Inventory Management, Asset Tracking & Field Data Collection Using a Smartphone and Barcode Scanning

In recent decades, barcode scanning has become a cost-effective data capture technology for enhancing processes in virtually every industry and market. Low-cost scanning solutions improve performance and reliability in a wide range of enterprise activities and deliver benefits such as increased productivity, improved task efficiency, and reduced operational costs.Barcode Technology Integrated With Information Systems Can Reduce the Effort of Managing Physical ItemsWhen integrated into an information system, barcoding allows businesses to track merchandise and perform inventory management, asset tracking and field data collection. Inventory can be reconciled in a fraction of the time required for that of manual procedures. Key assets can be tracked by the location where they have been transferred to or by the personnel that have checked them out. Data collection can be performed with fewer errors and barcoding provides more accurate data while saving both time and costs.Combined with data-collection technology, bar codes provide a rapid, accurate, and efficient means to collect, process, transmit, record and manage data in a variety of industries including retail, warehouse management, medical equipment tracking, construction site equipment tracking, heavy equipment inspections (cranes, forklift), fire extinguisher inspections and fire alarm testing and inspections.Tracking inventory manually is a laborious process. With barcodes applied to each item in inventory, portable scanners can be used. Barcode inventory control provides accurate, real-time inventory updates. This allows a company the opportunity to reduce stock levels and thereby reduce carrying costs. It also reduces the time taken to collect data for purposes such as annual inventories. With improved efficiency, operating costs are lower.Reduced cost is the most obvious benefit of barcode data collection. In many cases, this cost savings alone is enough justification for implementing such a system. Reduced revenue losses resulting from data collection errors can however surpass the savings in labor costs.Although hard to measure, improved management and better decision making due to automated data collection technology could be the best benefit of a barcode system. A barcode system can easily gather information that would be difficult or impossible to gather in other ways. This allows managers to make fully informed decisions that can affect the direction of a department or company. Faster access to information goes hand in hand with better decision-making.A Broad Range of Barcode Types Exist to Meet the Needs of Many Industries A barcode is an optical machine-readable representation of data. The mapping between barcodes and the data that the barcode represents is called a symbology. The three primary categories of symbologies are linear (1D), stacked and matrix (2D). The most common barcodes represent data in the widths and the spacings of parallel lines, and are referred to as linear or 1D (1 dimensional) barcodes or symbologies. Linear barcodes are one dimensional, meaning that the unique information is in the horizontal plane and the same information is repeated vertically. The heights of the bars can be truncated without any lose of information. This allows a symbol with printing defects, such as spots or voids, to still be read. The higher the bar heights, the more probability that at least one path along the bar code will be readable.There are a number of 1D symbologies: UPC (numeric codes found on retail merchandise), Code 39 (numeric, uppercase letters and 7 special characters) and Code 128 (all 128 ASCII characters) are three of the more popular.Stacked barcodes are a set of linear bar codes stacked on top of each other. An example of a stacked symbology is the PDF417 format used on airline boarding passes.2D barcodes come in patterns of squares, dots, hexagons and other geometric patterns within images termed matrix codes or symbologies. Although 2D systems use symbols other than bars, they are also generally referred to as barcodes as well. Examples of 2D codes include semacodes which are optimized for use by cell phones and the similar QR codes originating out of Japan.A 1D barcode can only encode a number or string of characters which can be entered into a database, while a 2D barcode can actually hold the entire database. For example, you can embed an Excel spreadsheet into a 2D barcode, to use as a portable database. Most 2D symbologies can hold at least 2,000 characters per bar code. The typical 1D bar code contains about 10-20 characters.Not all Barcode Readers Can Read All Barcode TypesBarcode scanners are available with basically four types of readers:
(1) Laser,
(2) linear imagers/CCD,
(3) area imagers and
