Barcoding | A Quartermaster’s Best Friend
Quartermasters are up for many challenges when managing stores of agency equipment. The biggest challenge is the oldest challenge, the question by someone else: “How much of a certain product is on hand right now?” It’s a pop-quiz, and not a great one, as it usually stops your quartermaster from what they were working on, and it brings up an item that wasn’t top of mind at that moment. If you’re in leadership, you probably do this more often than you realize, and it’s the type of thing that exhausts your quartermaster mentally. Your quartermaster needs to help you, because the mission is fluid and immediate. They need to be able to retain their sanity. There’s a simple tool that helps accomplish this.
In 1948 Bernard Silver and Norman Woodland developed the idea of bar coding through private conversation that a grocery store chain President had with a Dean of Technology at Drexel University, where they both attended college. The issue at hand was the need for a system that identified products readily, along with their associated information, primarily the Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price, known as MSRP. Woodland left Drexel, and pulled the first known “Bill Gates” by moving into his parent’s basement, to develop the idea, patent it, and potentially sell it. Woodland began work at IBM, where he tried to convince them to develop his idea, and after researching it, they concluded that while interesting, some of the technology needed to develop the idea was years away from fruition. They offered to buy the patent, but for a price too low for Woodland’s liking. In 1962 Philco purchased it, and then sold it to RCA.
Around the time Woodland was out selling his patent, David Collins graduated from MIT, and was working in the railroad industry. He developed red and blue strips that had reflective properties and attached to rail cars. The strips were scanned by photomultipliers that were filtered for either red or blue colors, and they would process the signals of the color, producing a unique number code from each strip, that identified a given company by six digits, and the rail car’s number by four digits. The Boston and Maine Railroad tested this identification system for six years, at which point the Association of American Railroads selected the system as the standard by which all railroads in North America would have to mark and identify their railcars. Collin’s named his system KarTrak. This system had serious flaws, but was well received on the railways eventually, as well as toll bridges, the US Post Office, and even pet food manufacturers.
Collins saw the design flaws and feed-back on his system as reason to campaign at his employer, GTE Sylvania, to ask for broader design (the use of black and white strips) and to research smaller designs. GTE didn’t like the idea, and didn’t see the need to expand. So Collins went into business for himself, forming Computer Identics Corporation. He changed out light bulbs, replacing with lasers, and incorporated a mirror, so that the detection equipment could locate items from several feet away. This led to increases in accuracy and efficiency, and General Motors, among others, employed the system.
RCA began showing off their version at industry conferences, which grabbed a lot of attention, including that of IBM. Realizing that Woodland still worked for them, they put him in charge of a plant to build yet another version. RCA’s version involved ink that would smear under their scanning devices, but Woodland’s new design was linear, and merely caused the label to stretch, making it still readable by the scanner. Consequently, the National Association of Food Chains selected IBM’s design as the standard by which their products would be labeled.
However, adoption of the system was still a factor. Manufacturers were buying labels from vendors such as CIC, and grocery stores didn’t see the need for investing in costly scanning equipment. Studies showed a ten percent increase in sales, along with a two percent decline in operating costs, usually arriving five weeks after adoption of such systems, but due to the essential “stand-off” between retailer and manufacturer, less than 200 stores had employed and benefitted from the system by 1977.
It wasn’t until 1981 when the Department of Defense sought out the LOGMARS system from CIC, which stands for Logistics Applications of Automated Marking and Reading Symbols, that bar coding became a universal standard. To date, DoD still uses the system, and the commercial grade offering has become synonymous with business across the globe.
How Does This Help Quartermasters?
If you haven’t thought about it, let’s consider those percentages from the earlier mentioned studies: a ten percent increase in sales, and two percent decline in operating costs. Granted, in the public safety industry we’re not worried about sales, we are most definitely worried about operational costs. Your quartermaster or asset manager is going to be there for 40 hours a week, possibly more, depending on the schedule they work. That’s a given. What isn’t a given is how efficiently their time can be used. We can give them lots of equipment to store, manage, sort, inventory, report, and then interact with dozens, if not hundreds of people, from vendors, to city staff, to agency personnel. But if there is no way to organize that equipment, who’s bringing it to them, who they’re assigning it to, and who’s coming into their storage area, it makes for a difficult job to function in.
While barcoding is an element to fixing this problem of organization and management, it’s a very important one. Just as we discussed issues when it came to evidence management, those same types of issues can creep into asset management. Asset management software that provides your quartermaster with the ability to scan items in by barcode, and even bulk scan, which can be a massive time saver. Quartermasters need software to manage stores of products, ranging from batteries to flashlight bulbs, to AEDs. The easier we make their job, the easier they can respond to our “intrusions” into their world. They have a mission that goes farther than your eye sight, the least you can do is provide them tools for the job at hand.
Of course, software with the ability to scan barcodes is useless, if you don’t also get a barcode scanner, a barcode printer, and all the printing material needed to make this a plug and play solution to ever-old problem. Quartermasters have enough to do with ensuring the paperwork is correct, we should strive to make their life a lot easier when it comes to entering products into the agency workflow, assigning them back out, and retrieving them for future use. Not to mention, the intrinsic value barcoding places within audits and inventories. It makes it super easy to identify, locate, and account for stores, and discrepancies found during the process.
Quartermasters have a difficult job. There’s no reason it needs to be harder. Supply your quartermaster with quality asset management software, along with barcode scanning hardware, and you’ll make it that much easier. And that means your entire agency can respond quicker to everything outside your agency’s doors.
Be safe out there!