December 17, 2018

Using Smartphones for Barcode Scanning

Have you thought to use barcode scanning for business operations? This idea has been on the rise in the modern retail-, wholesale and manufacturing industries. What about using your smartphone as the main device in your barcode scanning system? Three years ago, this wasn’t a feasible alternative. The first smartphone apps that were developed for barcode scanning emerged on the market right after the first smartphones were launched. However, in terms of speed, accuracy and ease of use, the smartphone scanning apps were far behind professional barcode scanning devices.

Fast forward to the beginning of year 2018. Is smartphone scanning still a toy solution or is it a real alternative to professional scanners? Below is a short overview of the technological developments within smartphone barcode scanning in recent years.

 

Better Smartphone Performance in Dim Light

Years ago, the main obstacle for smartphone camera scanning was low speed. To scan a barcode quickly with a camera, fast autofocus is required. This in turn requires more light to enter into the camera’s sensor. How much light enters the camera’s sensor via the camera lens is determined by aperture i.e. the F-value. The table below illustrates how the aperture of Samsung’s S-series has evolved over the past 5 years.A few years ago, dim lighting conditions prevented smartphone scanning apps from focusing on barcodes. Today, smartphone lenses let in twice as much light compared to only 5 years ago. Today, barcode scanning via smartphone cameras can be done in a much broader range of lighting conditions. Additionally, f/1,7 aperture cameras are no longer reserved for top of the line smartphone models. High aperture cameras are now included in lower price range models such as the Samsung C-series.

 

Other Improvements of Smartphone Capabilities

Fast barcode scanning doesn’t depend on aperture and light only – the result is also determined by the smartphone’s autofocusing algorithim. It appears that the technological development in this area has been even faster than the improvements of aperture. Autofocusing depends on processing speed, which determines how much photo-information can be processed during a time unit. Other factors that have been improved in smartphones include more capable software and more advanced phase detection technology (PDAF).

As the graph shows, the power of smartphone processors have more than doubled in recent years. Generally speaking, more powerful processors allow for better scanning results. However, in real life a combination of different components (sensor, aperture value, processor, Optical Image Stabilization, etc.) contribute to determine the overall speed and comfort of scanning under different lighting conditions. Our suggestion for anyone who is considering using smartphones for scanning is to test the scanning capabilities of a few different smartphones and choose the solution that best suits your needs.

 

Transmitting Scanned Data to an IT-system

The second obstacle for smartphone scanning has been the ability to export the scanned data to an IT-system. Most smartphone apps have supported data transmission to Excel. Even in cases where more options have been available, the issue of integration with an ERP system has remained unsolved. Solving this problem has become possible, but requires the work and support of IT specialists, which result in significant additional investments. In&Out’s smartphone scanning solution offers a full solution. All scanned registrations, along with additional data entries, are transformed into ERP-system documents. This is an integral part of our solution and is achieved with modest data integration investment.

 

Distinct Advantages of Smartphone Scanning

When taking a look at the factors that differ between scanning solutions in smartphones and traditional scanning solutions, you will see that smartphone scanning solutions have several advantages. Smartphone devices are always connected to a network, and thus are always ready to use. And it doesn’t matter where you scan using your smartphone; it can be at a fair, in a worksite, in the woods, etc. You can perform scans in places where you could previously not scan because a scanning system had to be pre-installed (network, computers, electricity, etc). When using smartphone scanning, there is no need to set up a system. The scanning system works even when you are temporarily out of range of a network.

Smartphone scanning gives access to functionalities that aren’tavailable in traditional scanning solutions. For instance, if you discover an unknown barcode you can take a picture of it and send it to the system administrator. If you scan an item in a specific geographical location, you can use GPS coordinates to identify the object and send scanning- and geographical data to your company’s ERP-system. In future blogposts we will reveal additional scenarios where smartphone scanning offers opportunities that don’t exist in traditional barcode scanning solutions.

 

Smartphones Combined with Smart People WIN

Before implementing a smartphone scanning solution, four topics need to be considered:

  • Battery life. Using a smartphone camera for barcode scanning uses a lot of battery capacity. When you need to scan hundreds or thousands of barcodes each day, a good battery life and fast charging capabilities are relevant considerations.
  • Reliability. Smartphones are fragile devices compared to robust warehouse scanners. The latter will easily survive 1.5-meter drops onto concrete floors. Drops like these will happen, so small investments into silicone cases and thermal glass are both reasonable and inevitable.
  • Mobile data plan. We sometimes hear concerns about increasing mobile data plans. The reasoning goes that smartphone scanning solutions require increased mobile data exchange and therefore may require more costly mobile data plans. Our experience shows that this is rarely the case because barcode data and product data don’t use a lot of capacity. High data usage is only the case when additional data is sent to the server, like pictures of the products. Only in these cases do larger data plans need to be considered.
  • Confidentiality. If your company’s confidentiality protocol restricts the use of smartphones in the warehouse or in the production environment, then smartphone scanning solutions are not for you.

Although traditional scanners have some advantages and are sometimes the preferred device for scanning, the development in smartphone scanning has come a long way. Today, the sophistication of smartphone scanning has reached the level where there are only a few circumstances when smartphone scanning performance lags traditional scanning. Remember, this is a scanning solution that is always in your pocket and ready to be used!

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