Not long ago most pallet companies did not even have a computer,
let alone a bar code tracking system. Things have changed
significantly in recent years. The personal computer is basically
standard equipment in the office of todays pallet
companies, and bar coding has begun to find its way into many
Unfortunately, bar coding has remained somewhat of a mystery
to most pallet plant and sawmill owners. You hear such
statements as, Chalk can accomplish the same effect,
or A simple to use system that does not even require
a personal computer. My favorite one is: You can
just go buy a scanner and design the system yourself.
To a certain extent, the above statements are true. If all
you need to do is provide a count for each employee, then
chalk, colored pins, Bingo Markers or paint are all you need.
You can implement a basic system or possibly create your own
if you have the knowledge. After all, bar coding is
not rocket science. The principle of bar coding is simple:
a laser differentiates the black bars from the white spaces
and sends a decoded message to a computer or device
that is smart enough to do something with it. The difference
is always in the software.
When bar coding was first introduced in the late 1970s for
supermarkets in the grocery industry, lets assume that
all the system did was provide a count. Again, you could
simply provide some sort of mark to identify the item. The
mark was the price tag. Before bar coding, the cashier would
type the amount from the price tag into a cash register to
tally an order. What was accomplished?
1. The cashier had the ability to know the price of the item
without having to call someone or look it up. This saved a
tremendous amount of time.
2. The customer was able to verify the price paid and enjoyed
the convenience of moving through the checkout line more
quickly then before.
Benefits of Bar Code Tracking System
- Easily Change ProductValues, Piece Rates
- Improve EmployeeAccountability
- Adjust InventoryAutomYtically
- Reduce AcWountingProcedures
- Produce ComprehensiveReports
Some critics believed that bar coding would slow things
down in supermarkets. The customer would dislike the absence
of a price tag, and the system may be more prone to
Of course, the critics could not have been more wrong. In
fact, when bar coding was finally introduced, the following
advantages were immediately realized:
1. The cashier no longer had to search for a price tag that
may have been affixed in a different area each time it was
2. Since the bar code was printed directly on the item, it
was always in the same exact place, simplifying the search
3. The supermarket no longer had to contend with dishonest
customers placing a different price tag on the product and
trying to sneak it by at a less price.
4. There was no longer the chance of the cashier ringing
up the wrong price.
5. Price changes and items on sale no longer required a different
6. Checkout lines became shorter. In fact, even the customer
could check out an order as they now do in some stores.
7. Inventory records were automatically adjusted, allowing
re-ordering to be more efficient and enhancing just-in-time
supply chain management.
8. Physical inventory became more streamlined and could be
done less frequently. (Ever wonder how a store can stay
open 24 hours, seven days a week, yet the shelves are always
9. Accounting went from a nightmare to a daydream almost immediately.
10. Human error plummeted in all categories.
You can begin to see the picture. What if the bar
code in the supermarket was not attached to a software
system? Basically, it would be as if we had no bar coding.
Bar codes would have to identify both the price
and the product. Price changes would require re-labeling.
Every advantage listed above would be lost. Think about
it: it would be virtually impossible to achieve
all of the benefits without the software package.
Why use bar code technology without all the benefits?
It does not make sense. You may as well use chalk or
paint. A properly designed bar code system for a pallet
company should provide at least the same advantages
that bar code systems have provided to the grocery industry.
If it does not, the skeptics would be correct.
Why would someone need bar coding in a pallet plant
or sawmill environment? The most common reason is to
provide accountability of employees. In the pallet industry,
this is especially true if you have an automated line
for repairing used pallets and you want to keep your
employees on piece rate. Another reason is the ability
to know what is happening around your shop. A
bar code system can enable you to tell how profitable you
are, calculate the production yield of your equipment,
avoid human error, track products received and
shipped and work in progress. It also can streamline
How much do you spend on components? What is the true
cost of your pallets? Can you afford to reduce prices
to a customer when you are out-bid by a competitor?
Do you have customers that are unprofitable? Are your
employees doing the right job? Are they costing you
money by not properly upgrading a pallet? (Example:
if they plug a pallet instead of plating it.)
All these questions and many more can be easily answered
by utilizing a welldeveloped bar code based tracking
Bar codes are the method of data input. In automotive
terms, it is the body of a car, the place where you
enter. The tracking system is the brain that makes it
happen. In automotive terms, it is the drive train of
the car. What good is having a shiny new car if
it cant take you anywhere?
Generally, the lines of an automated pallet repair system
are set up so that all the repaired pallets travel down
a conveyor to stackers or workers who stack them. In
a piece rate environment, you need to know who
did what. Bar coding in its most basic form enables
you to obtain this information. Affix a bar code label
to the pallet after it has been repaired, and send it
down the conveyor to be scanned and counted by
some type of system.
