Solution Provider Evaluation Guide
Selecting a consultant, systems integrator, or value added reseller (VAR) for an automatic identification and data capture (AIDC) project is at least equally important to selecting which AIDC technologies are best for your application. To help you understand the critical importance of selecting the best integrator for your needs, the AIDC members have developed this Guide. Use it to evaluate the scope of your AIDC project based on your current and future business needs. The evaluation form will help you to define requirements and to identify capabilities of each company as you interview AIDC vendors. It will allow you to evaluate, analyze, and select the most appropriate vendor for your project.
This document is intended to be used to evaluate the scope of your Automatic Identification and Data Capture (AIDC) project based on your current and future business needs. It will assist you in defining the requirements and capabilities of each company as you complete the process of determining an AIDC vendor. It will allow you to evaluate, analyze, and select the most appropriate vendor for your project.
Developing and implementing an AIDC system involves a series of consumer choices like those we make in the course of purchasing an automobile. We select dealerships with solid reputations and models with features that best fit our lifestyle at prices we are willing to pay. For major purchases, we take care to define our needs and perhaps do a little research by consulting a consumer guide.
The same process can be applied to each of the myriad of choices you make in the course of developing your company’s AIDC system: selecting the right solution provider, software, consumables, and data collection terminals to ensure integrated success.
Because you are investing your company’s funds, you want to make the most informed decision possible. You will also need to consider the impact of the cultural change your organization must undergo - from employee buy-in to training, while working under time constraints to meet an ROI mandate.
To help guide you through the selection process, take a look at some of the factors to consider as an AIDC consumer:
Let’s assume you have decided to consult with a data collection capable systems developer. You’ll want to choose a systems provider early on and involve the integrator as you develop a functional specification. How can you best communicate the scale of your proposed implementation? First, consider how it fits one of the following definitions:
A project that changes only a small portion of a single existing business process, costs less than $5,000,
A project that simultaneously changes two or more business processes, employs several different computer platforms and vendors, and costs $100,000 and up. Debugging before installation will be a high priority and the project may affect the physical design of your facility.
A project that simultaneously changes more than one business process in more than one corporate organization. It faces all the challenges of the other types of projects, plus the organizational issues inherent when one involves several corporate divisions with different management styles, functioning under different regulations, maybe even in several countries.
Evaluate systems integrators who can provide the level of service your project requires. An integrator with only Type One experience obviously would not be a good choice for a Type Three project. You may also find a Type Three integrator’s interest in a Type One project may be minimal.
In general, look for systems integrators with experience in your industry; but since some applications cross industry lines, do not automatically rule out an integrator who is well-versed in AIDC technologies but new to your industry. You may miss out on the benefits of technology transfer. Be sure the integrator is thoroughly experienced in the equipment and operating systems with which he/she will be working. The integrator should have similar equipment in house where he/she can develop and debug software as hardware is integrated. Most important is his/her ability to interface with people, material handling, computer hardware, and business system(s) either already in place or being contemplated. Verify that the integrator has not only the financial resources to support the project, but that he/she also operates a stable, well-run business with outstanding references from customers and vendors alike.
Do not jump at the low bid. The systems integrator who is going to give you the best long-term value has invested in hardware and software resources and experienced personnel to ensure fast development and debugging. You’ll save in the long run with decreased down-time, expert support, thorough training, and system flexibility. Does the firm take a product approach or does it design custom systems? Blending a systems product with a relatively small amount of custom work for additional functions offers quick start-up with generally good documentation.
Defining your company’s requirements is also a very important step in selecting functions found in application software like that for labor reporting, inventory control, warehouse management, or even barcode label design and printing. This process requires a time investment anywhere from two weeks to several months. Improving efficiency and customer service, lowering cost, or complying with a barcode mandate are common reasons for a system installation and are probably driving some of your requirements. For example, implementing a warehouse management system may be the only way a company can meet a demanding shipping and distribution schedule.
When reviewing software options for your application, you will usually encounter both custom and prepackaged offerings. When you purchase a custom system, for factory applications, inventory tracking, or shipping and receiving, you buy a system that is written to your specifications. You dictate exactly what you want the system to accomplish and how you want it to work. You define how each screen on your terminal or PC looks, which prompts will appear on your portable terminal, and in what order. Information flow, reports, and number of users it can accommodate are pretty much under your control. This step will require a significant investment of your time.
