The Bar Code Printing Revival
After years of little growth, the bar code printer market is currently on an upswing as healthcare and retail applications multiply.
The healthcare and retail markets - one relatively new to bar coding and one an old standby - are helping create a resurgence in demand for bar code printers. Healthcare, which is finally allocating some funds for automatic identification and data collection (AIDC) technologies, is doing so mostly because of new rules from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The rules are designed to improve patient safety by preventing and identifying medication errors with the use of bar code technology. (For more information, see the "FDA Selects EAN.UCC System For All Unit Dose Drugs And Biologics" document on the AIM Web site [www.aimglobal.org].) On the other hand, the retail market is expanding its use of bar code technology by adopting mobile/portable bar code printers.
Healthcare Means More Than Hospitals
Of course, bar coding is not entirely new to the healthcare industry. For instance, hospitals use bar code printers for labeling medication, patient wristbands, and files. As Jan Svoboda, product manager at bar code manufacturer SATO America (Charlotte, NC), points out, the majority of pharmaceutical companies and manufacturers of healthcare equipment have been using bar code technology for years. "These companies now want to replace their aging bar code printers with new products that support the latest Reduced Space Symbology [RSS]," he explains. "However, the situation is different at the healthcare provider level. We are seeing growth in hospital-based applications, which are driven by the new FDA regulations and by the healthcare industry finally realizing the benefits of AIDC technology."
Beyond hospitals, most major pharmaceutical companies are evaluating how they will implement these regulations, ensuring compliance at the unit-dose level. "There is still debate if initially unit-dose marking will be accomplished with preprinted bar codes produced via flexo and/or offset printing, or with variable imprinting via thermal transfer printers," says Kevin Young, general manager at Avery Dennison Printer Systems (Philadelphia). "Both ways will probably be used as larger companies with long production runs opt for preprinted labels and small companies with many SKUs [stock keeping units] and small runs choose thermal printers."
Doug Salvador, director of marketing at bar code printer vendor Datamax Corp. (Orlando, FL), predicts thermal printing will not be responsible for most unit-dose and pharmaceutical bar codes. Instead, he says these bar codes will be applied as part of a drug's packaging (i.e. blister packs, foil seals). "In healthcare, bar code printer sales will increase when the hospital software providers offer the ability to incorporate bar coding into all functional areas of a hospital, not just the pharmacy, receiving, lab, and radiology departments," Salvador says. "Areas such as patient accounting and central supply can use bar coding to help allocate costs accurately to appropriate patients. This capability is not usually available in most hospital software systems."
One other bar code printer industry veteran, Bill Nix, COO of TSC America (Orlando, FL), notes that these FDA rules should spell opportunity for VARs since the healthcare market is so large and varied. "The cost of AIDC products like bar code printers will always be a big hurdle to overcome when selling to the healthcare industry," comments Nix. "However, compliance labeling initiatives will drive growth in this vertical just like the ones implemented by retailers and auto makers."
Time To Revisit Those Retail Accounts
For years, the bar code printers that were sold to retailers have resided in the back rooms where inventory is prepared for the sales floor. Not anymore, says Nix. "Retail stores want their employees out of the back room and on the sales floor labeling products and shelves. That paradigm shift has helped bolster wireless printer sales."
While tabletop printers continue to dominate in this vertical, sales of compact, battery-powered wireless portable printers are rapidly increasing due to more affordable wireless technologies. "Portable printing solutions offer VARs a significant sales opportunity, especially with the declining costs of wireless portable data terminals," says William Hosken, president of TEC America, Inc. (Atlanta). "Opportunities in the retail and distribution markets are sizeable as wireless printing enables workers to be more efficient by reducing the physical movement of products."
To take advantage of these new portable printing opportunities, VARs need to have some level of WLAN (wireless LAN) expertise - or at least a partner who can provide site surveys and installation services. Most retail clients will likely have 802.11b WLANs; however, many are moving to the newer and faster 802.11a and 802.11g networks. Each has its own coverage issues, so make sure you understand why and how the client will be using the network.
"We see a great demand for wireless mobile printing applications," states Svoboda. "In retail, the demand is for 802.11b and Bluetooth. Both of these wireless technologies add great versatility to portable printers, simplify their use, and increase reliability by eliminating the dreaded cable connection."
Future Bar Code Printing Opportunities
There are other ways to profit from bar code printer sales beyond these new healthcare and retail market applications. For instance, the RSS symbology has created a demand from manufacturers of small electronic parts. "VARs can increase their profits or value add from bar code printers by not selling what everybody else is selling," expounds Young. "For example, sell printers equipped with online verifiers that ensure bar code quality and help customers avoid industry charge backs."
Salvador adds that many successful bar coding VARs focus on niche markets. They learn everything they can about an industry and develop their solutions/applications accordingly. "While their competitors fight the price battle, innovative niche VARs capture their specialized markets," he says.
One final frontier for bar coding VARs is color printing. According to Hosken, color printing is an area that offers extraordinary potential for VARs since the market is largely untapped. "Thermal, color bar code printers offer many benefits to end users," he explains. "However, since high-speed photo quality is not currently available, VARs must ensure that the solution will meet the customer's print quality expectations. In addition, the long-term revenue derived from color printing supplies can provide a very significant impact to a VAR's bottom line."