When the first barcode was placed on a pack of chewing gum in the 1970s, few could have predicted that this same technology would become the backbone of some of the world’s furthest-reaching and most complex tracking systems, across a variety of industries. Whether it’s retail, manufacturing, medicine or entertainment; whether you’re a one-person Etsy shop or a multinational corporation; whether you already have an inventory/asset tracking system or you’re just starting out, you’ll be able to use barcodes to make life more simple, efficient and accurate.
But if you’re in the business of using barcodes, you’ll need a barcode scanner—or perhaps a fleet of them—for everyone involved in the scanning and tracking of inventory and assets (a practice that’s steadily on the rise, according to the recent State of Small Business Report), medicine bottles, concert tickets and more. Sure, smartphones have the ability to ape a scanner and read both 1D and 2D (or QR) codes, though that’s not always the best option. There are lots of things smartphones can do that a dedicated machine suited to that task can do better.
With that in mind, we’ve created a list of things to consider when buying a barcode scanner. Think about how your business will be using barcodes before making an investment—but know that the flexibility of most barcode-based systems helps many of these scanners take on a variety of tasks, in case your business pivots or changes its operations.
How much scanning will you do on a daily, weekly, monthly basis?
Do you plan on scanning barcodes a few times a day (perhaps around the office or warehouse), or will you be doing high-volume scanning, say in a retail or manufacturing setting? Some scanners, like pen or wand barcode scanners, have no moving parts and a small range, which is fine for light use. You’ll want something heavier duty (not to mention handier and sturdier), that can scan quickly and from a distance, if you are scanning hundreds or thousands of barcodes a day.
In what conditions will be you be scanning?
Sometimes you just need to scan an item laying on your desk—other times, warehouse workers will be scanning items from ladders, on their knees, and in other not-always-comfortable positions that require a versatile barcode reader. Scanners that can read from further away are also able to read bigger/longer barcodes— for example, some pen barcode scanners can only read barcodes that are 3 inches in length or shorter.
Another thing to consider is the conditions your barcodes will be in when it comes time to scan them. Some warehouses expose products and their barcodes to cold, heat, wind, dust and other factors that can affect the readability of the design. Certain readers—such as an omni-directional barcode scanner—can decode badly printed, torn, crumpled and otherwise damaged barcodes on products.
Will you scan wirelessly?
If you’re scanning items in a retail setting, you can probably go with a scanner that is wired directly to your database (remember: the barcode itself is nothing without corresponding information, such as price and stock, that you keep centralized somewhere). For greater flexibility, there are also wireless barcode scanners, which connect to your database using WiFi or Bluetooth technology.
There are a few different ways that a wireless scanner can help make workflow more efficient. In some retail or business settings, a wireless barcode scanner is helpful for scanning large, cumbersome items that might not fit on a conveyor belt. In manufacturing or medicine, it allows the people wielding the scanners to remain mobile, scanning all around the warehouse or hospital. And if you need to scan items out in the field, away from the office (i.e., fixed assets such as vehicles that are in a nearby garage), some scanners are able to save batches of data locally, for future upload to the database.
One clever way to use wireless technology on the go is to connect a wireless scanner (via Bluetooth) to a smartphone or tablet, and use that device to connect to the database, or the rest of the supply chain. This isn’t quite the same as using a smartphone as a direct scanner—more on that below.
Do you need a scanner that needs to be disinfected often?
Hospitals are constantly fighting not just the various infections and illnesses that plague our species, but also the threat of those ills spreading to other patients. These are known as healthcare associated infections, or HAIs. In the effort to stop the flow of bacteria, you’ll notice plenty of handwashing stations and antibacterial lotions throughout most hospitals. And if you need a barcode scanner in that setting—to help keep track of medications and other crucial patient information—you’ll also need a scanner that can stand up to frequent washing and disinfecting.
Certain models of scanners have handles that are treated specifically to stand up to disinfecting, and are built to last through repeated use. Look into a scanner with disinfectant-ready housing, to protect the unit as well as to withstand odor- and stain-causing bacteria.
1D or 2D barcodes?
For decades, linear or traditional barcodes were the only game in town. In 1994, the 2D barcode was born. These square codes hold substantially more information than 1D barcodes (thousands of characters worth as opposed to dozens), and do require a scanner that can read a markedly different pattern than what certain models are capable of.
It’s true that 2D barcodes have not been the revolution in barcoding that many thought they’d be, even with the advent of smartphones that can ostensibly read QR codes and connect users instantly to things like videos, calendar reminders and more information about a product generally. But not only do they have much greater functionality, they’re found everywhere from advertising billboards to movie tickets, and if you’re sending out items with 2D codes, you need a scanner that can read them—simple as that.
Can a smartphone work for you? Why or why not?
If you’re engaging in light scanning, a smartphone with a quality barcode scanning app/QR code reader can get the job done. It’s not recommended for the kind of heavy-duty scanning that takes place in most warehouses, but that’s up to the discretion of the business.
Keep in mind a few things about asking employees to use their personal smartphone devices (or even issuing them a work phone) as a scanner:
- B.Y.O.D. (Bring Your Own Device) may mean you’re relying on employees not to forget or break their own device in order to continue working smoothly—it also assumes that everyone has one, which simply isn’t true.
- Dedicated scanners and mobile computers are often designed to be used ruggedly: dropped, hit, disinfected, etc. They are also designed to scan from greater distances and to read information more quickly than smartphones. Succinctly put, they are made for the task.
- Smartphones require integration in the form of downloaded applications. Scanners don’t require adapters or drivers, and aren’t subject to battery issues, viruses or any other slowdowns that plague personal devices.
If these issues don’t bother you or your workflow, investigate smartphones as scanner option—or, as mentioned above, form a tag-team with a Bluetooth scanner and device.
There are a multitude of different barcode scanners, in different styles, with different capabilities, that can serve the needs of almost any business. Figure out what your barcode scanning needs are, and there’s no doubt you can find a scanner that meets those needs, and will also grow along with your business.
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