Choose the right scanner
Since the purpose of a scanner is to scan items, first determine what type of items will be scanned.
What is the physical size of the item being scanned? Is it a bulky box, or grocery products that can be easily lifted onto a checkout stand? How heavy are the items?
How you answer these questions will determine if you need a fixed-mount scanner or a portable hand-held scanner. Often a combination of both is needed. A scanner that sits in a cradle while stationary, but which can be lifted out for portable scanning, could be a wise choice.
The proximity of the items to the scanner is equally as important. If you're scanning products in an aisle or warehouse, for instance, are the products 1 foot away or 35 feet away? Once you determine how far the scanner operator will be from the item, you'll know if you need a short- or a long-range scanner.
How often are you scanning products? Is your goal to alleviate long checkout lines or to accurately capture shipping information? Certain scanners are designed to quickly decode bar code after bar code. They are ideal for a setting like a retail store where a high volume of linear codes is continuously being presented. Others are intended to scan complex bar codes, such as a 2D or Composite Codes with less frequency.
Bar code attributes
Just as there are a variety of scanners on the market, there are a wide variety of bar codes to be scanned. Learning what types of bar codes you expect to scan will also help you pinpoint the right scanner for the task. The most common types are linear (1D) bar codes such as UPC/EAN/ JAN, Code 128, Code 39, I 2of 5, as well as the fast emerging two-dimensional (2D) bar codes such as PDF 417, Composite Code and the new class of reduced space symbologies. If your business calls for scanning various types of symbologies, there are scanners on the market that read multiple bar code types.
Another important factor to consider is the quality of the bar code you are scanning. Is it large or small? High-density or low-density? Is there a chance the bar code could be damaged? Traveling through the supply chain can impair a bar code's quality. A scrape from a forklift or exposure to the elements can physically damage the bar code making it difficult to read. If you expect to encounter poor-quality bar codes, you will need a scanner that has been developed to aggressively and accurately decipher them.
Chances are, there is not one answer to each of these questions. Fortunately, there are choices available to provide you with optimum performance for your specific needs.
The scanning environment
Once you've determined what you need scanned, it's time to do a thorough assessment of your physical environment. What is the temperature? Is it a humid loading dock in Florida or a refrigeration unit in a meatpacking plant? Will there be extreme temperature changes that can cause condensation to leak into the unit and interfere with operation?
You also need to consider the cleanliness of the scanning environment. Will you be operating in a tidy clothing store or a dusty warehouse? Finally, what is the likelihood of abuse to the device? Are there forklifts in the area that could run over a dropped scanner or other obstacles such as drawers or equipment that can cut cables?
Scanners are generally classified into two categories-retail and industrial. Retail scanners are designed for environments that are clean, temperature controlled and well lit. Industrial scanners are made to withstand harsher environments. They are typically sealed against wind, dust and rain, can withstand multiple drops to concrete and can operate in extreme temperatures. To ensure that your scanner is rugged enough for your environment, make sure it is sealed to the appropriate levels and that the drop and temperature ratings are consistent with your environment. If the vendor tells you a retail scanner is OK for an industrial environment or vice versa, pick another vendor.
Ergonomics and human factors
The next questions you need to ask are who will be using the scanner and what are the characteristics of the work area. It's important to make sure the operators are comfortable in their environments. If the ergonomics are not optimal, the technology won't be used effectively.
For instance, if the operator will be wearing gloves, you'll want to look at devices with large buttons and keys to prevent incorrectly keyed information. If operators need their hands free, a wearable scanner is an option to consider. Is the operator sitting behind a desk? Then a fixed mount scanner would be most appropriate. A combination of scenarios? Then a scanner with multiple capabilities is the answer.
Interoperability considerations
As with any major investment, you want to make sure its usefulness doesn't diminish before the first invoice arrives. If you want to be completely satisfied with your purchase, consider how your current technology will interface with your new scanners, and how easy it is to upgrade or migrate to another host system. Your product supplier is supposed to be the technology expert and a partner. Ask them.
Some scanners offer multiple interface capabilities that allow you to support different POS systems. All that is required is to change the cable, not the scanner hardware. Another important feature is flash programmability. Some scanners on the market have an embedded flash chip that allows applications to be loaded quickly into the scanner. This gives you the advantage of being able to quickly and easily re-program scanners in the field.
Selecting a vendor with a diverse family of products is another smart choice. When the time comes to upgrade or purchase bar code scanners for other applications, working with a vendor that you trust, that knows your business, and that has a wide breadth of application-specific products will make purchasing decisions much easier.
Beyond bar codes
Today's scanners do a lot more than just decode lines and numbers on a label. For instance, if a smashed package arrives, an imaging scanner can not only scan the label, but also take a digital picture of the damaged goods. More sophisticated devices on the market, such as hand-held computers, integrate scanning capabilities to bring advanced functionality to the product. Scanning devices may also incorporate radio frequency (RF) technology so that the data can be wirelessly transmitted in real-time. Now the image of that damaged package you received can be sent to the sender in seconds directly from the hand-held device.
Total cost of ownership
Perhaps the most important factor to consider in your scanner search, though, is total cost of ownership. Although price is important, it should not be the primary decision maker. If you do not choose the right scanner, chances are it will not survive the task at hand. Take into account the cost of replacing damaged scanners, lost productivity when scanners are sent in for repair and, most importantly, how that would affect your customers. Examine the product's warranty policy and the stability of the company. A five-year warranty is useless if the company isn't going to be around to honor it.
Finally, develop a relationship with your vendor, learn about what scanning options are available, and make sure that the vendor understands your business. When you invest in a company's technology, you invest in that company.