Even before it begins taking form, a Simonton patio door has an identity. Or rather, it has several identities, because Simonton's computers already have memorized the bar codes that apply to the glass, sash and casing, and hardware going into the product. When completed, the door gets another bar code that ties the finished product to Simonton records confirming the glass installed, the vinyl color, the hardware, and special instructions. The data not only help Simonton for warranty or replacement purposes but also for something just as important: to ensure that the right product is getting loaded onto the right truck.

That's a lot of information that could be useful to the dealer that receives the order, particularly if the dealer in turn could supplement Simonton's bar code data with its own vital details regarding who ordered that patio door and into which home it will go. Until recently, many manufacturers of larger, non-retail building materials, such as windows and doors, haven't shared with pro dealers any of the fruits of the extensive tagging and database building that the manufacturers had created for their own purposes. Now there are signs that's changing. The first baby steps have typically involved providing Web access to tracking information and providing bare-bones bar-coding info for dealers to use when receiving shipments. The next steps, which would require much more sharing of electronic data, would speed the processing of shipments by dealers, help fulfill the chain of custody that's required for handling some green materials, and provide value in controlling product failures.

"The bar code?scanning process has been so effective internally that we're researching the potential for using it as we off-load at customer locations," says Jon Ladd, plant manager at Simonton's Vacaville, Calif., facility. Adds William Whiddon, a partner in Silver Spring, Md.?based consultancy Building Technology Inc.: "If I'm building a house, I should be able to track every bit of that house back to its origin, especially if I'm concerned with 'green' materials that are marketed as local or low-impact."

Reaping the Benefits

The logic that would compel dealers to get manufacturers' bar code data is often the same as why manufacturers started doing it: to streamline labor costs, eliminate order errors, and starkly reduce the time required to fill the order. "Our bar-coding process has allowed us to reduce manufacturing time to four days and the time for actually constructing the window to 30 to 90 minutes," says Art Steinhafel, COO for window and door manufacturer Peachtree Cos. Edward G. Huller, chairman of the board of the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals, says examples abound throughout the auto and consumer goods industries of companies employing and sharing identifier information to eliminate excess inventory and trim operating costs.

Indeed, many window and door companies that we contacted regard the competitive advantages in accuracy, service, and customization that they gain from their product-tagging work as so important that they declined to participate in this article, citing proprietary concerns.

For Wood-Mode, a high-end kitchen cabinet manufacturer in Kreamer, Pa., the advantage of unique identifiers involves both time and personnel. Wood-Mode has several different bar code systems, including one for its lumber supply. Bob Gessner, plant manager, tracks his inventory by assigning "packs" of graded lumber, say black walnut, black cherry, or white oak, and assigning a unique identifier to each pack. Gessner can successively scan each pack to monitor how many board-feet of lumber have been used. "It didn't shorten our lead time because the processing time is essentially the same, but it took us to a virtually paperless system," Gessner explains. "In the past, we would have a clerk manually track each order and another clerk manually enter data."

Both Wood-Mode and Atrium Windows and Doors also take advantage of bar codes to enable outsiders to trace their orders through a Web interface. Susan Ragan, director of sales for Reese Central Wholesale, says her Indianapolis-based company promotes that Web-tracking service heavily. "Allowing homeowners to record each product's manufacturing history is a significant selling feature ... not just to the consumers, but to the dealers who call on them," she says.

Adds Randy Stringfellow, director of materials for Atrium's North Carolina Division: "We talk with [dealers] all the time, and if they have issues with a product or if they get a series of customer complaints, our tracking process allows us to trace the problem back to its source and re-engineer [that part] of our manufacturing process." Therma-Tru uses its data in similar ways. "Should we have a suspect lot, we can trace it to the [dealer] and contact them to advise them of any product recalls," says Jed Reinhart, quality control manager at the door manufacturer's Roland, Okla., plant. Meanwhile, Silver Line Windows uses the tracking data to inform dealers of sales trends and customization trends.