maintain consumer confidence in the food we purchase.
The technology behind the barcode is also opening new doors of opportunity. 1D barcodes read with laser scanners was the standard for decades. Now, 2D barcodes can store more information and with the advances in imaging and printing/media technology, automated data capture equipment can read 1D, 2D and the eventual 3D barcode.
As we wish the barcode a happy fortieth, it’s clear the future uses and benefits of the barcode will only be limited by the imagination of its users.
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