Mobile solutions for warehouse inventory management that use barcode technology will cut costs by automating workflows and improving workforce efficiency and data capture accuracy. When it comes to choosing barcode readers for your inventory management system, today’s technology offers many choices from hand-held scanners and mobile computers to smartphones and tablets that can be adapted with peripherals and add-ons. If you’re a small to medium–sized warehouse using a mid-range warehouse management system (WMS), which device offers the best combination of low-cost and effective scanning capability while serving the specific needs of your business?
With new Bluetooth–based peripherals, it’s fairly easy these days to turn smartphones and tablets into 1D barcode, 2D barcode and even RFID readers. This does not mean, however, that smartphones and tablets are always the best choice for the warehouse. Though they are evolving quickly, there are some limitations to these technologies when it comes to data capture. Here are some things you should consider when looking for a barcode reader to integrate with your warehouse inventory management system.
What inventory management software are you using?
Software for warehouse management systems varies in capability, customization and integration with barcode readers. When researching barcode readers for a WMS, it’s extremely important that you consult with your software vendor to find out what data capture devices integrate with their software. Also, find out whether or not the vendor offers device-specific mobile applications or if the software is cloud based. All of these things will influence your choice of data capture device.
Integration with new mobile applications
When it comes to integration with new technology and mobile apps that are coming onto the market, barcode scanners connected to smartphones and tablets are a far better choice than hand-held scanners and mobile computers, which require specific development time for integration. Keep in mind that today’s inventory management and asset tracking mobile apps are not ready for use at the enterprise level.
Who’s in charge of IT, and where is your database hosted?
The size of your IT department will greatly influence the type of barcode reader you choose for your WMS. Hand-held scanners and mobile computers tend to require more “hands on” management for upgrades, bug fixes and patches.
If you do not have an IT manager, smartphones and tablets may be a more viable option. Upgrades to the operating systems of smartphones and tablets are typically done automatically by the manufacturer via an Internet connection. This requires less IT staff on the part of the business owner. The flip side, however, is that you have less control over how and when the upgrades or patches take place. If your mobile device is upgraded and your server-based software is not, you may find that your smartphone or tablet is no longer compatible with the software for your WMS.
Typically, it makes more sense for companies using client/server-based software with a database that is hosted on a local network to use hand-held scanners or mobile computers, even though some client/server software is also compatible with smartphones and tables. This gives the IT team more control over how and when the hardware is updated or upgraded and allows them to coincide hardware upgrades with updates to the software and the inventory database, ensuring all parts of the WMS are compatible.
For companies hosting their WMS in the cloud, smartphones and tablets may be more practical because the software vendor is taking care of all the upgrades, patches and fixes automatically and at the same time — for the mobile apps on the hardware devices and for the software and the database in the cloud.
How much control do you want?
If security is an issue and your WMS needs to be kept behind closed doors, then smartphones and tablets are not a good option. Mobile computers have the ability to be integrated into very complex private networks. Smartphones and tablets are typically synced through a wireless network — which can be secure or open.
What is the size of your warehouse? What is the environment?
Although smartphones and tablets can be adapted for use in the warehouse with rubber and hard cases that offer light-to-moderate protection, hand-held scanners and mobile computers are still inherently more robust and better suited for warehouse environments because they are purpose-built for rugged applications. Most industrial-grade hand-held scanners and mobile computers are built with dust and water protection standards and can endure tumbles, drops to the concrete, liquid spills and extreme temperatures.
For warehouses that are doing high-volume inventory management, hand-held scanners and mobile computers offer the fastest scanning capability on the market. Some of the fastest industrial scanners can scan as much as 1,140 scans per second. Having said this, the general purpose industrial hand-held scanner or mobile computer and a barcode scanner that wirelessly connects to a smartphone and tablet using Bluetooth are relatively comparable when it comes to scanning speed: between 100 to 240 scans per second. This is at ranges of less than a foot and with clear, undamaged barcode labels.
For those who need the flexibility of being able to scan barcodes from a distance, barcode scanners that connect to your smartphone or tablet typically have a reading range of up to 30 inches. Hand-held scanners and mobile computers can read barcodes in a range up to 100 feet and more. In addition, they tend to do better at reading damaged or poorly printed barcodes.
For most, reading barcoded labels at a range of 30 feet or more is not typically necessary, though. Most barcodes are almost always read on items that have been just handled.
What kind of barcode is your system using?
With barcode scanners that connect to your smartphone or tablet, it’s now possible to read 1D and 2D barcodes, and even RFID tags, but they are not “purpose-built” for these specific uses. If you’re using a specific type of barcode with your WMS, then you may want to look into hardware devices that are custom built to read that barcode. In that case, hand-held scanners and mobile computers remain the better choice.
Battery Life and Life Cycle
Another important consideration is the battery life of your device. Once again, this varies greatly with make, model and usage. In general, though, hand-held scanners and mobile computers have a much longer battery life (can be up to a week) than barcode scanners connected to smartphones and tablets. In addition, hand-held scanners and mobile computers also typically have a longer life span — up to five years compared to one to three years for smartphone and tablet enabled devices.
What is your budget?
Pricing for data scanning hardware varies greatly, depending on the device’s functionality, capability, ruggedness, etc. As a ballpark estimate of average pricing, the general-purpose hand-held scanner for light-industrial to heavy-industrial use typically ranges from $500 to $3,400. A barcode scanner that wirelessly connects to a smartphone and tablet includes the cost of the barcode scanner with Bluetooth, which can range from $150 to $500, plus the price of the smartphone or tablet, which varies depending on the make and model. In addition, when using a smartphone or tablet, companies should also take into consideration the ongoing cost of the wireless carrier’s contract and the data plan. Remember also that companies going over their limit on data plans will rack up "overage" charges as well.
With so much new technology and innovation entering the market, the choice of data capture devices for warehouse management systems is growing exponentially, but the sheer number of devices on the market does not mean that any one device is right for every business. Choosing the right hardware means asking many questions, doing research, taking your budget into consideration and consulting with your software vendor to ensure compatibility. A barcode scanner that wirelessly connects to a smartphone and tablet may initially seem like the lowest-cost, best choice, but in the end, that simply may not be the case. Hand-held scanners and mobile computers may be a better option.
Plan ahead by making an assessment of your needs, researching the products on the market and their capabilities and talking to different vendors. In this way, you will ensure the best combination of low-cost and effective scanning capability that still meets your requirements for inventory management in the warehouse.
About ASAP Systems
ASAP Systems is a market leader in inventory management and asset tracking systems that use barcode and RFID technology with hand-held scanners, mobile computers, smart phones and tablets. ASAP Systems’ warehouse inventory management software helps improve profitability by eliminating manual data entry, paper files and forms and by automating records and other documents.
To learn more about ASAP Systems, please visit asapsystems.com.