Our Q&A sessions on using barcode scanning for the inventory management and asset tracking draw a lot of questions on the barcode scanning equipment and barcode scanning mobile applications. Participants were interested in the differences, advantages and drawbacks of using barcode scanning mobile application for the inventory management vs using traditional barcode scanners or mobile computers with built-in barcode scanner. Other common questions were about QR codes vs barcodes, inventory and assets labeling and data entry. We thought that these questions (and answers) are worth sharing so that others could benefit from this information. This article sums up questions on the barcode scanning equipment and barcode scanning mobile applications. Overview of the other topics will follow later.
I want to use QR codes for the inventory tracking. Should I use a barcode scanner mobile app or a handheld barcode scanner to scan inventory items in and out?
You can use either a barcode scanner mobile app or a traditional handheld barcode scanner to manage inventory with the QR codes. If you want to use a regular barcode scanner you need to make sure that it is capable of reading 2D barcodes. Laser barcode scanners cannot do this, they only read 1D barcodes, such as UPC barcodes. Scanners that can read both types of barcodes are called 2D Imager. Their cost is typically starts from $300.00 per unit.
You also can use a smartphone with a barcode scanner mobile app. Phone cameras will read different types of 1D and 2D barcodes, including UPC barcodes and QR codes. However, some of the older 1D barcode types cannot be read by a smartphone camera reliably. If you want to use manufacturer’s barcodes, we recommend that you download one of the few free barcode reader mobile applications and see if that specific barcode is readable.
Do I need a special software to use with a barcode scanner? With a smartphone?
Yes, you do need a software to manage inventory and assets. Neither a regular barcode scanner, nor a smartphone will manage assets and inventory for you just because they can scan a barcode. Barcode scanning is used for the accurate and fast inventory data entry into the software. Instead of typing in inventory SKU / part numer or asset serial number manually you can scan it in using a barcode scanner or a smartphone.
If you already have an inventory management software you do not need anything additional to start using a barcode scanner. Most barcode scanners support HID interface that emulates a keyboard. It means that the decoded data are fed into the computer or a smartphone as if you would type this information using keyboard. In practical terms, you can put cursor in the field and instead of typing data scan the same info in using a barcode scanner. Information will include whatever is encoded in your barcode or a QR code - usually it will be an inventory item SKU / part number, or an asset serial number. Please, keep in mind that not all barcode scanners work like this. There are also serial (RS-232) scanners that feed data to a program that interprets them. For this types of scanners you do need a special software that integrates with the barcode scanner.
It is, however, much more beneficial if your software is "barcode scanner aware." It will speed up your work. For example, instead of scanning inventory SKU and typing the rest of the information manually, an inventory management software can allow you to continuously scan multiple items, add items to the inventory transaction batch as they are scanned, and submit all svanned inventory in a single inventory transaction. Inventory management software can also fetch inventory or asset data from the database or parse information encoded in the QR code and fill out multiple fields for you at once.
If you are using a smartphone for the inventory scanning you do need a mobile application linked to a desktop or cloud inventory management software. You cannot use a "random" free barcode scanner mobile application. These mobile applications do not know what to do with the inventory SKU that you just scanned. They will just show you a decoded barcode data on the screen so that you could decide what to do with it.
If you want to use a smartphone as a barcode scanner, an inventory tracking mobile application must be integrated with the cloud or desktop inventory software and feed the information in a format that inventory software expects. Some of asset / inventory management software (e.g. QR Inventory) come with integrated smartphone application capable of barcodes and QR codes scanning.
How far should I be from the computer to scan inventory or assets with the barcode scanner or a smartphone?
If you are using a regular barcode scanner connected to the computer you should be very close. Some barcode scanners need to be physically connected to the computer. In this case you need to be at the computer to scan a QR- or barcode on the inventory items. Cordless barcode scanners connect to the computer via a bluetooth and usually have a range of about 30 ft. There are some barcode scanners that can give you a range of 200 - 300 ft.
Smartphones have a definite advantage here. You do not need to be anywhere close to the computer to use a smartphone as a barcode scanner. You do not even need data connection to process an inventory transaction. You can add items to the inventory transaction on the mobile phone and submit a transaction to the central database when data connection becomes available.
Why would I use a smartphone instead of a barcode scanner?
There are pluses and minuses in both approaches.
Barcode scanners scan faster (no need for the camera to focus), and can be more reliable in a poorly lit areas. Therefore, if you need to process a high volume inventory transaction in the vicinity of the computer a regular barcode scanner may be a better choice.
In all other situations smartphones give you much more options. Some of the advantages are:
- No additional hardware cost (company employees can use their own smartphones). It is especially beneficial if many people in your organization are handling assets or inventory transactions. Each person already has a barcode scanner in his or her pocket.
- You can use smartphones anywhere. This makes smartphones especially valuable for the field inventory and assets tracking: on the job site, at a customer's location, on the shop floor - away from the office computer.
- Using a smartphone and inventory mobile application you can do much more than just scan inventory in and out. You can enter additional information to accompany inventory transactions, fill out a mobile form, take photos and collect signatures using the same smartphone application.
- Smartphones can automatically record and transmit GPS location of the inventory transaction.
- Field technicians can also look up asset details, inventory stock and location and other required information on a smartphone by scanning a QR code or barcode.
You can read more on the advantages of using smartphones vs traditional barcode scanners for an asset and inventory tracking in this article.
What about mobile computers? How are they different from the barcode scanners or smartphones?
Mobile computers are much more sophisticated devices then barcode scanners. In addition to the barcode scanning capability they also have a screen to display and enter information, their own OS and internal storage. Mobile computers are usually connected to a network via Wi-Fi or WAN and therefore they can be used in the field, away from the office computers.
Mobile computers also need a software which will connect to your inventory or asset management system to exchange data.
In this regards mobile computers are very similar to the smartphones (in fact, you can consider a smartphone to be a kind of a mobile computer). The difference is in the price: it is much more expensive to supply all field employees with the mobile computers (the price of each is $1,700.00 +) then let them use their own smartphones. Software for the mobile computers also tends to be more expensive.
Can I use a barcode scanner with the QR Inventory software?
Originally, QR Inventory software was developed with the samrtphones in mind, and here is the reason why.
The main ideas behind the QR Inventory software are:
- To allow for the fast and error free inventory and assets entry using barcode scanning, regardless of whether it needs to be done in the office or in the field.
- To allow any business to adapt a QR Inventory software to it's business model and workflow. QR Inventory software achieves this goal by allowing businesses define what they want to track, record and report via the web dashboard.
These options are not possible when using traditional barcode scanners. You cannot use a barcode scanner in the field, away from the computer it feeds data to. You also do not have a screen to enter information on the inventory transaction, or review inventory stock, locations and details. Therefore, QR Inventory software uses smartphones for the processing inventory transactions.
However, there are situations in which using a smartphone camera for the barcode scanning is not a good option. For example, if you need to process high volume inventory transactions and need fast scanning, if inventory is labeled with the older barcodes that are not reliably readable with a smartphone camera, if you need to scan barcodes in the poorly lit areas, or if you have several barcodes close together, using a barcode scanner is a much better option. In such situation you can use a bluetooth barcode scanner connected to a smartphone. QR Inventory mobile application is now natively integrated with the bluetooth barcode scanners to provide fast, reliable scanning for the situations when a smartphone scanning is not a reliable option.