Barcode Inventory System: Using Mobile Phone Camera Vs Handheld Barcode Scanner
As a rule, using a smartphone for the inventory barcode scanning is a good choice for inventory management mobile applications. You do not need to purchase special barcode scanning hardware, which can be quite expensive. Company employees can use their own smartphones for tracking inventory and inventory stock look up. And you will significantly reduce a learning curve for your employees, since they already know how to use a smartphone they own.
However, mobile barcode scanning with a smartphone camera has some limitations, and there are situations when it is not a viable option. Such situations may include:
- High Volume Inventory Transactions. You can scan inventory in and out faster with a traditional barcode scanner than with a mobile phone camera. With a smartphone you need to focus the camera for each scan, which may add 1-2 seconds for scanning each barcode. This additional time makes no difference if your inventory transactions include just a few items. However, if you routinely need to process high volume inventory or assets transactions gain in the barcode scanning speed will be significant if you switch to a traditional handheld barcode scanner.
- Several Barcodes Close Together. Some inventory items have several barcodes placed close together (for example, an inventory item may have a SKU barcode and a lot number barcode next to each other). If this is the case, you won't be able to focus a mobile device camera on a specific barcode that you need, unless you close the other barcodes with a piece of paper. You will not have problems scanning a correct barcode with a handheld barcode scanner.
- Poorly Lit Warehouse Areas. Barcode scanners are more reliable than smartphone cameras in the low-light situations. If you need to process inventory transactions in the areas that do not have adequate lighting, using a handheld barcode scanner may be a better option.
- Inventory Items With Old 1D Barcodes. Mobile phones cameras can read QR codes or traditional UPC barcodes without problems. However, there are some older 1D barcodes that smartphone cameras cannot read. If your assets or inventory items are already labeled with this kind of barcodes, it may make sense to use a handheld barcode scanner rather than re-label assets or inventory.
Even if you prefer to use a handheld scanner for the barcode scanning, you may need to use a mobile device for other inventory and assets related tasks: processing inventory transactions, collecting and looking up data, filling out mobile forms, capturing images and signatures, etc. You can use either a regular smartphone or a mobile computer, with latter being significantly more expensive. This article describes how you can connect a handheld barcode scanner to the smartphones and tablets, what options do you have, and what are the other alternatives for processing of the high volume inventory transactions fast.
Using A Barcode Scanner With The Inventory Tracking Mobile Application
What Types Of Barcode Scanners You Can Use With A Smartphone / Inventory Mobile App
The most common types of barcode scanners on the market today are USB barcode scanners and bluetooth barcode scanners. USB scanners should be physically connected to the host via USB port, and therefore have very limited distance range. Bluetooth barcode scanners are cordless, and generally have a distance range of 30 - 40 feet (10 - 13 meters).
USB barcode scanners are generally less expensive, but are not a very good fit if you need to connect a barcode scanner to the mobile phone. You may be able to connect a USB barcode scanner to the android smartphone if you use a USB adapter, but it certainly will be less convenient than wireless bluetooth barcode scanner. You also will be limited to using the barcode scanner as a keyboard emulator (using so called "HID profile"), which, again, is not a very good option -- more on this later.
All in all, if you need to connect a barcode scanner to the mobile phone, bluetooth barcode scanners are the best choice.
Several barcode scanning hardware companies sell smartphone sleds - barcode scanners that attach directly to a smartphone and make it one device. However, you will need to buy a different sled for the iPhone and Android, while the same bluetooth barcode scanner will work with both. Inventory management mobile application that you are using will need to be natively integrated with the sled provider's API (e.g. mobile application that works with the Zebra sled won't work with the HoneyWell sled).
Connecting A Barcode Scanner To A Mobile Phone: Connection Modes
You can connect bluetooth barcode scanner to the android or iOS mobile devices in one of the following modes:
- HID - Human Interface Device - barcode scanner interacts with the smartphone or tablet as a keyboard. You need to activate a text field in the inventory management mobile application, then scan a barcode. Scanned data will appear in the text field as if you have typed this information using a keyboard.
