A lot of things go into collecting wine. Beautiful cellars with dramatic show cases, cunning social jiu-jitsu that lands you on that exclusive distribution list, fun social events comparing wine knowledge with a fellow collector. But one of the more mundane elements is individually identifying every bottle in your collection. Each bottle is truly unique and takes on a life of its own after leaving the winery. Currently, the most practical and convenient way to keep one bottle distinctly identifiable is to give it a number and put that number on the bottle… a.k.a. “barcode” it.
This fundamental tracking tool is not to be taken lightly. Provenance is important, even when it’s the micro provenance of your own collection as it moves from your home cellar to a storage facility, from one location to another. You want to know where they are at all time and always know from what source they came.
Recently we made a commitment at Vinfolio to only suggest, supply and support a barcode printing solution that we use for our own internal storage operations. Below is a summary of the thought process that went behind this decision.
Direct Thermal (DT) barcodes are the kind that do not require ink. This is because the label is temperature sensitive and takes on the image directly (thus the “Direct” in Direct Thermal) from the print heads. You have seen this type of printer often if you ask for a receipt after an in store purchase. You’ve also seen that when you stuff that receipt in your pocket, then find it a month later it is faded to the point you can no longer read it. DYMO and other consumer quality printers use this technology. It is very desirable to have a small lightweight printer with no requirement for ink. The only problem is that all DT barcodes fade with time. Even if you keep the barcode in a regulated environment like a wine cellar, at most the impression will last a few years before it fades to white again. Obviously this is not ideal for wine where laying down a bottle for 5-20 years is commonplace.
Thermal Transfer (TT) barcodes are the kind that require ink. Instead of using heat to change the barcode, the printer uses heat to melt ink and leave it on the barcode. TT barcodes last for decades and maintain their crisp look all the while (which is important to scanning them with a barcode reader.) The downside of the TT barcodes is that the printer must be bulkier to house the ink, and that you must buy ink to print. We have been using TT barcodes in our warehouse for 10 years now because if we didn’t we would have half a million bottles with labels we could not read. Any serious collector would never sacrifice the fundamental reason for barcoding just because they don’t want to buy a few rolls of ink. This is one key reason why we decided to only support TT barcoding solutions for VinCellar users.
Software does not just happen, it takes engineering resources to create, test, and keep it up to date. Until this year we had a software based solution that was difficult to manage. Security updates, multiple printer types, and even multiple labels (switching printers from barcodes to case labels) was requiring a few days a month in valuable engineering work time. Also, more than half of our customer base uses Apple computers so we ended up supporting software on multiple systems. This was a lot of time and effort for what was really a small group of users that printed their own barcodes instead of ordering them from us (or having the wine sent to our warehouse for processing.) On top of all this we are aggressively moving to mobile and fixing our printing software so it will continue to run on a Windows XP system was a tad demoralizing. We decided to go with what we feel is an ingenious idea: a software free solution. What that means is that we created a solution where the raw printing commands are sent directly to the printer without any software or proprietary print driver in-between. The drawback is that users have to go through a somewhat complex set up process to get the printer working. But, once completed, the printer prints correctly every time, no updates necessary. We rolled out this solution internally before even showing it to customers and haven’t had a software printing issue since.
Hardware decisions can be mind-boggling for the uninitiated. We decided to only recommend the exact same Zebra printer that we use in our warehouse, where we barcode hundreds of bottles every day. In ten years of storage we have yet to have one of our printers break or need repair. This printer is an industry workhorse and we have been able to custom order our labels to be the specific size we think works the best (1-5/8” x 2″) and a custom glue that is sticky enough to last but not so sticky that you can’t peel it off cleanly.
So these are the reasons behind our decision. We are excited about moving to mobile and rest assured that barcode printing will be a feature we bring along. There is a whole lot more to discuss about this topic like RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) and NFC (Near Field Communication) as well as emerging bottle level tagging that is occurring at some forward thinking wineries. But let’s save that for another post.