All bar-coded tool systems are not the same. You need sound criteria by which to evaluate the many options available. A good bar-coding system will reduce costs tremendously.

Bar coding, if done properly, will free you from cumbersome paperwork and its inherent inaccuracies. A good system can eliminate most, if not all, manual data entry from tool tracking operations.

Your system should be capable of paperless, effortless tool tracking and instantaneous reporting. You can account for nearly every item at all times by identifying most tools and equipment with bar-code labels and scanning them in or out with a portable pen. You can make real-time decisions with logical information screens, up-to-the-minute tool searches, and printed reports.

This technology brings user-friendliness, astounding accuracy rates, and the adaptive flexibility to make a change-over cost effective. Bar-coding technology is used so much, it lends itself well to contractors' growing needs for internal and external electronic information exchanges - or interfacing with other computer systems or networks.

The marketplace offers most industrial applications at least one or more affordable, glitch-free, shelf-ready bar-code programs that promise to save time, money, and hassle. For tools and equipment management applications, non-biased groups research, evaluate, and rank the various shelf-ready programs. The guidelines you see in the sidebar (on page 42) are a composite of criteria used by researchers at the Iowa State University Department of Civil and Construction Engineering and the Purdue University Building and Construction and Contracting Programs.

A good bar-coding system is not necessarily capital-intensive. It requires a computer and some hardware for reading and processing the bar-coded information. It also requires you to assign manufactured bar-code labels to tools, equipment, places, and even people.

Low-cost "do-it-yourself" bar-code printers are rarely flawless and can present chronic problems in an otherwise competent system. Assistant Professor E. Scott Condreay of Purdue University (West Lafayette, Ind.) says bar-code printing and verifying equipment can be expensive per unit marked unless used for large volumes. Condreay says when a scanner can't read a compatible label, it's most often because of a faulty bar code and not because of hardware or software deficiencies. Therefore, it is most often advisable to purchase high-quality preprinted bar-code labels from the system's manufacturer, who should guarantee their reliability.

One requirement that can make or break a bar-code system is that it be so user-friendly any employee with basic computer skills can easily operate it. This is essential for longevity in current company environments.

Learning curves are minimal or nonexistent with properly written software. If the interface is clunky or the program requires extensive training to use, it's likely the whole system will go to the dustbin as a result of staff changes.

Portability is also an important consideration. For example, is the bar-code scanner shirt-pocket sized or a more cumbersome unit? Does it require an AC source, or can it work for a reasonable length of time on batteries? Most field electricians wear gloves. Therefore, scanners with the high-density keypads that resemble something even a surgeon may have trouble operating are inappropriate.

Even systems with calculator-sized keypads may cause high error rates and user frustration. The fewer buttons and controls, the simpler it is for field employees to use. This means higher accuracy rates and no dread of discovering the unit was "accidentally" run over by a pickup truck.

A portable scanner needs to be easy to use whenever and wherever the tools and equipment need to be logged, checked, or checked out. So is it lightweight, pocket-sized, and protected from environmental elements? Will the unit retain the collected data, under field conditions, until that data can be downloaded into a computer?

Few environments are as harsh as oil fields in the Arctic Circle. Oil companies are now using inexpensive shelf-ready systems in exactly that environment.

"There's a tremendous need for an accurate tool and equipment management system up here in Prudhoe Bay," says Randy Eledge, a bar-code distributor in Anchorage, Alaska.

Grime, grease, and residue typical of the arctic oil fields will challenge the durability of the bar-code tags and portable scanners. As with all environments, the computer's software program must have a simple interface with "lots of ponies under the hood." A program must be comprehensive, flexible, and adaptive enough to work in the various situations the user will encounter.

"When you're talking about the kind of (domestic oil) production that takes place here, any downtime you may have looking for lost or misplaced tools and sorting through records quickly turns into a lot of dollars," says Eledge.

What Eledge did not say, but what contractors encounter time and time again is the safety issue. How many times have you seen an electrician or other employee perform an unsafe act after giving up on trying to locate the right tool-which you just shelled out a small fortune for last month? This problem crops up in respect to ladders, power tools, meters, safety harnesses, and many other types of equipment, and cuts hard into the bottom line-in more ways than any company should have to deal with.

A good bar-coding system for tools/equipment management will help you reduce: * The number of lost and stolen tools * Time wasted trying to locate lost or stolen items * Unnecessary replacement purchases * Paperwork and clerical time spent on recording and reporting * Confusion regarding maintenance needs of, and accessories for, items * Reporting errors

We compiled the following list from two universities-Purdue and Iowa State.

* Is it compatible with your existing computer or does it require an expensive upgrade?

* Does the software have the flexibility to grow with your company's needs? Will it interface with later upgraded systems? Does it need to be-and how easily can it be- customized?

* Under what conditions can it operate? What temperature ranges and environments must the scanner and labels endure?

* How much technical support could this system require once operating, and what type of technical support is available? Is emergency service available and at what charge? Can you quickly obtain replacement parts or additional features and at what charge?

* Will the system's scanner read more than one bar-code symbology? If so, do you have to do additional programming to make that happen?

* Does the system's maker also supply high-quality, certified, verified bar-code labels? Bar-code printing and verifying equipment requires economies of scale to be cost-effective. Also, if a scanner can't read a compatible label, it's most often because of a faulty bar code. Take care not to fall into the old trap of saving money at any cost. Make sure your system works reliably.

* What kind of accuracy rates can this system guarantee? Does it have an internal error-checking feature?

* Is there a limit to the number of categories and number of items the program can use? Is the program designed to operate multiple databases? Can you transfer your existing database into this system?

* Does it have information importing, exporting, and networking capabilities?

* Can it account for single to multiple items used by one or more people and/or projects?

* Can it track the maintenance histories and conditions of individual tools?

* Can it calculate the depreciation of tools and equipment?

* Does it offer optional security features?

* What other companies in your industry are using this system, and what has been their experience with this system?