- SPP - Serial Port Profile (Application Mode) - barcode scanner is natively integrated with the inventory management mobile application. Scanned data is read and processed directly by the mobile application.
Barcode scanners on the market may support either both modes or only HID mode. The cheaper barcode scanners often support only HID mode. It is important to note, that although the vendors of the barcode scanners tend to advertize it is a plus (works with any application, no integration required), HID mode is really not as good as it may sound. While it is true that it will work with any mobile application that expects data input in the text field, you will need to do extra navigation and clicks to get back to the input field and focus it before each scan. This actually negates the "fast scanning" effect. If your goal is to have a fast continuous mobile barcode scanning you really need a barcode scanner that supports SPP mode. SPP mode provides much faster barcode scanning and better user experience.
If you plan to use a bluetooth barcode scanner connected to a smartphone in SPP mode, you do need an inventory management mobile application which is natively integrated with the barcode scanner. Practically all vendors who sell bluetooth barcode scanners supporting SPP profile have an API for the direct integration with the mobile applications. Therefore, many barcode inventory management mobile applications will work only with the specific barcode scanners - the ones they are integrated with. When looking for the inventory management software with the mobile application, it is always a good idea to check with the vendor which barcode scanners are supported.
As of now, integration of iOS applications with the barcode scanner using vendor's API is the only choice. iOS inventory tracking mobile applications will usually support only a specific barcode scanner brand. Android applications can use either vendor's API or communicate with any bluetooth barcode scanner (or RFID scanner) via an Android bluetooth API. Therefore, some Android mobile applications (for example QR Inventory) will work with any bluetooth barcode scanner.
HID or SPP Barcode Scanner Mode -- Which Is Better
As always, choosing a barcode scanner mode depends on your specific situation. Here are pluses and minuses of both approaches:
Barcode Scanner In HID Mode -- Pluses
- Usually cheaper than barcode scanners that support SPP mode.
- You can scan in a barcode or QR code into the input field of any inventory management mobile application that expects an inventory item SKU / part number.
- You are not tied to any specific mobile application and barcode scanner brand combination.
Barcode Scanner In HID Mode -- Minuses
- You need to navigate back to the inventory SKU input field and put it into the focus (click or tap on the input field) for each scan. If your goal is a fast continuous barcode scanning you will not be able to achieve that with the barcode scanner in HID mode.
- With many barcode scanners in HID mode you will not be able to use a real keyboard while the barcode scanner is connected. It means that if you are scanning inventory in or out you cannot enter an item quantity until you disconnect the barcode scanner.
Barcode Scanner In SPP Mode -- Pluses
- Barcode scanners in SPP mode communicate directly with the inventory management mobile application, with no extra navigations or clicks.
- If you need to process a high volume inventory transaction all you need to do is scan inventory items one after another. Each inventory item will be instantly added to the transaction batch.
- You can use a mobile device keyboard when a barcode scanner is connected.
Barcode Scanner In SPP Mode -- Minuses
- Barcode scanners that support SPP mode tend to be more expensive.
- You need to use an inventory management mobile application which is natively integrated with the bluetooth barcode scanner. Many inventory management mobile applications do not have this capability.
- You may be restricted to a specific mobile application / barcode scanner brand combination.
Making Bluetooth Barcode Scanners Work With The Inventory Management Mobile Application
Barcode Scanner Using HID Profile
If you plan to use a bluetooth barcode scanner connected to a smartphone in HID mode, all you need to do is pair a barcode scanner with the smartphone. Once the barcode scanner is paired you can scan in inventory SKU / part numbers into the text input field of the inventory management mobile application.
In order to pair a bluetooth barcode scanner with the mobile device (iOS or Android), follow these steps:
- Turn on the barcode scanner
- Make sure that the barcode scanner is discoverable (unpaired from the other devices). If you had paired the barcode scanner with a different mobile device before, use vendor's instructions to unpair.
