Despite its name, going with the flow is not how Chicago Faucet became a leading manufacturer of industrial and residential plumbing products. By staying on top of new technology, the company transformed its cumbersome product identification process into an on-site, fully computerized labeling system for bar coding before it was mandated by distributors.

Since 1901, the Des Plaines, Ill., company has significantly extended its product line by offering fittings that can be integrated with others to create hundreds of different faucet combinations. This multitude of combinations also required hundreds of unique preprinted identification labels.

Paper labels were preprinted with standard information and graphics to identify each faucet, while variable information – like catalog numbers and specifications – was either handwritten or stamped in place. After the information was filled in, the labels were applied onto corrugated product boxes with glue. However, the ends of the labels tended to curl, necessitating the use of extra tape to secure the label. Not only did this method create a large, expensive label inventory, but the unflattering labels didn’t reflect the company’s top-quality reputation.

In anticipation of implementing more automation into its processes, specifically by moving towards automatic identification, management investigated the possibility of moving its labeling on site. Keeping abreast of its industry, management knew that its distributors would soon require UPC bar codes to track products through warehousing operations. Without moving to automatic identification, preprinted bar codes would create an even larger inventory of labels.

“We wanted to get a head start rather than scramble when our customers demanded bar codes,” explains Bill Butchart, the firm’s data processing manager. “By being in front, we can determine our own direction rather than follow others.”

The company decided that the best way to incorporate its old label information with new UPC codes was through its own System 38 midrange computer system. The key was to find labeling software that could easily integrate with the company’s MRP 11 system, which tracks each product work order as it’s processed.

“It would be virtually impossible to maintain a separate database with current information on a stand-alone labeling system,” says Butchart. “All of the necessary product data already are loaded into the midrange computer and promptly updated. With another system, we’d have to repeat each change.”

With that in mind, Bill Haag, the company’s product and systems engineer, explored various labeling systems and suppliers through industrial magazines, the Industry Bar Code Alliance, and automatic identification trade shows. He found that very few labeling software packages were available for midrange computers, and suppliers that did offer the software usually didn’t include the printers or labels.

“It was important to us that we used one source for our turnkey labeling system,” says Haag. “We wanted a funnel for all of our labeling questions, from support to service to supplies.”

Weber Marking Systems, Arlington Heights, Ill., was able to provide Chicago Faucet with a complete labeling system, including Legitronic Midrange Labeling Software, three 80 series thermal-transfer printers, customized labels, and a bar code verifier.

By calling the Legitronic software from its existing manufacturing system, the firm’s engineering users are able to design various label formats for different-sized labels and product lines. Variable information, such as product specifications, ANSI information, and proper UPC bar codes, are gathered from the manufacturing system and appropriately placed into the format.

Now an operator on the manufacturing floor just keys in the catalog number and quantity of the product to instantly call up a particular label format. When an order is ready to be packed, the labels are printed by one of the thermal-transfer printers located on the plan floor. All three printers can be used simultaneously to run labels for different products without changing label media.

“We print all of our labels as we require them. Now if there is a product change, we don’t have hundreds of obsolete labels or a long lead time for new preprinted labels,” says Butchart.

The thermal-transfer printers provide high-density bar codes and alphanumeric text on custom labels preprinted with the company’s logo. Labels for the decorative faucets include special type fonts that reflect the appearance of the product line. All labels are manufactured and supplied by Weber.

After the labels are printed, the bar codes are periodically inspected with a Quick-Check verifier. This handheld unit checks the accuracy, contrast, and spacing of bar codes in order to meet UPC criteria.

Each product box then is labeled and palletized. The pressure-sensitive labels eliminate the use of glue along with its messy and time-consuming process. The result: consistent, uniform labels that enhance the packaging and are easy to read.

“I’m constantly receiving letters from customers announcing their plans for bar coding,” says Butchart. “With our new system, we’re more than ready for them.”

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