Barcodes and the accompanying scanners revolutionized the way companies manage their inventory and assets and the efficiency of supply chain processes. In the past, organizations relied on painstaking inventory counts, handwritten or spreadsheet records and manual data entry in multiple systems.
Almost every sector and industry has assets and/or inventory that needs tracking. It's essential to know the location, amount and condition of assets and inventory at any given time. Has an item been sold? Is it sitting on a shelf? Is it checked out by an employee or being leased or rented to a customer? Some companies attempt to use spreadsheets to handle this type of tracking, which proves inconvenient and time-consuming to maintain. Spreadsheets are also fraught with inaccuracies regarding item statuses and quantities. As soon as an employee forgets to enter a sale or the use of any item, inventory balances are incorrect.
Barcodes and barcode scanners made labeling, tracking inventory and ordering new items easier than ever and more accurate. For example, a hospital can scan supplies as they arrive, and then scan them again when these items are used for patient care purposes. As they scan the item for use, it's deducted from the hospital's inventory.
As mobile phones developed ever greater capabilities, becoming smartphones, technology improved to the point that the camera on your iPhone or Android phone can scan barcodes. Many organizations seeking to adopt barcode technology now wonder if it’s possible and practical to use existing smartphones as barcode scanners. While a smartphone can in fact work as a barcode scanner, here are some important factors to consider when selecting the best barcode scanning technology for your business needs, environment and functionality requirements.
Compatibility of the Scanner App
Your company employees probably carry a wide variety of mobile phones. These smartphones can vary by brand, version and operating system, so the compatibility of a scanner app with each device is not guaranteed. Here are some questions you need to ask:
- Does the smartphone support the mobile application?
- Does the mobile app support Android and/or iOS?
- If using an iPhone, what version of iOS does the app support?
- Does the app support virtual keypads needed to enter in additional product data after scanning?
Answering these questions should help you determine whether or not using a smartphone is a practical possibility for your business needs. If so, this should guide you to find the most useful and widely compatible scanning app that will work for your business as well as the best device for the job.
Barcode Scanner Durability Requirements
Regardless of the business environment – be it a warehouse or busy hospital – human error can cause dropped or damaged hardware. This includes your barcode scanning tool. Therefore, when considering your scanning solution, take into account how durable it must be in order to be worthy of the investment. Replacing an unusable scanner can disrupt supply chain or management processes, so you must ensure your solution is durable enough to last in the working environment. If you’re considering using a smartphone, be sure it can withstand:
- Water – Do you need a waterproof phone or case?
- Falls – Can it withstand multiple drops to concrete or other hard surfaces?
- Shattering – Do you need a screen protector for increased durability?
- Extreme cold – What is the lowest operating temperature for the smartphone?
- Long work days – Will the battery life last the whole day?
Consider the working environment and possible issues that might cause damage to a mobile phone and choose a solution to combat that. There are many accessories for smartphones designed for industrial or outdoor environments such as rugged cases or companion sled scanners (to make scanning easier) that are resistant to water, dust, shattering and more. You may need to purchase specific products and add-ons to ensure a smartphone is a feasible solution. You may also need to consider using a conventional barcode scanner that is purpose-built for demanding work environments.
Efficiency is an important consideration for barcode scanning, especially if your operations require ongoing, regular use of scanners. A mobile phone might not be the most efficient way to scan barcodes. Most smartphones do have auto-focus capabilities nowadays, but low lighting, water or dust can interfere with reading the barcode correctly or efficiently. This might be okay if your company only scans barcodes a few times a day, but can significantly impede scan-heavy inventory and asset management operations.
Another consideration is the size of the items to be scanned. A smartphone can be awkward to hold, especially if you need to also hold up the item in order for the camera to effectively scan it. How many times a day your organization uses a scanner and efficiency are important to know before choosing your scanning solution, whether smartphone or conventional barcode scanners.
How does the app send information to your inventory control or asset management system? Does it use Wi-Fi, or do you need cellular phone service to update the system? Typically, a smartphone can connect to Wi-Fi, but not every business location has reliable internet service. You need to know that the barcode scanner app for a smartphone offers the connectivity you need.
You may need to use Bluetooth to update your data systems with each scan. One thing to consider is if this type of connectivity is included with the app or do you need to pay for it as an add-on option. It's also important that the app features data integration capabilities to track inventory for all sorts of purposes from billing to reorders.
Data Integration and Security
A crucial consideration when using a smartphone to scan and transmit data is whether or not your app works with your existing software systems, such as your inventory control or asset management software. If data integration is not possible with your chosen smartphone solution, then the data would remain on the phone only and could not automatically update the system, which means that using a smartphone as a barcode scanner is not feasible, and you will need to look at more traditional barcode scanning options. If integration is possible, it’s often best to have an experienced professional set up the integration to ensure proper data transfer and reduce the potential for errors that would render the data automation useless.
If scanned information is stored on a smartphone, how easy would it be for an unauthorized individual to gain the passcode and access company data? You want to make sure that you have a way to control the flow of any sensitive information from the phone into your company servers to ensure no one else has to access the data.
You know your employees are productive and dedicated, but it can be tempting to check messages (if using a personal phone), social media, email news or more over the course of the workday with a smartphone in hand. If you choose to use a smartphone as a barcode scanner, you may need a way to lock out the other apps either during work hours only or at all times.
It's essential that these phones don't offer a source of temptation to your staff. By locking out the other apps, you're removing the temptation for your employees to spend excess time on the phone doing other things than scanning items.
In conclusion, yes, your organization may be able to use a smartphone as a barcode scanner for your company operations, with specific product designs, apps and add-ons that can help get the job done. But though it’s possible to use a smartphone as a barcode scanner, your business requirements should dictate if that is a reasonable and productive option. It’s important to choose the barcode hardware that will maximize the effectiveness of barcode scanning capabilities: automated product identification and data entry. Consult with an expert at BarcodeShack to discuss the most important considerations for your scanning requirements, and determine whether a smartphone with appropriate accessories or an actual barcode scanner is the best option for your business.