(4) two-dimensional CCD.The reader type, and software included, will determine what type of barcode symbologies can be read.A laser scanner sweeps a beam of light across the barcode in a straight line, reading a slice of the barcode light-dark patterns. Laser scanners can project a beam of light a long distance without diverging, or spreading out, as light from other sources do, enabling them to decode high density bar codes over wide ranges. This proves advantageous in applications that require scanning range flexibility, such as forklift operations where packages are often located on high shelves or hard-to-reach areas.Stacked linear symbologies are also optimized for laser scanning, with the laser making multiple passes across the barcode. 2-D symbologies cannot be read by a laser as there is typically no sweep pattern that can encompass the entire symbol. Laser scanning is the preferred technology in high-throughput areas that require motion insensitivity, such as supermarkets, where users can rapidly swipe item after item over a fixed scanner, and the required symbology is limited to 1D linear codes.Linear Imagers, also known as CCD barcode readers, use an array of LED’s and receptors to decode linear barcodes. Linear imager barcode scanners are better for reading damaged or poorly printed barcodes as well as barcodes under plastic film or covering and are ideal for a variety of applications including retail, shipping, receiving, and inventory. CCD readers can scan 1D and 1D stacked linear barcodes such as PDF417. Linear imagers use sensors to capture only a single row of pixels within the image. This allows linear imagers to decode a 1D bar code, but not entire images or 2D bar codes as an area imager can.Digital area imagers use LED light that illuminates the target bar code. A lens projects the image of the bar code onto a 2D array, and the light is converted to an electrical signal to construct the digital image. Decoder software in the imager locates the bar code within the image, and processes its data using advanced decoding algorithms. Area imagers use sensors with pixels arranged in a 2-dimensional grid (multiple rows) and can read 1D and 2D symbologies.Cell phones employ two-dimensional imaging scanners. They use a small video camera to capture an image of a bar code. Sophisticated digital image processing techniques decode the bar code. Video cameras use the same CCD technology as in a CCD bar code reader except that instead of having a single row of sensors, a video camera has hundreds of rows of sensors arranged in a two dimensional array so that they can generate an image.Most smart phone barcode readers can read 2D codes but not all of them can read and decode 1D codes. The factors for consideration here are whether the smartphone camera supports autofocus and whether it has a macro lens. The Android smart phone and some versions of Blackberry’s (the Tour, Storm and the 9700 but this may not be an exhaustive list) meet this criteria. As of the writing of this article, the iPhone does not have a camera lens with auto-focus but there is an app that is optimized to read the numeric UPC and EAN codes of retail products.There are some special purpose Windows Mobile/Pocket PC and to a lesser extent Palm OS devices that have barcode scanning capability. These are typically high-end rugged devices that cost in the $1500-$4000 price range. One of the companies in this space, Trimble, offers an Android version of their Trimble Nomad rugged handheld.Smartphones with Barcode Reading Capability Links Physical Assets to Wide Area Communication and Information NetworksSmart phones are well recognized as consumer electronic devices with a number of personal productivity applications and the Blackberry is vital for many to stay in contact with the office and with clients. Smartphones can also be a game changing tool for savvy businesses to optimize core operations. Smart phones communication capabilities with voice, text and email are obvious uses, however they can also function as data collection devices. Their ability to operate with the physical world via barcode scanning and image and voice capture, along with their ability to operate with the virtual world via web-enabled applications that can communicate with software services that exist in the “cloud”, offer some unique capability to securely create, update, disseminate and manage business information from anywhere and at anytime.Three functional areas that have broad applicability are inventory management, asset tracking and field data collection. Most businesses leverages one of these capabilities and many can benefit from all three. Most businesses have some form of inventory with retail and warehouse management being markets that can obviously benefit from an inventory management system. Most businesses have some form of assets and industries as diverse as health care and construction can benefit from an asset tracking system. Many businesses have the need to collect data from a location that is not tethered to a desk. This includes inspectors, field service personnel, home inspectors and installers. In many cases, the field data impacts safety and compliance. Electronic capture increases productivity, reduces errors and reduces oversights.Inventory Management is Concerned with What You Have, What You Need to Order and What You Cannot Account ForInventory management is concerned with maintaining optimal inventory levels to ensure that items are available when needed (for purchase by external customers or consumption by internal organizations). This includes knowing current stock levels, knowing which items (colors and sizes) are selling well and how much is unaccounted for.Inventory Control software lets you see what you sold, what you need to order and what should be left in stock. Barcode technology