The business world has been transformed by all kinds of emerging technology, from cloud computing to smartphone applications that track productivity and improve communication. But arguably the most transformative technology is one that has already been around for generations: The barcode scanner.
Business owners that rely on a global supply chain to move their inventory from warehouses to the homes of customers understand that the barcode scanner has been integral to tracking, stock management, and other crucial aspects of their business model.
But barcode scanners aren’t just for tracking retail items anymore. They’re also used in entertainment, education, healthcare, government services, and so much more.
Without scanners, businesses and organizations across a wealth of industries would lack the transparency, accountability, and systemization necessary to compete in the rapidly changing ecosystem of the global economy.
Here’s a rundown of what you need to know about barcode scanners and how they are impacting businesses everywhere.
Not all barcode scanners scan alike
Different kinds of scanning technology power the most-often used barcode scanners.
Perhaps the two most common methods of scanning a 1D barcode (also known as a traditional barcode—the pattern of lines and spaces you recognize on grocery items everywhere) are laser scanning and linear imaging.
Laser scanners use, not surprisingly, a laser to read a barcode from up to 3.5 feet away. These are typically used by grocery stores and other retailers.
Linear imaging scanners essentially take a picture of the barcode in order to read it. These are best used in situations where barcode labels may be ripped, worn-down, or otherwise difficult for a laser to read. It’s considered the more durable of the barcode scanning options.
2D barcode scanners also use imaging to read a 2D code (these are the boxy, grid-like barcodes that you see often represented as QR codes). The difference is that 2D barcodes hold a wealth of information compared to 1D codes, and 2D scanners can capture that information more quickly and accurately, making them the future of the space.
1D vs. 2D scanners: A breakdown
For decades, businesses the world over relied almost exclusively on 1D barcodes. Even when 2D barcodes first appeared on the scene, adoption of the superior technology was slow—QR codes as a means of promoting your business came and went quickly in the mid-2000s.
That’s because 1D barcodes and their scanners were (and continue to be) massively useful in their own right. 1D scanners simply scan codes horizontally, which means that the information inside the code is limited to about 20-25 characters. These characters will typically correspond to a number in a database that tells the system how much to charge you for the item.
On the other hand, 2D barcodes are becoming increasingly popular because they can hold thousands of characters, due to being omnidirectional. They can be used to carry images, website URLs, and other helpful information, making them a sort of self-contained information packet.
2D scanners have other benefits, including: increased read distance, OCR font support, digital image capture, mobile couponing, and more.
Scanner connectivity is crucial
One often-overlooked aspect of barcode scanners is how they connect to your larger database, which includes inventory stock levels and prices.
Traditionally, scanners, like many pieces of similar technology, are attached to a computer with a cable or cord. These are still the most common type of scanners, and the least expensive.
There are, however, drawbacks to them: Most scanner failures come from issues with a cable, and you aren’t able to move around with your scanner to scan hard-to-reach or distant objects.
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A common option for businesses nowadays is to use barcode scanners that connect to the database via Bluetooth, uploading data in real-time. The only drawback here is that they must be within range of the database, which makes them only a slight upgrade from a mobility standpoint.
The most mobile and versatile scanners are connected to the system by WiFi connection. These scanners hold barcode information that they read in their internal memory, allowing for batch uploads with higher processing power than traditional corded readers. These are the most expensive but most impressive scanners available.
Scanner styles are proliferating
When you think of a barcode scanner, you likely think of the “gun” model—a handheld scanner with a trigger that you see at checkout counters. But as scanner technology improves, lots of new styles are emerging as consistent options for unique business models.
For example, there are wearable scanners that fit over a user’s finger or around their wrist. (Also be on the lookout for scanners in goggles or glasses.) There are pocket-sized scanners, such as pen laser scanners. There are mobile computers or smartphones with built-in barcode scanning technology. And in warehouse or industrial settings, there are fixed location scanners which are best for scanning vast numbers of items over the course of a shift or day.
Used by businesses big and small
We understand why big businesses like Amazon and Wal-Mart use barcodes: It’s a flexible technology that helps giants of industry track individual orders across the country and globe.
But barcodes and their scanners aren’t just for big business. Small and medium-sized companies, even as small as one-person operations, can use barcode scanners to stay organized and on top of every order sent out to clients, or every asset they’ve invested in that needs to be maintained, depreciated, and then disposed of. (More on that in a second.)
Barcode scanners are used to label medications and vials in hospitals; track digital learning tools in education settings; read tickets at entrances to sporting or music events; track expensive, taxpayer-funded investments at government offices; trace the journey of an Etsy purchase; ensure accountability on the part of employees at small businesses; and so much more.
How should your business get started with them?
If you’re intrigued by the concept of barcode scanners and want to know how they could be of use to your business or organization, consider two common starting points: Inventory tracking and asset management.
Barcodes affixed to inventory helps businesses trace the route of their supply chain to identify friction points and maintain visibility, as well as balance inventory turnover ratio and ensure automatic re-orders of items that are due to run out soon or have historically seen surges in demand.
Additionally, businesses also use them to track the lifecycle of fixed assets, the long-term investments companies make to help turn a profit, such as computers, vehicles, or heavy machinery. These items need to be written off, maintained, and disposed of eventually—tasks that are made infinitely easier when barcodes form the basis of a fixed asset management system.
This list should give you an idea of what barcodes can and should do for your business, no matter what your size or goals. Scanners are useful, easy to maintain, and even fun—don’t overlook the role they can play for you.
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