Move to Silicon to Make Bar Codes More Accurate

By Evan Schuman  |  Posted 09-28-2005
On Wednesday, bar code pioneer and scanner manufacturer Intermec Technologies Corp. plans to unveil a new generation of bar code readers that rely on pure silicon to read bar codes, rather than mechanical means. Intermec predicts its readers will be 80 percent more accurate with the new approach to scanning.

Traditional bar code readers use several lasers set at different angles, and mirrors to direct light from the laser across the whole bar code, even when it's on a product that is cylindrical or irregularly shaped.

The new Intermec approach is based on micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS) manufacturing techniques and can therefore deliver faster performance, better accuracy, smaller form factors and better durability, said Intermec President Steven Winter.

"A large mirror and a motor assembly that is wiggling back and forth, any mechanical device is almost always the failure point," Winter said. "The more solid-state you can make it, the more accurate it will be. Silicon can flex forever, and it doesn't have any stress factors. We really don't have a motor. We have a piece of silicon which we etch a mirror out of."

The new approach is much smaller and faster, but also more difficult and expensive to manufacture, Winter said, although the initial pricing for a hand-scanner will cost about the same $200 or so as traditional bar code scanners.

Winter said he expects the MEMS scanner pricing to drop sharply (about 20 percent to 30 percent) when volume production ramps up in about two years. The initial version will start shipping in November, he said.

Also in about two years, Winter said, Intermec expects to ship a version that can rotate the mirrors in multiple directions, rather than one direction the current units deliver. That would mean that workers would no longer need to properly line up the bar code's orientation with the scanner's orientation, which is helpful at a Home Depot-type store, where an employee might have to twist himself around to scan the underside of a large object.

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Winter positions the improved accuracy as one of the system's strongest features. Today, he estimates, as many as 10 percent of all retail products' scans fail and the products need to be manually rescanned, which eats up time in both the warehouse and the checkout lane.

"Our belief is that we would have a five times greater chance of reading the bar code correctly the first time. Some 80 percent of the rescans would go away," Winter said.

The scanner technology could be deployed as handheld scanners or could be made part of already installed permanent scanners, often embedded into checkout lane conveyor belts.

The company's position that the MEMS bar code scanners are about 66 percent smaller than its counterparts sets it up to move bar code scanners into a variety of different devices, including PDAs, Winter said.

PDAs are today being used by many warehouse applications for inventory checks and various communications so being able to add bar code capability to the unit is appealing.

"The devices themselves are getting smaller and smaller," he said. "What people want in these multipurpose devices, these PDA types of devices, they want them thin."

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Eli Lustgarten, a senior analyst and senior vice president with Longbow Research, tracks the financial doings of Intermec, and he sees the new MEMS capabilities as part of the refreshing of all retail technology products.

"All these technologies—RFID or better bar code scanning—are trying to give more readability and get greater reading distances. This sounds like another generation of technology to go beyond basic scanning," Lustgarten said. "This is not going to set the world on fire. It's interesting technology. For certain groups, it could make a significant difference."

Despite Intermec's positioning, Lustgarten sees this as a mobile approach and not something that will dominate in the fixed retail locations.

The MEMS scanners are "more for mobile. It's going to be more helpful with mobile applications, such as Fed Ex, UPS trucks and rent-a-car companies. That's where this is important," Lustgarten said. "It will also be important for warehousing and supply chain management. To retailers, it will be more helpful in the back. It's more for route management and the mobile market as opposed to the checkout."

Retail Center Editor Evan Schuman can be reached at Evan_Schuman@ziffdavis.com.

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