- Go to the mobile phone settings and turn bluetooth on.
- The mobile phone will start scanning for the available devices, and your barcode scanner should appear in the list of available bluetooth devices.
- Click on the barcode scanner listing and tap "Pair".
- Barcode scanner status should change to "paired" or "connected".
- After this is done, you can start using a paired barcode scanner with the inventory management mobile applications on this device.
Bluetooth Barcode Scanner Using SPP (Application) Profile
First thing you need is a mobile application natively integrated with the barcode scanner you are using, or with the bluetooth barcode scanners in general (Android mobile applications). Your further actions depend on the specific inventory management mobile application that you are using. Some mobile applications will guide you through the bluetooth barcode scanner pairing and connection process, some will expect you to first pair the barcode scanner yourself.
If an inventory management mobile application vendor does not provide the specific instructions on pairing and connecting a barcode scanner to the mobile device you will need to do pairing yourself. The first step would be to put a barcode scanner in the SPP mode. Follow the instructions of the barcode scanner vendor to do this. Usually you will need to scan a command barcode provided by the vendor.
After barcode scanner is in the SPP mode pair it with the mobile device in the same way as described in the HID mode section. The inventory management mobile application will either provide a button to connect or disconnect the barcode scanner, or a mobile application will connect the barcode scanner automatically after it is detected.
After the barcode scanner is paired and connected to the mobile device you can start using it for barcode scanning when processing inventory transactions in the mobile application.
Alternatives To Using Bluetooth Barcode Scanners -- NFC Tags
If you need a fast continuous barcode scanning with the inventory management mobile application, connecting a bluetooth barcode scanner to the mobile device is not your only option. You can use NFC tags that can be scanned by the smartphones, now both Android and iPhone (iPhone supports NFC tags reading starting with iPhone 7). You can find more information on NFC and its use in the inventory and asset tracking in this blog article, and this article. In short, NFC tags are scanned by bringing a smartphone close (within an inch) to the tagged object. You do not need to click and focus a smartphone camera to scan. The scanning speed is comparable or even faster than a scanning speed of a handheld barcode scanner.
NFC tags are slightly more expensive than the QR code labels, and harder to produce - but you won't need to spend money on purchasing barcode scanners for all employees who are dealing with inventory management, so NFC tags may be a feasible option.
Barcode Inventory Tracking With The Mobile Inventory Systems: Takeaways
If you need to combine mobile inventory management with an advanced barcode scanning, using bluetooth barcode scanner connected to a mobile device is a good option. You will be able to do fast uninterrupted barcoe scanning and still use all the capabilities of the mobile inventory management.
Combination of an inventory management mobile application with a barcode scanner connected to a smartphone in a HID mode is possible but not very useful. The necessity to navigate to the text input field and activate it for each scan negates the effect of the fast barcode scanning. It is likely that you will also not be able to use a mobile device keyboard when the barcode scanner is connected (depends on the scanner brand), which is very inconvenient if you need to scan in inventory, and then enter quantity. You may find that barcode scanning with a smartphone camera actually provides faster barcode scanning and better user experience.
If you are after faster and more sophisticated barcode scanning, use a barcode scanner that supports SPP (application) mode. This way you will be able to do fast uninterrupted barcode scanning. You will also need an inventory management mobile application that supports native integration with the bluetooth barcode scanners. Keep in mind that the mobile applications for the iOS platform (iPhones or iPads) should be integrated separately with each barcode scanner brand. If you are using iOS devices, do not purchase barcode scanners before selecting an inventory management software and finding out which barcode scanners are supported.
Android applications in principle can be made to work with any bluetooth barcode scanner. Some of them (such as QR Inventory) do that, while others can work only with the specific barcode scanner brands. It is alaways a good idea to select an inventory management software first and then buy a barcode scanner recommended by the vendor.
Handheld barcode scanners are not the only way to achieve a fast continuous barcode scanning when processing high volume inventory transactions in the mobile application. You can use NFC tags to achieve the same result.