Many systems integrators and VARs (value added resellers) offer an option that is a hybrid between a fully customized and off-the-shelf solution. A number of companies have already developed a basic application for example — a warehouse management or work-in-process tracking system — which they will then customize to fit your system and application needs. This option offers the benefits of a proven system and reduced development costs, along with a fair degree of customization and support.
With prepackaged software (or hardware/software turnkey solutions), you build an off-the-shelf solution designed to meet the needs of many businesses with similar requirements. Packaged solutions range from basic applications to feature-rich software that is as elaborate as many custom systems. Some prepackaged software offers a great deal of flexibility and user-defined options. However, you will need to ensure that the package’s predefined functions conform to your needs.
Certain circumstances make a more compelling case for one type of software solution over another. Custom software makes sense if you have a unique business challenge for which a packaged product has not been developed, there’s no room for compromise within your application, or perhaps compromise will result in high costs in labor or dollars. If you want to automate one function, customer-mandated shipping labels for example, it is easy to locate a prepackaged system. If you are integrating multiple functions, it may be difficult to find a prepackaged solution that satisfies all of your operational requirements. The main drawbacks to developing a custom package are a longer project time line, higher cost, and debugging challenges, with the possibility of difficult or expensive upgrades in the future.
Though prepackaged software is less flexible, projects built around it usually go on line faster and at a lower cost. Since you are buying a product rather than software that is unique, you can expect it to be solid from the outset. New versions and upgrades should be a regular part of the offering. Although you will get a lot of features, they may not always conform to your exact specifications. You might also consider a combination of prepackaged and custom software. Using a base package and add-on modules, you can tailor the system to meet a variety of requirements.
As you examine software packages, you may find some that seem comparable, but carry a much lower or higher price. Take the opportunity to inquire about their features; this may raise an issue you overlooked in your evaluation. Consider platforms, operating systems, required parent software, database and network compatibility, and the development tools the software offers. Consider storage and picking techniques (random, zoned, pick to order, pick multiple orders), AIDC technologies (including radio frequency compatibility), and vendors the system has supported.
Look at features and reputation, then consider the price. Once you narrow your choice based on features, you will usually find those packages to be competitively priced. Charts in industry publications are a good resource. Seeking the right system supplier to develop a system definition or functional specification can be a lengthy and costly venture, but ultimately it will provide you with the tools that best meet your business needs.
One of the most common challenges faced by entry-level users is choosing a software printing package. Different barcode label software options are available. Comprehensive label design packages allow users to produce label layouts with a choice of barcode symbologies and a high degree of flexibility in text style, logos, lines, and boxes. You may also select packages optimized for compliance labeling or even mailing applications.
Do you need sophisticated graphics or only text, lines, and barcodes? Determine which features your application requires and which you simply want. Knowing what features you can do without will help you to quickly decide on the best package value. Considerations include your choice of operating system, availability of compliance formats, multi-user capability, and the ability to import graphics. Look at where your data will come from at print time. Some packages access databases residing in your computer or on your network. Others print fixed information or data that must be specified at print time.
Be sure the label software supports the capabilities of your printer. Remember, the software written to control a printer can only use the features that the manufacturer has engineered into that printer. A printer may be able to generate a barcode, but may be able to print only one size and font of human-readable text.
While ease of use and the ability to design and alter your label in-house are benefits, improper design changes can result in fines being assessed. Most software suppliers offer products with levels of operation, where a manager may have a full version of the software, while operators may change only a quantity and variable data.
Last, but not least, ask how long suppliers have been in the AIDC technologies business, how many packages of software they have sold, and what their support capabilities are. Cost for support is either incorporated into the original price of the system or must be paid as it is requested.
Carefully examine and compare all written warranties and vendor service plans. In the competitive AIDC market, the quality of service programs offered by both the equipment manufacturer and the reseller are determining factors in supplier selection for all except the most basic purchases. You need not compromise service to obtain the lowest price. A service-oriented VAR will ask you if you require additional support at the time of purchase and will outline available expertise and options. Reputable manufacturers provide technical support, maybe even toll free. Some go as far as offering an express replacement unit while your equipment is repaired. Solid suppliers do not want to see their equipment returned and will go the extra mile to assist you in selection, technical support, and repair.
Once you have a clear understanding of all your options and business requirements to meet current and future challenges, you will be on the path to system success. Incorporating the suggestions in this guideline into your implementation process will allow you to intelligently evaluate your options.