TOO costly, too cumbersome — that's the opinion most event rental operators hold of bar-coding, the inventory management system that uses scanners to read an item's identifying labels printed with “bars,” or lines. This data is fed into various software programs that track and manage it in a myriad of ways.

Edison, N.J.-based Miller's Rentals & Sales uses bar-coding on some items, and is “thinking of more ways all the time,” reports president Steve Kohn. Before turning to bar-coding a few years ago, “We used the not-reliable, ‘let me look in the back and check’ approach,” he says wryly. At present, Miller's bar-codes rental contracts and costumes.

Kohn describes the cost to set up and maintain his system as “very inexpensive” and the payoff “immediate.” “It saves time and labor, and the employees think it is great!” he adds. He wishes that he could bar-code “everything,” and sees untapped benefits from the process. “Imagine if you purchase a tent top and it comes with a unique bar code,” he says. “Not only would this assist in the inventory management of the tent, but it could be used to locate flame certificates and to calculate ROI based on usage data.”

GOT IT, CODE IT

Entertainment Lighting Services, which rents and sells lighting, rigging and staging, uses bar-coding on 80 percent of its inventory, according to Mo Kasravi, inventory control and facilities manager for the Sun Valley, Calif.-based company. Although ELS management at first expected it would bar-code only big-ticket items, the three-year-old system has worked so well that “we changed our rules of bar-coding,” Kasravi says. “We bar-code anything that can accept a label,” right down to 90-cent “cube taps,” the little devices that convert single wall sockets into multiple sockets.

In the ELS system, employees take the list of equipment needed for a job to the warehouse where, using a wireless system of rolling carts with computers and scanners, they pull the required equipment and scan its bar-code label. In the system, the status of each scanned item changes from “needed” to “filled.” Because the system keeps a history of each coded item, the worker pulling the order can quickly tell if a required item had received scheduled maintenance. The rolling scanning stations “take out the laziness and mistake factors,” Kasravi says, which might creep in if workers had to keep walking back and forth to a fixed scanning station. When equipment comes back from the job, it is scanned again at the dock before returning to inventory or going to the repair facility.

LOTS OF LABELS

Kasravi often puts more than one bar-code label on an item. “Some items get harassed, the labels get painted over, so I have to put the label in various places,” he explains. ELS prints its own labels — in sizes ranging from as big as 4 inches long to as little as 1½ inches square. The big labels include the ELS logo, address and Web site, while the little ones bear simply the bar code and part number. The big labels with the ELS logo can pay off unexpectedly — “We've gotten calls about equipment that was lost on a job three months ago,” Kasravi says.

The redundancy available in bar-code labeling is one of its benefits over RFID (radio frequency identification) inventory management, Kasravi says, where each tag must be unique. (See “Rental Essentials” in our May issue.) With RFID, “if one tag is called No. 1, you can't have another No. 1,” he says. But the bar-coding system enables him to create multiple identification labels, and to create labels on the fly.

The items that ELS does not bar-code are those of very low value (“We have 5,000 color frames that are $1.50 apiece,” Kasravi says) and items that are frequently repainted, such as steel pipe.

ELS spent about $30,000 in hard costs to set its system up and lays out about $3,000 a year — for labels, batteries and the like — to keep it running, Kasravi says. The payoffs have been many: “We have discovered what equipment makes us money and what doesn't,” Kasravi says. “It tells us when an item needs to be increased in stock.” Also, “The company can't recoup the losses from lost or damaged equipment unless we can prove who did it and when,” he explains. The bar-coding system establishes that items went out to clients, including time stamps when the item was pulled, which gives ELS credibility. “People trust the bar-coding system; they don't argue with it,” Kasravi says. “It's helped our relationships with our clients.”

TRUST FACTOR

Bick Jones, head of Ducky-Bob's Event Services, agrees that bar-coding reassures customers that inventory management isn't a matter of “he said, she said.” For his company, “Bar-coding improved customer relations by validating our effort to be accurate in our inventory-control efforts,” he says.

Ducky-Bob's, with locations in Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas, used a bar-coding system on segments of its inventory, such as linen and big-ticket silver chafers and trays, for seven years. Due to issues with former corporate owners, the system has fallen by the wayside.

But Jones would happily bring it back. He thinks that critics who dismiss bar-coding for party rental, because of the time it takes to scan items and because not every item can accept a bar-code label, are missing out.

“You have to ask yourself the question, if there is a process or technology that is a good idea but doesn't apply to everything you own, does that mean you don't do it at all, or do you try to implement it in areas where it seems to work the best?” he says. “Maybe it can't be done for flatware, because you can't get a bar-code label on a fork without making it look ugly.” Jones says the labels worked well with silver chafers, trays and urns, where the investment of 20 seconds to scan the item protects a $1,500 piece of equipment. Linen is particularly easy to scan: “You have to open it anyway to inspect it for damage,” he says. “You might as well take an extra two seconds to scan the label.”

For its supporters, bar-coding takes some of the mystery out of managing inventory. As Kasravi puts it, “Bar-coding has opened doors to learn what we didn't know before.”




RESOURCES

Ducky-Bob's Event Specialists, 972/381-8000; Entertainment Lighting Services, 818/769-9800; Miller's Rentals & Sales, 732/985-3050