Automatic identification and data capture technology has been a critical component of successful supply chain execution systems since the early 1970s. This technology typically comes in the form of wireless scanning but also includes wired scanners as well as voice and radio frequency identification (RFID). They are designed to improve accuracy, traceability, data collection, and speed throughput while also reducing costs. Selecting the correct scanning solution can be the most critical decision to ensuring success in your operations because scanning exists at the point of execution where physical tasks interface with the systematic.
The Technology is Settled
Wireless communication technology has dominated barcode scanning since its inception. Wireless scanners each have their own antennas and are designed to transmit scanned data and receive information from strategically placed wireless access points in a facility. A wireless site survey is typically performed to determine the optimal placement of access points required to ensure the reliability of the network.
And wireless networks are evolving and improving. We are still in the early stages of the rollout of 5G networks and devices. 5G technology is expected to further increase data transmission capacity along with near-instant transfer speeds. This technology has also demonstrated the ability to identify the physical location of devices with a high level of accuracy.
What are the Best Wireless Choices Today?
While RFID is clearly on the horizon, wireless scanning devices and barcodes continue to dominate the automatic identification and data capture landscape. RFID is still for early adopters.
With that context, selecting the best alternative comes down to assessing desired use cases. I have grouped them in the following categories:
The most logical place to start is to consider your operational and performance needs when selecting wireless scanning devices. For example, if you are considering or currently supporting voice picking, you will want to consider devices that allow you to attach a voice headset. These dual-purpose devices allow for executing tasks via voice or scanner when needed. If you are in an environment where operators pick product at a high speed, you will want a device capable of this responsiveness. Traditional handheld scanners, including those designed for the wrist or finger, are particularly efficient in this area.
With operations in mind, you will also want to consider form factor. Traditional handheld wireless scanners have a small screen, compact keyboard, and a scanner at the top of the device. Scanning simply involves pointing and “shooting” at the target (i.e., barcode). However, there are other form factors available for a variety of use cases. There are wireless scanners with larger screens and buttons designed to be fixed or mounted to lift trucks. In situations where operators need their hands free, wrist and ring (finger) scanners alleviate the burden of carrying and picking up/putting down handheld scanners.
Finally, over the past few years, we have seen an increase in inquiries regarding using handheld smart devices in warehouses. These are essentially the same as smartphones that are ubiquitous today. The major difference from the smartphone in your pocket is that these devices may have an attached scanner peripheral (in rare cases, just the camera is used), and there are software controls in place to restrict its usage outside of executing warehouse tasks. The appeal is entirely understandable. These devices are typically significantly cheaper than dedicated industrial scanners. They utilize Android or iOS operating systems, which shrinks the learning curve for most users. They have excellent battery life. They can be set-up with a cellular connection to allow them to be used outside of the warehouse – say in the truck yard, an off-site temporary storage warehouse, or at a delivery site. Eventually, that cellular connection will allow for 5G capabilities.
Again, the price point for these devices is very compelling. Losing the device or accidentally running it over with a forklift truck no longer becomes a major concern. But, as expected with a lower price, several concessions need to be accepted in terms of capability. Do you need devices that can support long-range scans? Think about scanning upper-level racking location barcodes from the floor at ranges that could exceed 20 feet. Handheld smart devices typically struggle in this regard. Reliable scan performance tends to be an issue – whether it is speed or accuracy. We usually find a higher number of no-scans or misreads compared to dedicated scanners.
In the vast majority of cases, the right solution normally includes a mix of wireless scanner devices. Receivers responsible for inspecting and checking in product benefit from larger screens that allow for the ability to view the entire contents of a purchase order. Wireless devices with a tablet or laptop form factor that set-up on mobile workstations are particularly efficient. Putaway operators who spend most of their time moving pallets to storage locations on their lift trucks benefit from truck-mounted units with long-range scanning capability. Case pickers may benefit from hands-free wrist or ring units that can accurately process short-range scans in rapid succession.
The cost of wireless scanning devices is relatively small compared to the investment in the advanced warehouse management and/or supply chain execution systems they support. For most users, the wireless scanning device is the primary (and often sole) interface to these systems. As such, the time required to evaluate and determine the correct wireless scanning solution(s) should not be taken in vain.
—Howard Turner, St. Onge Company