People often ask me howThe NEWSidentifies trends or issues to discuss in some of our stories. My answer is always the same: It is like a puzzle. We meet a lot of people and listen to a lot of ideas and opinions. Something heard three months ago, coupled with something heard today, will resonate with something else we learn a couple of months from now. Then, voila! A light bulb turns on in somebody's head. The puzzle begins to come together.

My Aunt Theresa was a wiz at working those humongous 1,501-piece jigsaw puzzles; the kind that filled up an entire card table and would take mere mortals more than a month to finish. She could knock one out during a weekend while riding herd on two hellions and watching Darrel Waltrip whirl around a NASCAR track on the TV. I, on the other hand, am too impatient for jigsaw puzzles and my light bulb is sometimes a bit slow to power up. That's why I like to hang out with smart people. It makes my job easier.

In a period of 10 days, I spent time with leading groups of contractors, distributors, and manufacturers - the annual meetings of The Unified Group, the Heating, Airconditioning, and Refrigeration Distributors International (HARDI), and the Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute (ARI), to be specific. A common thread I picked up while listening, eavesdropping, and nosing around at all three meetings was on the subject of barcodes used for inventory control. Or, better said, not used for inventory control.

Barcodes are ubiquitous in our daily life. We see them on nearly everything we purchase, and in the HVAC industry, on nearly everything we work with, from fittings to equipment. But, do those vertical black lines on a white background actually do anything in your business?


I wrongly assumed that a contractor would likely never use barcode reading equipment in his or her business, until a contractor at a table-top discussion on software at The Unified Group meeting raised the question, "Do any of you use barcoding?" No one raised a hand, but it was obvious that one person at the table already did, or wanted to.

I wrongly assumed that almost all distributors and manufacturers were controlling inventory with barcodes. Many distributors do have barcode reading equipment and do enter the inventory on to their own shelves with the aid of the technology. Many manufacturers do the same in their own operations. However, the circle is not complete. Some barcodes from manufacturers to distributors actually have no real linkage. In other words, a factory may attach a barcode sticker to an item because they know the distributor wants the ability to track inventory in that manner. It doesn't necessarily mean the factory uses the same technology.


Inventory control is a complex process at best and a virtual nightmare at worst. Barcoding may not be the answer for all three links in the supply chain, but for some companies it is a vitally important aspect of the process. As contractors, distributors, and manufacturers see the value of linking their respective inventory systems to better serve customers, the concept of vendor managed inventory (VMI) will continue to creep into the industry. VMI is a concept that requires trust and true partnering in the supply chain. Not the kind of partnering relationship that has so often created winners and losers in its wake.

At some point, the barcode puzzle will be solved by the supply chain. Distributors and manufacturers will learn how to make effective use of the technology. Contractors will continue to join in the process as it proves effective and beneficial for their respective operations.

However, there is always one piece of the puzzle that falls on the floor and usually is found chewed up by the dog or vacuum cleaner. Even Aunt Theresa couldn't fix that problem. (I used to put one of the pieces in my pocket on our Sunday visits, just to watch her go crazy a few hours later.)

There is a distinct possibility that radio frequency identification (RFID) tags will displace barcodes by the time someone finds the last piece of the barcode puzzle.

Publication date: 11/20/2006