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The following are my personal picks of the top ten new products shown at Scan-Tech 1996 in Chicago November 6-8, 1996. This was my fourteenth time hunting for those new gems of automatic ID technology that would qualify for The Adams Top Ten. In ferreting out the Top Ten New Products for Scan-Tech 1996, I do not stop at every booth. I use the eye of a Technical Editor to restrict my stops to those companies that, in my opinion, were showing innovative products. My choice is subjective and my own, however I do use some criteria. Products that show breakthrough technologies get the highest marks. Next, I look for products which establish a trend in the market. Finally, I look for products that offer a great price for their performance. I do include prototype products in the list if a working model is shown, and a projected production date is given. With this in mind, here is the Adams’ Top Ten New Products for Scan-Tech 1996.
Number One - Invisible bar code
The number one product was invisible bar code introduced by Eastman Chemical Company (now called ClirCode and owned by Authentix). Invisible bar codes are not new. They have been around for at least 10 years. What’s new about the invisible bar codes shown by Eastman is the use of near-infrared flurorophores (NIRFs). NIRFs can be made to glow by the red light from a laser scanner. That means that slightly modified laser scanners can read the NIRF bar codes. The old type of invisible bar codes used ultraviolet fluorescent ink which required a UV light source and a custom CCD camera to read the bar code. NIRF bar codes are also less prone to background interference from whiteners that are added in the paper making process. These whiteners glow under ultraviolet light and reduce the contrast of bar codes printed with UV ink.
So what applications could use a bar code that you can’t see? Even the people at Eastman didn’t have a quick answer, but I have a few ideas. NIRF bar codes have their biggest use in closed or in house applications. A typical example would be a wholesale fine woods warehouse. The wood planks could be marked with NIRF bar codes and scanned as the wood went into and out of inventory. The invisible marking would not destroy the wood’s appearance, yet the advantages of bar codes would still be available.
Since the bars printed with NIRF ink glow, they appear as white spaces to an ordinary bar code reader. Eastman showed several bar code readers that were modified to read the negative image of the bar code because of the glowing of the ink when illuminated by red light from scanner. Now here is an idea for a NIRF bar code application that even the people at Eastman haven’t thought of yet that uses the glowing nature of NIRFs in a visible bar code. Imagine a bar code where the bars are printed with black ink and the spaces are printed with NIRF ink. What you would have is a bar code with a phenomenal contrast ratio. This type of bar code would most likely be readable even if soiled. Remember you heard this idea first from me.
It is these visionary possibilities for Eastman’s NIRF bar code that earned it the top position.
Number Two - Open Wireless LAN
Number two goes jointly to BreezeNet wireless Ethernet product line from Breeze Wireless Communications, Inc. and the RayLink PC Card from Raytheon Electronics for the first demonstration of an open system wireless LAN following the upcoming IEEE 802.11 standard for wireless LANs. Final ratification of the standard is expected in early 1997. That means these products are not final versions, but they are the first companies to demonstrate that the standard works between two independently developed products. Breezecom and Raytheon developed their respective products separately. They following the draft 2 standard of 802.11 separately. Then they brought the two products together and, miracle of miracles, they talked to each other. With up to 2 Mbps, these products signal the end of proprietary RFDC systems.
There were two other companies exhibiting 802.11 systems. However, the other companies did not show their 802.11 transceivers working with another company’s base station. That’s why Breezecom and Raytheon were picked as number two and the others were not.
Number Three - LabelView Gold
The automatic identification industry is fast becoming a commodity industry. Customers are buying products on price because most products have virtually identical performance. One of the most vicious areas is bar code label printing software. Third place goes to one such product. Not for what it does the same as the rest but what it does differently. Third place goes to LabelView Gold version 4.2 with CommWatch from Graftek Inc. CommWatch makes capturing data from weigh scales, scanners or PLC’s and printing labels incorporating the data from those devices as easy as selecting a printer. The product also comes with DataWatch which can detect a change in a database and automatically print a label. These two features make systems design child’s play for systems integrators. While most other label printing software are just software peripherals for other systems software, LabelView Gold version 4.2 is the heart of a complete application. It is a trend-setting shift in the label printing software paradigm, and that is why it earns the third spot.
Number Four - LaserLite
Just what we need…another portable laser scanner. Well my number four product, LaserLite from Videx, is not just another portable laser scanner. It is a portable data collection terminal with an integral high performance laser scanner weighing less than 10 ounces and it’s very small (about 1.5 inches wide and 6 inches long). It’s got a 2 by 16 character LCD display, two buttons to scroll the display and 128K RAM. What really sets this product apart is its price, under $1000, and the number of scans on a set of 4 AA alkaline batteries - 3 months of power or 35,000 bar code scans. The feature that finally convinced me to give LaserLite the fourth spot is its build-in bidirectional IR communications port. Because the port follows the IrDA infrared standard, the LaserLite can directly control any portable printer that has an IrDA communications port.
