Guide to Managing Assets and Inventory Using Modern Technologies

Modern technologies: QR codes, NFC, mobile devices, smartphones, cloud can make your asset and inventory management process much more productive, simple and effecient.

Modern Technologies That Help With Inventory Management And Asset Tracking

Mobile technology coupled with QR codes can simplify your inventory management and asset tracking process and make it more efficient. Using mobile inventory management based on QR codes (or even regular barcodes), your employees can record inventory transactions in the field, away from the office computers. They will record transaction at the moment it happens by simply scanning QR code (or barcode) with a smartphone. Not only it gives you accurate real time snapshot of your inventory and assets, but also saves you money on purchasing scanning hardware. All your employees already have scanners (that is, smartphones) in their pockets.
In a previous article we described how businesses can efficiently manage inventory and assets using QR Codes and smartphones. Here we want to share several tips and practical advice on how to implement that type of a system starting from zero or moving from a spreadsheet or even paper notes.

1. Decide What To Track

Before you start doing anything, you need to decide what do you want to track: line items (that is part number, or SKU), or each item individually (that is, a unique serial number of each of the items). Initial data entry and QR codes that you generate and print will depend on your decision, so you should make this decision early in the process.

If you need to know how many items you have on hand in the warehouse(s), when and how many items have been used, when it is time to order more then you need to track items on the level of SKU....if you have the situation when you have a number of assets that you are using internally (they can be anything from office equipment and computers to work tools, to heavy drilling equipment or company vehicles), and these assets are not consumed during the use (like chemicals in a chemistry lab) - most likely you need to track each item individually.

The decision itself depends on your business process and what are you trying to accomplish by using inventory management software. If you need to know how many items you have on hand in the warehouse(s), when and how many items have been used, when it is time to order more then you need to track items on the level of SKU. This is most likely the case if you are selling the items, use them for service / repairs to your clients' equipment, use them for conducting your own work (e.g. chemicals in chemistry lab). In general this works best when your business requires you to use a number of items and then order more to replenish supply. This is a standard inventory management situation.

If you need to know where each individual item is, who has a particular item, when it will be returned then you need to track your items on the level of a serial number. For example, imagine a situation where you have several cameras that are exactly the same, except for a serial number. Employees are borrowing these cameras for the projects and returning back on project completion. You need to track each camera individually so that you know who borrowed what camera for what project, where it is located and when it will be returned. This is a situation of asset tracking.

In general, if you have the situation when you have a number of fixed assets that you are using internally (they can be anything from office equipment and computers to work tools, to heavy drilling equipment or company vehicles), and these assets are not consumed during the use (like chemicals in a chemistry lab) - most likely you need to track each item individually.

As a rule, businesses will have items of both types, and this is fine - track items that you sell or consume at the level of SKU, and track items that you are using internally at the level of a serial number.

2. Printing QR Codes

You decision on what to track will affect the way you are printing QR codes. If you are tracking items on the level of SKU, QR codes for the items with the same SKU will be the same. You can pre-print labels with QR codes for such items or order pre-printed labels. Then you attach/stick label on each item as it arrives in the warehouse. If your items have manufacturer's barcode, in most cases you can use it instead of a QR code. You still will be able to scan it with your smartphone and track the item.

If you are keeping consumable items in boxes or containers, it is sufficient to print one QR code label and stick it on the container. You do not need to produce separate labels for each item. You will then need to scan QR code each time you are taking item(s) from the container and when you are adding items. The same idea can be applied to a shelf in the warehouse, etc.

If you are tracking each item individually, you will need to print a unique QR code for each item. The good news are - after you had labeled all of your existing assets, you will rarely need to print new QR codes. The need in new codes will arise only ocassionally when you receive a new asset.

When printing QR code labels, you also need to consider these factors:
  1. Size
    As a rule, in order to scan QR code reliably, it should be at least 1 x 1 inches in size. You may need larger labels, depending on how much information you want to include into QR code. If you are ordering pre-printed labels, it is a good idea to expirement with the size in-house first.

  2. Material
    If your items are located inside, and especially if QR labels are short-lived (you are using them on consumable items that come and go), regular paper labels should work fine. If you intend to use labels for a while ( e.g. on the assets or on the containers / shelfs with consumable items) and / or if you need to use labeled items outside you might want to consider weather-resistant labels. For equipment that is always out in the field durable laminated QR code tags might work best.

