Before answering that question, I would like to clarify the term “scanner.” Most people refer to any device that is able to read a barcode as a scanner. That is true, but many of the scanners deployed in a warehousing operation are actually mobile computers with scanners built in. The scanner is just the imaging component on the front of the device that projects a line, dot or crosshatch to read the barcode. Think of it like your smartphone. Yeah, we call it a phone, but it is also a mobile computer, camera, navigation device, etc.
- One-dimensional (1D) barcodes are the traditional ones that you have seen on product labels for years. They are called 1D because the reader picks up the individual bar widths and distance between the bars (width dimension) and converts that to an alpha-numeric entry. The height of the barcode is just there to provide more surface to scan and therefore has no bearing on the data encoded. Typical data encoded on 1D barcodes are things like label serial numbers, part numbers, reject codes, employee IDs, etc.
- Two-dimensional (2D) barcodes contain data in both the width and height dimensions. The scanner or digital imager in this case reads both the width and the height data encoded. 2D barcodes are able to contain more information like addresses, website information, quality inspection history, production line data, etc.
- Within 1D and 2D formats, there are different coding standards. You may have heard terms like Interleaved 2 of 5, 3 of 9, UPC EAN, QR and so on. Essentially, these formats are the rules behind how data gets converted to a barcode and subsequently read by the scanner/imager.
Since all “scanners” employ an imager, we will discuss some of the options. There are numerous imaging technologies, but the ones below are the common options for scanning barcodes in a manufacturing or warehousing environment.
- Laser scanners are most commonly deployed in a manufacturing facility. They typically are utilized to read one-dimensional barcodes by projecting a single laser line. Laser scanners are also very fast at reading barcodes. They can be deployed in high read rate applications like fixed scanning on a conveyor belt.
- Digital or area imagers are becoming more cost effective, but are still more expensive than laser scanners. They can read both 1D and 2D barcodes. Imagers typically project a dot and once the read is activated (typically a trigger pull), it will take an image of the barcode and translate it. Some also have the capability to read codes on screens.
Typical laser scanners and digital imagers have the capability to read images up to 18 inches away. They can also be configured with a long range read capability. This expanded read distance will increase the cost of the reader, but will allow the user to scan barcodes up to 20 and sometimes 30 feet away. Obviously, the barcode image will need to be larger. Long distance read capability is good for barcoded, ceiling hung floor location identification placards.
Now that we have discussed some of the technology behind the scenes, we can discuss the end use devices.
A scanner-only device is a good solution when the reader will be tethered to a PC or tablet. The PC or tablet runs the application that is receiving the scanned data. Scanners can be USB tethered (cord) or wireless Bluetooth tethered (cordless) back to the device running the application. This configuration tends to lend itself well to fixed locations or kiosk-type work stations. The scanner-only device can range from around $150 up to $1,000 for fully ruggedized Bluetooth digital imagers.
Mobile Computer + Scanner:
The mobile computer with integrated scanner is intended for mobility. The common form factor is a gun-type device with a full alphanumeric keypad. These devices have wireless radios (aka Wifi) so they are connected full time to the host application. Some of the options are outlined below:
Operating systems (OS):
- Windows Mobile: The majority of the mobile computer/scanner devices today employ some flavor of Windows Mobile. It provides good flexibility in the different applications that can run on it, but tends to be more complicated to configure. Windows Mobile OS allows the device to not only run legacy Telnet-based applications (text), but also Web browser-based applications (graphical).
- Linux: Linux is a low overhead operating system, meaning that it boots up quickly and takes minimal system resources. It is constraining on the number of applications that it can run. A Telnet client works well on Linux.
- Android: Ruggedized mobile computer/scanners are beginning to deploy with the Android operating system. This OS will eventually be able to run apps similar to Window Mobile and even apps developed specifically for Android.
Keypad and screen options:
- The Windows Mobile devices are color touchscreens and typically include a stylus to aid navigation. Although these devices can run with an onscreen soft keyboard, most have physical keypads for data entry.
- The screens on Linux devices tend to be non-touch and monochrome. Most come with physical keypads for non-scanned data entry.
- Android OS devices are color touchscreens and typically do not contain a physical keyboard. A soft keyboard would present on screen like most Android smartphones.
When choosing the right scanning device for your application, it is important to consider the different options above. What scanners have you found work well in your manufacturing environment?