Advanced scanners and order pickers boost warehouse efficiency

Mark Nicholson

Of all the processes in a warehouse operation,order picking is often the most expensive in terms of employee time. Mark Nicholson looks at some time-saving advances in scanning technology and order picker truck design which promise improved profits through faster work flow.

For decades, barcode labels have been used to attach essential information to products and packages in warehouses. They make it easy for order picking staff, with the aid of a hand-held scanner, to check they are collecting the correct items. Additional checks of both inbound and outbound goods can be made at any stage via their barcodes. In many cases, scanners mounted above a conveyor belt automatically read each label.

A common problem is that sometimes a scanner fails to read the barcode. The item must then be taken out and scanned again. If this fails, someone may have to type in the information, manually, or create and apply a new label. This all takes time. In a warehouse handling thousands of items per day, it soon multiplies into a serious loss.

Workers face similar repeated drains on their time when operating low-level order pickers. In fact, they typically spend more time walking or driving than they do picking. A key aim for the truck designer is to speed up the operator’s movement between picks.

Advanced image-based scanning

Until recently, barcode scanners tended to be based on lasers. Now there is the option of image-based scanning, which uses similar technology to that of a digital camera. Unlike a laser reader, a digital scanner actually captures an image of the barcode. With the help of its software, it interprets that picture and is even able to overcome confusion caused by barcode imperfections.

A laser scanner may fail to read barcodes if they are damaged, distorted, poorly printed, obscured by reflective material or wrongly positioned. An image-based scanner reduces the number of reading failures arising from factors like these.

Occasionally, even an image-based scanner will find a barcode impossible to read. The operator can then look at a real-time image of what the scanner is seeing, and the cause of the problem should be obvious. If it is something like low ink in the printer, it can be quickly corrected. In addition, images may be archived and analysed later, to identify root causes of problems and improve labelling performance. There is also great scope for wider analysis of collected barcode data to inform business strategy.

Compared to their laser-based predecessors, today’s most advanced image-based barcode scanners have other important advantages. They can read barcodes from any direction, instead of requiring labels to be in a particular position and orientation. They can read multiple codes on packages simultaneously. As well as one-dimensional barcodes, composed of light and dark lines, they can read two-dimensional information such as Data Matrix and QR codes. These provide much more data and are certain to play an increasing role in future logistics......

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