A BAR TO SUCCESS
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After two years of using bar codes in its vehicle parts stores, Segos admits it chose the wrong system. We find out what went wrong
• On the face of it, bar code readers provide a simple way of entering information into a computer. Stick bar codes on to the products or items you want to control with your computer system, pass a bar code reader over them and you are away.
In supermarkets bar code readers have proved very successful, since they quickly and cheaply identify thousands of different product lines_ Could bar code readers be used in vehicle workshops to provide stock control in the spares store?
In May 1983, this was a question that Ian Ogley, South Eastern Gas' transport manager, and David Keech, Segas' systems co-ordinator were asking themselves. They decided to go ahead with a bar code system in the vehicle parts store of their new Brighton workshop.
To begin with, the system worked well. Ogley and Keech were so pleased with its progress that they gave a paper at the 1984 Institute of Road Transport Engineers annual conference, extolling its virtues. However, now, two years later, the two men are not so sure about the benefits.
"Now we would say, 'If you want to do it this way, don't'," says Keech. "It was a good idea at the time but having put it in, practicalities have overcome theory."
One practical problem is that vehicle parts are not bar coded by manufacturers, unlike most packaged foods sold in supermarkets. One solution would have been to appoint someone to work fulltime sticking bar codes on to spare parts, but this was deemed too expensive.
Segas decided to use a catalogue showing the bar codes of all 2,000 vehicle parts held in the workshop stores. Each time a vehicle part is required the stores supervisor searches for the relevant bar code in the catalogue. When he locates the correct bar code, he sweeps it with a bar code reader, and the computer system automatically displays details about the part, such as its cost, the quantity in stock and its location in the store.
This system worked fairly well initially in Segas' Croydon and Brighton workshops, but today it is only used occasionally in Brighton and hardly at all in Croydon.
Ian Ogley says: "Most of the workshop men remember the locations of the most regularly needed parts, so they find the process of looking for the bar code in the catalogue is more trouble than just going and getting the part."
Now, at both Brighton and Croydon vehicle workshops, most requests for vehicle parts are met by a manual search. The bar code number of the vehicle part (memorised by the store's supervisor), is entered into the computer via the keyboard.
"Our workshops have relatively small parts stores," says Ogley, "but some parts are used once in a blue moon — we use the bar codes in the catalogues then."
Keech has been surprised by the positive attitude shown to the computer system by the stores supervisors, and by their readiness to use the computer keyboard (albeit to enter bar code numbers). "We gave the men at Brighton some games to play on the computer when it was first delivered — like space invaders and chess — it got over their fear of the new technology. Now there is a tremendous empathy with the computer system."
Ogley is less sure. "Supervisors are happy about putting data into the system manually, but the older men, the engineers and fitters, are still not so happy about using the system," says Ogley. "When things go wrong, the older man gets lost."
It may be that the supervisors' readiness to use the computer keyboard reflects irritation with the bar code readers, which have proved less reliable than expected. "The hardware quality of the bar code readers, which cost between £400 and .2500, has not been so good," admits Keech.
New bar code readers are now coming on to the market which use laser scanner or infra-red technology, and promise improvements in reliability. However, present usage of the existing bar code readers does not warrant any additional investment.
Despite the problems with the bar code readers, and the supervisors' preference for a manual system, Segas plans to continue with the bar code experiment.
"This has been a different approach," says Keech, "and though it may not have been an absolute success, it has given us a means to analyse and break down the costings of each vehicle's operations.
"The intrinsic value of the spare parts is often low — the system cannot be cost justified on the value of the parts alone — but it does help us to keep the vehicles on the road, and that is where the big savings are made."
Keech and Ogley are also using bar codes to provide savings in the administration of a worker incentive scheme which operates in the workshops. Instead of a system in which all details of a job are entered into the computer manually, they use a bar code based system.
Each workshop fitter is given a work card before he starts a job. On to the card he sticks bar codes for each of the vehicle parts he will use, and his own bar code (which has been allocated to him personally). The computer can print out all the bar codes he needs on to adhesive labels.
When the fitter has completed sticking bar codes on to his work card, he sweeps his card with the bar code reader and then goes to work. The computer contains estimates of how long each part fitting should take, and measures the fitters' actual performance against this standard, when he completes the job.
Using bar codes in this way provides a workable alternative to the "onerous task" of typing in all the work details, claims Keech. "The workers see that the computer is useful in solving everyday problems," he says.
Management is also beginning to see the advantages of the system in the form of better, more up-to-date information. Transport manager Ian Ogley has access to all information entered into the computer by the vehicle workshops, and he is using this information to help him in his work.
All supplies of stock are automatically monitored by the computer, and orders are sent out to parts manufacturers when stocks become low. Similarly, any slow moving stock lines are identified, and those stock holdings reduced. At one workshop, stock lines have been reduced from 2,300 items to 1,700 as a result of the computer's analysis.
Within the next nine months Keech hopes to develop a vehicle cost analysis package for the computer system, which will enable Ogley to make a better informed choice of vehicles (he purchases 500 vehicles a year).
Keech is also developing a multi-user version of the computer system to allow a number of linked computer terminals to operate simultaneously. So, for instance, two terminals could operate at the same time at a workshop; one logging-in new stock, and one logging-out stock for use in the workshop.
After two years' operation of the computer system Keech is ready to describe the bar code method of data entry as a failure. He now admits that he should originally have chosen a keyboard entry system. Bar code readers have proved insufficiently reliable, and the workshop supervisors bypass the bar code catalogues, because they can work faster without them.
However, the bar code readers did provide Segas Transport Department with the kick it needed to first develop a computer system, as Keech admits. "If we hadn't gone ahead with bar code readers we would probably still be wondering about it."
Ironically, the major practical obstacle to the use of bar code readers in vehicle parts stores may be removed in the next two years. In the United States the American Automotive Industry Action Group is working to agree upon a series of bar codes, for placing on the packaging of all vehicle spares. Similar work is being undertaken in France by a group called Odette. It seems likely that international bar code standards for vehicle parts will be agreed sooner rather than later. In which case, the Segas system will be a world beating design.