can be used to track stock accurately and update current stock levels. As shipments come in, warehouse workers scan bar code labels on items, cartons, or pallets. The scanned information is verified against purchase orders and sent to the inventory software for update.Retail Inventory Management Tracks Counts of Individual Items at the Point of Sale Retail inventory management is the process and methods used to keep track of the stock in a retail business. These methods control everything from ordering, shipping, receiving, tracking inventory, retail turn-over, and storage. The objective is to see what is selling and what is not. Products that spend more time on the shelf should be re-evaluated or discounted to get rid of them. Barcode inventory management allows retail businesses to know what they have and where it is. You’ll be able to receive, put away, move and ship out (to internal or external users) all the items you have in inventory. Barcodes represent a time efficient means to managing retail inventory, making sure that products are always removed from the system as soon as they are sold. The same is true for receiving shipments of new stock and performing audits regularly to make sure the computerized system is accurate with what is actually in stock. Smartphone technology and inventory management software can provide every business an affordable means to perform inventory management. Even part-time eBay businesses can benefit cost-effectively.Warehouse Management Tracks the In-flow, Inspection and Out-Flow of Palettes of Items A warehouse inventory management system handles all aspects of inventory movement, from receipt to shipping platform. The software tracks inventory based on each SKU (stock keeping unit) and its location within the warehouse. The system will also track all inventory changes, sales and receipts of each SKU.The inaccuracies of manual data recording and data entry are magnified as the number of transactions grows. Errors that are in your favor result in customer or vendor complaints and errors that are not in your favor may go unreported.A warehouse management system incorporates an inventory control application designed for routine cycle counting. This software will determine which inventory to count, track these counts, and report any inventory irregularities.A barcode warehouse management system offers efficiencies over manually accomplishing these tasks. Smartphones as part of a warehouse management system allows a single device to track inventory with the barcode capability, reorder stock using the web capability, and reconcile discrepancies with employees, suppliers and customers using the communication capabilities.Asset Tracking is Concerned with Knowing Where Your Equipment (Tools, Computers) IsAsset tracking refers to the ability to locate, identify, and assign assets to an organization, location or person. Assets are different than Inventory in that assets are re-used, and have a useful life of 12 months or more. Examples of assets would be things like torque wrenches, computers, copiers and forklifts. Their value is depreciated over time. Inventory items are consumed by the organization in the course of doing business.An asset tracking system provides the ability to know the location and status of the assets in the organization, and allows you to do analysis of those assets to determine current status, total utilization, depreciation levels and maintenance requirements.A barcode system can provide an efficient asset tracking means. Assets can be tracked by location or personnel. Tracking assets by location involves assigning assets to physical places like a room, a building, or a department or GPS coordinates.Both locations (rooms, construction sites) and personnel badges can be barcoded. Personnel badges can be scanned at checkout and check-in and locations can be scanned when an item is moved from location to another.Rapidly Tracking Medical Equipment in a Hospital Can Have Life-Saving ConsequencesHospitals routinely need to identify the location of medical equipment for inspections, repairs and for use in clinical procedures. Radio frequency identification (RFID) is touted as one means to accomplish this. A number of hospitals are evaluating this technology though to date there have been a limited number of deployments as there are a number of implementation considerations. The first step in such an implementation is to ensure that all equipment is identified in an asset tracking database. At this step alone, barcode and smartphone technology can be utilized with no further organizational disruption.Hospital employees can scan medical tools and equipment as they are used, immediately updating inventory and ensuring critical items are replaced as necessary to guarantee they are always on hand for urgent situations. This also accounts for tools after a procedure and prevents loss of expensive equipment. Doctors and nurses can scan patients’ wristbands to access information quickly, right at the point of care. This provides immediate visibility into test results, blood type, and other vital health data, so medical personnel can make informed decisions at bedside, reducing treatment and medication errors based on faulty information.An Inability to Track Tools at Multiple Construction Sites Can Be CostlyControlling expensive