  3. Printer
    If you are printing QR code labels in-house, you can use sheet labels like Avery with any regular printer. This is a good option if you need to pre-print multiple copies of the same label. You can also use printers that use rolls of labels, such as Dymo. This is good option for printing one label at a time.

  4. Print In-House or Order?
    If you do not want to spend time for printing QR code labels (especially initially, when you need to label all your inventory), outsourcing production of QR code labels is a viable option. You may encounter problems ordering labels from independent printer if you need to print unique labels for your items, but if you plan to use our QR Inventory software for inventory management, we can include production of QR code labels in your plan and accomodate different quantities, sizes and materials.

3. Software to Track Inventory and Assets

In order to implement inventory management and / or asset tracking system using QR codes and smartphones you need a software that will record and report changes and current state of your inventory, and mobile application that you will use for QR codes scanning. The software (usually web-based) and mobile application work together: software knows what to encode into QR code so that application will be able to read and process it, and mobile app knows what information to expect in QR code, and how to send information back to the web application.

It is important to note that you cannot download a generic QR code scanning application and expect it to do the job. Similarly, you cannot generate QR codes yourself using a free site and expect mobile app to process it in the way you want. These tools are for common tasks such generating / processing of QR codes for marketing purposes that contain web addresses. For creating inventory management system, you will need a software and mobile application that work together and were specifically created for this task, such as QR Inventory.

4. Initial Data and Inventory Count

Once you decided on how to track your data, you will need to enter or import your inventory / assets into the software, and set initial inventory count (if applicable). When you enter or import data, it is important to remember that you need a separate line item with a unique ID for each item you want to track. If you track items at the SKU / part number level, you will have one entry for each item with the same SKU. If you plan to track assets at the serial number level (that is, each item individually), you will need to create a separate line item for each asset you have. In this case, if, for example, you have 10 assets with the same SKU, you will need to create 10 line items -- one for each individual asset.

Some software systems will only have built-in transfer types (for example employee can check item in or out, but cannot transfer item to another employee, or to location other then office or warehouse). Others, such as QR Inventory, will allow you to transfer items between any locations and / or people as needed.

In order to track quantity and / or other parameters, you need a starting point. Therefore, after the items are entered or imported into a database and QR code labels are attached, the next step is to enter initial state of the items - it may be current inventory count for consumable items, current location of an asset, and anything else that you plan to track. At this stage of the process, having smartphone application is a big plus. Without an application, you would probably be working around the warehouse or office with printed list of items, recording quantity (or other parameters), and then entering these data manually in the software. With the application on the smartphone, you can work around with your smartphone instead, scan QR codes or barcodes on the items / packaging, and enter quantity or other required parameters - as you do it, data will be transferred to the central database.

5. Types of Inventory Transactions (In, Out, Transfer)

For some companies, it is important to know how many of each item they have in the warehouse(s), but there is no need to track an item once it leaves the warehouse. It is usually true if you are either selling the items, or using them for client's projects, or for your internal operations. You need to record items as they enter warehouse (to adjust quantity up), and as they leave warehouse if sold or used (to adjust quantity down). You might want to record through what channel you sell an item, or for which project it was used - but you don't need to worry about item itself once it is gone. If this is the case, transactions in and out of the warehouse will be sufficient for the situation. These types of transactions are standard and are available in any inventory management software.

In other cases, however, you need to keep track of items in various locations. There are multiple examples of this situation: you may need to keep track of office assets, leased equipment, equipment and assets that are in use on various remote job sites, and are moved from one site to another. If you are a service company, you may need to track an item from the warehouse to the service van, know what items each technician has on-hand and, perhaps what is installed on the client's site.

In this situation, it is important to also be able to transfer items between different locations and / or people, and be able to see a list of items at any location or with any employee / client. Not all inventory management software products allow for items transfer, so you need to verify that this option is available if you need it. Some software systems will only have built-in transfer types (for example employee can check item in or out, but cannot transfer item to another employee, or to location other then office or warehouse). Others, such as QR Inventory, will allow you to transfer items between any locations and / or people as needed.

6. Ready To Go

After you decided how to organize your inventory, entered it into the database, printed and attached QR code labels, entered initial inventory count, you are ready to go. An initial investment of time and money will pay off big time when your employees will not need to spend countless paid hours trying to manually reconcile inventory, your valuable assets won't get lost and you won't fail a project because you unexpectedly ran out of supplies or cannot locate necessary equipment.

 
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