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Way beyond bar codes

In its 40 years of business, Intermec has steadily diversified

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By Eric Fetters / Herald Writer
  • Steve Winter, Intermec's president and chief operating officer, speaks Friday at the company's 40th anniversary celebration.

    Eric Fetters / The Herald

    Steve Winter, Intermec's president and chief operating officer, speaks Friday at the company's 40th anniversary celebration.

EVERETT - Without the bar code revolution, Intermec Inc. probably would have died young.
Instead, employees of the Everett-based company celebrated the 40th anniversary of its founding Friday.
"It's a tremendous milestone when you think of it, especially for a technology company," said Steve Winter, Intermec's president and chief operating officer.
When he started the company in the mid-1970s, Intermec's annual sales were just more than $2 million.
Now the company employs 2,600 people around the world, and last year's annual sales approached $900 million.
"When you join a company and it's that small, you have hopes for the future and for growth. But to be approaching $1 billion - that wasn't even on our radar scope at the time," Winter said.
M. Ray Dilling, a former IBM executive, started Interface Mechanisms in 1966 based on an idea for a better way to feed data into computers. At the time, paper tape with programming code holes punched into it was the standard. Interface Mechanism produced a machine-readable printed code on paper tape instead.
The idea was good enough that Interface Mechanisms - shortened later to Intermec - attracted early investors and directors such as Bill Gates Sr. and C. Bagley Wright.
The early success wouldn't last, however. Intermec's dual-image tape was used in the newspaper industry for a while but otherwise was quickly eclipsed by other technology. By 1971, the company was short on cash and had an outdated product.
David Allais, who would later become the company's president, said the board of directors was ready to shut down the company. But Intermec's salvation came at the same time. A British company interested in marketing a library circulation system that used bar codes in books asked Intermec if its computer tape printers could be used to produce bar code labels instead.
"From the time we recognized what the bar code was and what it could do, it was clear it would be a mainstream technology," Allais said Friday. He's now chairman of Mukilteo's PathGuide Technologies.
In the next decades, bar codes went from being an "obscure curiosity" to a ubiquitous way to track and price almost all consumer goods. Intermec grew along with the boom, producing bar code scanners and printers and developing patented improvements to bar codes.
Winter, who grew up in Snohomish and Arlington, joked that the company's early headquarters in Mountlake Terrace, and later Lynnwood, left much to be desired.
"The thing that attracted me was not the building," he said. "But when I walked inside, what attracted me was the entrepreneurial spirit that existed."
He said that spirit has continued as Intermec designs more advanced mobile computers, bar code scanners and radio frequency identification technology. At Friday's event, Winter talked about the company's three newest products, including a bar code scanner that automatically focuses on a bar code, whether it's six inches away or 50 feet.
He then picked up that new scanner and successfully scanned a bar code from 110 feet away. Intermec officials also unveiled a mosaic that includes signatures from employees at all of the company's facilities around the globe.
Todd Glover, who joined in 1967 as Intermec's 14th employee, said the company's "always been a great place to work," which accounts for why it has more than 600 who've worked there for 15 years or more.
Having survived years of acquisitions, restructuring and changes in technology and markets, Winter said he's optimistic about Intermec's future, even after a disappointing third quarter and more pressure for competitors.
"Our legacy is what propels us forward," he said.
Reporter Eric Fetters: 425-339-3453 or



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