Data Capture - To Key or not to Key

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Hywel Williams
Business Consultant, United Kingdom

Data Capture - To Key or not to Key

To key or nor to key: that is the question; whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slips and errors of outrageous keying or to take up AIDC (Automatic Identification & Data Capture) against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them?

A rather strange misquote of one of the best known speeches from Hamlet, but despite that, maybe there is just a grain of truth there. There is and has been for the past 20 years or so an increasing use of automated data capture, one prime advantage of which is the reduced importance of the keyboard as an input device to computer systems. Automatic Identification & Data Capture is now part of everybody's daily lives both in and out of work. Whilst shopping almost every item we buy is bar coded, and shelf edge labels are used for stock taking by the retailers. Even the shoplifting detectors on the way out are part of this technology, as is the chip and pin card many of us use for paying. Imagine the queues at your favourite supermarket if these technologies were removed (or perhaps not - it's frightening).

Whilst the use of such technologies is well established in the retail sector, these technologies and others can be applied to excellent effect in many areas of manufacturing and service industries. There are a few fundamental reasons why AIDC is rapidly replacing keying. It is far more accurate; error rates fall from 1 in 300 on keying (1 in about 10 for me) to 1 in 3 Million for bar coding (when was the last time you had a tin of baked beans identified as cornflakes on your supermarket bill) to 1 in10 million for Radio Frequency tags. It is far faster; thousands of characters can be read per second, often when items are on the move. As a consequence of the speed and accuracy it is far more economic.

Some examples of the technologies and their uses include:
  • BAR CODES: The retail trade relies heavily on the bar code. Most products sold are identified in a bar code by a Global Trade Identity Number, a centrally registered number, allocated to the manufacturer as a unique identifier of the product, which is used by the retailer to unlock the required information about the product such as description, price, and any special deals that may apply. Bar codes are also widely used in industry for identification of parts particularly in warehouses, in this case the codes used are specific and do not need to be centrally registered. Many documents also use bar codes to ease tracking by computer systems.
  • MATRIX CODES: These little squares of information (which you may have noticed be used on packages amongst other things) can contain far more information than a simple bar code, and are increasingly used on food (where sell by dates etc. can be incorporated into the code) and in the pharmaceutical industry where encoded data is used to eliminate the spread of counterfeit drugs. Extensive use of this system is made in direct part marking in industries like aerospace and automotive where traceability is paramount.
  • RADIO FREQUENCY IDENTIFICATION (RFID): This term covers a whole range of technologies in itself, and has myriads of applications from the simple replacement of bar codes, to totally controlling automated production lines. Most of them rely on a microchip attached to an antennae, the tag reader emits a radio wave which excites the chip and extracts a response which it interprets into data. (I don't know about you, but it's a while since I was excited by anything to do with radio it was probably The Goon Show, and that's given my age away). The main benefit of these systems is that they do not require line of sight to read the data, thus allowing far more applications.
    One application that many of you may have noticed is in Marks & Spencer, where high value items such as mens suits now have Intelligent Labels attached. These have the chip and antennae inside the label. This means that when stock taking, instead of the assistant having to scan each item on a rack individually, they simply walk past the rack holding a scanner and all the labels are recorded almost instantaneously. Another example would be in warehousing. Toshiba at their laptop factory in Germany have a tag on each laptop. They stack these 72 to a pallet, and read the lot at a single pass under a reader. This has resulted in a 75% reduction in handling time and a 40% reduction in booking costs. The third example would be automated production, where for instance a car shell would have a re-useable tag attached which contains details of colour, engine, and fit out specification, and that tag determines the path of the car through the assembly plant. These are just a few examples of what is probably the fastest growing and most far reaching of the AIDC technologies.
  • SMART CARDS: These come in a variety of forms and complexities, initially based on magnetic stripes, many of them now contain RFID chips as well. Some of these chips like the chip on credit cards contain static data such as a pin number, whilst others like the Oyster card available for London Transport can be topped up and have fares deducted from them using re-writeable tags.
  • BIOMETRICS: Possibly the most contentious technology as most of it is person based i.e. it records something unique about you as an individual such as fingerprint or iris patterns. In today's security conscious Britain it is almost bound to increase. The main use of biometrics is within security and access control
These are just some of the technologies and applications that exist, there are many more. The healthcare sector relies heavily on bar coding, matrix coding, RFID and other technologies to identify drugs, patients, authorised personnel, equipment, and other assets, in an effort to ensure error free treatment. The technologies are also heavily used by the food industry for traceability purposes, whilst occasional mistakes are made, and usually exposed by the media as disasters (they don't do good news), what is really impressive is that new technology results in faster recalls and less damage than would have been the case hitherto. Similarly animal welfare has been increased by the tagging of farm animals and the introduction of pet passports.
Fear not, help is at hand if you wish to find out more about these technologies. A European Centre of Excellence for AIDC has been established in Britain, and it's first regional offshoot is based at the University of Glamorgan.

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