Number Five - U-Scan Express
The number five spot goes to U-Scan Express from PSC Inc. This product is a fully automated self-checkout system that resembles an ATM machine. The customer scans the bar code on the product and puts the product in a bag in a station next to the scanner. This station detects the change of weight and cross checks the change with the expected change for the product just scanned. If the product does not match, a manager at a control station is alerted. The system also has a touch screen display and voice feedback that leads the customer through the process. Next to the screen is an ATM-like area where the customer can pay for their purchase by credit card or by cash. Above the scanning area is a TV camera that can monitor by a manager to verify the produces being scanned or check a photo ID when age verification is require.
While there have been other self-checkout systems introduced over the years, The U-Scan Express gets the fifth spot because it has the look-and-feel of an ATM machine, does not need random security checks and allows the customer to decide after shopping whether to use self-checkout or normal checkout.
Number Six - Label Matrix Compliance
Coming in at number six is Label Matrix for Windows Certified Compliance Label Line from Strandware, Inc. More and more companies are requiring their vendors to ship products with common label formats so they may be used throughout the supply chain. Monetary penalties may be imposed on vendors that fail to provide a readable label in the format specified by the customer. Compliance labeling is a nightmare for the small to medium-sized vendor. That’s about to change with the introduction of this product. Each LMW Certified Compliance Label template package will allow customers to print to one of 9 printer families (they are Datamax, Eltron, Intermec, Meto, Monarch, Printronix, Sato, Tec, and Zebra) and any printer supported by Windows. There are more than 150 templates to choose that will produce labels complying to the standards of a wide variety of Retailer, Manufacturers and Industries. Some of those companies are Sears, Wal-Mart, JC Penny, Coca Cola, Nike, Maytag, National Retail Federation, U.S. Department of Defense, and the American Gas Association.
This product will save many companies money and people at those companies sleepless nights. At a suggested retail price of under $300 dollars, it’s a bargain. That’s why it made number 6.
Number Seven - WaveNet 3000
The seven position goes to the WaveNet 3000 Portable Terminal from WaveNet. Their ad goes: "Yes, it reads bar codes. Yes, it reads electronic tags. Yes, it’s a walkie-talkie No, it wasn’t invented by the Swiss Army." The product is remarkable. It has a built-in laser scanner and can read RF tags operating in the 902-928 MHz range. A innovative engineering design allows a spread spectrum radio and antenna to be used for both RFID and wireless network communications.
This "Swiss Army Knife" of auto ID products earns its place by its innovative integration of bar code, RFID and RF/DC.
Number Eight - Linerless Print & Apply
Number eight goes to the SWIRL Thermal Transfer Linerless Print & Apply System from Media Solutions Inc. The system was a cooperative effort between MSI, Apax Corporation and Interleave Systems. This print and apply system uses MSI’s unique SWIRL thermal transfer media. The roll of label stock uses the thermal transfer ribbon as the label liner. The system uses a unique print ahead label cache so it can handle bursts of 80 labels per minute. The system also provides 60% more labels for a given roll size. That means that production lines will not have to be shut down as often.
This product gets the number 8 spot because of the improvement the product offers to production line efficiency and media cost saving.
Number Nine - Apollo
Number nine goes to the Apollo line of thermal transfer bar code label printers from Tharo. The Apollo line with the addition of a PC Memory Card, allows stand-alone printing without being connected to a computer. You design the label on a PC, and download the design to the printer. Variable data can be selected using the printer’s scroll buttons and 2-line display. You can also attach any standard PC-compatible computer keyboard (often available for as little as $15) to allow full alphanumeric input. The Apollo uses a 32-bit Motorola MC 68332 which provides fast printing of both bar code and graphics on the label.
What earned the Apollo it’s place is its outstanding performance and features for a thermal transfer printer costing less than $2200.
Number Ten - Dolphin
Number ten goes to the Dolphin from Hand Held Products. The Dolphin is a cell phone-sized portable data collection terminal with an integrated laser scanner. The product is among the most comfortable-to-hold data collection terminals I’ve seen. The Dolphin uses a MS-DOS-based 386 microprocessor and includes an 8-line by 20 character backlit LCD display and a full alphanumeric keyboard.
What earned this product its place in the Adams Top Ten was the combination of the well thought out ergonomic design and its creative name. It is a sleek, intelligent creature in the sea of auto ID products.