But bar coding should not be used as a simple counting
mechanism. Remember, if you are going to invest in a
system, you should get as many advantages from it as
possible even if you do not plan to use all of them
A well-designed bar code based system should provide
the following benefits:
1. Change the products values without having to
change the label.
2. Set or change piece rates without having to change
3. Accountability of employees even after the pallet
has left your facility. (Remember: your customer is
the final quality control inspector; you want to be
able to track any problems back to the person who
4. Adjust inventory automatically. (You may actually
care about how much you have in inventory one day.)
5. Reduce accounting procedures by automatically calculating
compensation, costs, inventory, etc.
6. Produce comprehensive reports that are available
for a wide range of time periods. Once you begin analyzing
the data, you will want to compare your findings
with previous weeks, months and years to evaluate how
well your business has progressed.
7. Expandability of the tracking system. Databases should
be designed so that other systems can access them. You
may use your automated line system to adjust broken
inventory into repaired inventory and a wireless system
to add broken inventory from customer purchases. In
the future you may want to track off-site repairs. Can
a vendors system be upgraded to a Palm Pilot
8. Additional systems should be able to use fixed data
about employees, products, customers and vendors without
changing it or adding the data into another database.
9. Scanners should be designed to function in the environment
of a pallet plant. Scanners may be purchased for $200,
but if you have to replace it everyday, it becomes the
most expensive scanner on the market.
10. Equipment should be warrantied. Does the vendor
have a loaner policy in case your scanner goes down?
11. Can the system compensate for a faulty or broken scanner?
12. A system should be designed specifically for a pallet
or sawmill shop. Adapting an off-the-shelf system will
rarely meet the real needs of the pallet professional.
13. Will the vendor modify the program for you?
14. Can the system handle tracking for a pallet repair
program? Will it determine the quantity of pallets repaired
for each customer and the quantity of each grade?
Does the system generate a report for these repairs
to simplify accounting processes?
|| The most important question is:
will it work for you? Have you seen the system in
action anywhere? Are the vendors customers happy
with it? Are they happy with the vendor?
Investing in a bar code system is only the beginning,
and the sale is only the tip of the iceberg. Any vendor
can sell you a bar code system, but not every one can
stand behind it.
If you purchase a tracking system from an equipment vendor,
ask what their relationship is with the software firm.
Are they only distributors? Did they develop the
system themselves? If so, how did they know how to meet
the needs of a pallet professional? Did they copy someone
elses ideas? Were they ever in the pallet business?
How do they protect against employee theft? Can an employee
simply scan his labels to get additional production?
You could hire Microsoft if you had enough money, but
even Microsoft could not develop a system tailored to
your needs if it does not know what they are. Do
you know what your needs are? Chances are, if you are
considering bar coding for the first time, you probably
do not even realize exactly what you need. That is an
advantage of hiring a software company with experience
in the pallet and sawmill industry. It can get you going
on the right track. If you need customization, chances
are it will be minimal, and the additional cost
will be negligible. You dont want to invest in bar
code equipment that will be laying in a box somewhere
in a few years.
I once visited a rather large pallet company that had
installed a bar code system on its automated repair line.
They called me in as a consultant to analyze the
system. I found an array of problems that most other industries
would not have. The system had not been designed by a
software company that specialized in the pallet industry,
and it showed. The pallet company actually had to lock
the scanners during employee breaks because workers would
simply scan their labels over and over, and the system
had no way to avoid or detect this cheating. It was a
very simple problem, but it never would have occurred
in a distribution environment. In addition, there
was virtually no accountability for grade once the pallets
were unloaded from the stackers. There was no inventory
adjustment, and the system was not compatible with
any other tracking software. In fact, the vendor that
sold the system did not even have any other products developed
for the pallet industry, so expanding it to a wireless
device to track new pallets or calculate yield from a
saw, for example was not an option.
Dont get caught with a fancy counter. Tracking systems
should be able to integrate into everything you do at
your business. Anything else just does not make
Do not allow yourself to wake up one day in the drivers
seat, only to find that your car will not move. Junking
the car and buying another one does not add up. You
may as well have started with a box of chalk until you
could afford the entire car.
(Editors Note: Alan A. Miceli is president of
Innovative Data Systems Inc., which has been developing
custom tracking systems for the pallet industry for over
six years. The companys Pallet Track® is used
by pallet businesses across the U.S. and Canada. Alan
has spoken on the topic of tracking systems at National
Wooden Pallet and Container Association meetings. For
more information, contact Alan at (631) 244-0069 or e-mail