tools, heavy equipment, and material at a construction site is critical to a successful and profitable project. Managing the tools, equipment and materials at a site can be quite difficult and challenging. With an asset tracking system, tools can be tracked in and out of the tool crib, tool room or from site to site. Tools can be assigned to a location or site manager and critical tool maintenance dates can be managed all in one tool tracking system.Barcode technology coupled with asset management software allows construction material coming into a site to be tagged and the tag ID used to locate where on the site the material has to be stored. This technology has the potential to speed up delivery of material to the point of use. Using smartphone technology, this can be accomplished with a simple series of barcode scans, from a device that you already use in your everyday business. In some cases, a rugged device will be most appropriate for construction environments.Field Inspections and Data CollectionField data collection includes everything from collecting bridge, levee and offshore drilling rig inspection data across a region of a state, to performing food, drug and fire extinguisher inspections in a city, or servicing patients or medical equipment in a health care facility. A lot of field data collection, including safety inspections is captured using clipboard, pen and paper. In some cases the paper forms are later transcribed into a computer and in other cases this critical data is just archived as paper forms. In both cases, this manual process can be error-prone and it is laborious to generate reports and track trends. Barcode technology can be used to rapidly recall that portion of data that rarely changes and ensure that no items are missed when visiting a remote site. Electronic capture of field data introduces a tremendous amount of efficiency to the process and opens up a wealth of opportunity to use collected data to create safer better functioning environments.Inspecting Every Fire Extinguisher in Every Public Facility Every Month Can Be DauntingThe National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) permits electronic record keeping for fire extinguisher inspection data as an alternative to paper logs. The electronic capture of inspection data reduces the time to perform inspections, reduces time preparing reports, and ensures compliance by identifying units that were overlooked, tracks annual and multi-year maintenance schedules. Each piece of equipment is labeled with a barcode. Each location is also labeled with barcodes, so the user can scan the location, and then scan all the pieces of equipment that need inspection at that location. A smartphone application can issue simple prompts to assist with the inspection. Barcode scanners represent an efficient means to rapidly record data such as unit serial numbers and location identifiers. Smartphones with the appropriate software can be an excellent means to capture fire extinguisher inspection data electronically as well as fire alarm test and inspection data.Ensuring Heavy Equipment, Rig and Crane Inspections is Critical to Public Safety Equipment deployed in the field may require interval based inspections and scheduled maintenance. This will include heavy equipment such as cranes. When inspectors go on site, they normally read the crane’s serial number, find its record and then carry out the inspection and make manual notes. Then they send a copy back to the customer. With barcode technology, the inspector’s smartphone can automatically register the crane, so they can start to immediately go through the inspection criteria. Once they press save, the record transmits to the web site, where they can download appropriate certificates and send reports.SummaryBarcode scanning can deliver benefits such as increased productivity, reduced errors and reduced operational costs. Smartphone technology has the potential to deliver these benefits to budget constrained small businesses and to departments in larger organizations that are concerned about disruptions to enterprise-wide procedures. When coupled with the appropriate software, inventory management, asset tracking and field data collection can be performed efficiently.Retail inventory and warehouse management are areas that can benefit from efficient inventory capability. Asset tracking of equipment at construction sites where multiple companies are working in the same location, or with critical medical equipment where rapid determination of its location can save lives are important factors for some organizations. Rapid identification and recall of past results is important for mandated fire extinguisher inspections. Scanning asset identification tags on widely distributed heavy equipment such as cranes can help ensure that that the correct equipment was inspected / maintained by scheduled due dates.These are just a few examples to get you started thinking about what you can do with bar codes. Barcode systems routinely save companies money while improving quality, on-time performance, and other key business factors. Smartphones with barcode reading capability, voice capability and video capture capability represent a convergence of the virtual/information world, communications and the physical world.

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