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Over 10 billion barcodes are scanned every day. That’s twice as many as a decade ago – when the number was “only” 5 billion.

In retail, barcode scanners are used not only at checkout but throughout back-of-house and supply chain. In healthcare, barcode scanning tracks patient information, medication administration, specimens and devices. The UK’s National Health Service (NHS), for example, has a major Scan4Safety initiative introducing end-to-end scanning of barcodes to improve supply chain visibility and patient safety.

Delivery driver scanning barcodes on packages being loaded into a van using a smartphone.

Logistics and supply chain management use barcode scanning to monitor inventory, manage shipments, and streamline warehouse operations. Airlines scan boarding passes and luggage tags. Last-mile delivery companies scan parcels at every stage of the process.

The barcode is the backbone of data capture around the globe. Far from becoming obsolete in a world of artificial intelligence (AI), these little strips of black and white bars are not only surviving but thriving.

They’re metamorphosing into new formats (such as QR codes). And they’re combining with other data capture technologies, like text and image recognition, to provide smarter, more accurate and more useful ways of capturing information from the physical world.

How smarter barcode scanning improves business outcomes

However, this very popularity comes with challenges – because users often encounter challenges when scanning barcodes. These make processes inefficient, increase error, and result in poor employee and customer experiences.

They range from quality of printed barcodes to software and device compatibility, challenges with different barcode types, environmental conditions, and problems with ergonomics and user experience.

MatrixScan Find for transportation and logistics

Making barcode scanning smarter and more efficient is one of the easiest ways to improve operational efficiency, data accuracy, employee satisfaction and customer experience. In this guide, we’ll go through common challenges in barcode scanning, how to solve them, and some real-world case studies showing the business results of improving barcode scanning.

Common barcode scanner problems and how to solve them

Whenever you’re solving a barcode scanner problem, it’s always worth bearing in mind that every barcode scanning solution has three components:

  1. A barcode – either printed or shown on a screen.
  2. A scanning device – for example, a smartphone or a dedicated hand-held barcode scanner.
  3. Barcode scanning software that detects and decodes the barcode, passes the data on, and may also pass back real-time alerts and notifications.

The three components of a barcode scanning solution (barcode, device, software) illustrated using Scandit SparkScan.

It might seem obvious that to solve the problem of tiny barcodes being difficult to scan, you should increase their size. However, a more cost-effective and scalable alternative could be to upgrade your scanning software to a solution that can decode even “difficult” barcodes.

Software integration issues

One common issue in barcode scanning is software compatibility with the technology infrastructure already in place. This can result in projects taking longer than planned and data integration challenges.

While open-source barcode scanning software is appealing from a cost perspective, it’s advisable to think carefully whether you have the in-house resources available to manage the integration. Open source software also does not offer official support, so developers have to rely on forums.

Paid solutions offer barcode scanning software that is instantly compatible with existing systems, or integrates fast and seamlessly through no-code apps or software development kits (SDKs) that cover multiple development frameworks.

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Engaging with vendors who provide comprehensive support and work closely with in-house IT teams to ensure smooth integration also helps to mitigate integration issues. A good vendor will also advise you on how to conduct thorough testing and validation before implementation to identify any compatibility issues and allow for timely resolution.

Challenges with barcode symbologies

There are around 30 different types of barcode (or symbologies) currently in use. Different industries and applications use different barcode symbologies, such as UPC, EAN, Code 39, Code 128, or Data Matrix codes. Each symbology has unique characteristics and encoding patterns.

Graphic showing 13 common barcode symbologies: UPC, EAN, CODE 39, CODE 128, ITF, CODE 93, Codabar, Databar, MS1 Plessey, QR code, Data Matrix, PDF417, Aztec

You’ll need to confirm that the barcode scanning software you select can scan the code(s) your industry uses. Scandit’s industry-leading software supports all major barcode types, but other options may offer more limited coverage.

Your software should also give you an option to configure which symbologies are read. Only selecting the symbologies you need is one of the easiest ways to improve scanning speed.

Barcode quality and printing challenges

Common challenges with barcode quality and printing include insufficient contrast, incorrect size or dimensions, printing errors and smudging or fading. Barcode scanners may also struggle to read codes that are accurately printed but very small or crinkled.

Close-up of barcode printed on label on cardboard box.

There are two approaches to address these challenges.

  1. Improve the quality of your printed barcodes: Ensure that barcodes have high contrast against the background and meet size and resolution requirements. Use high-quality printing equipment and materials, regularly maintain and calibrate equipment, and avoid printing on uneven or textured surfaces.
  2. Upgrade your barcode scanning software: Industry leading barcode scanning software, such as Scandit, is often extremely good at decoding even “difficult” codes. You may find that a software upgrade solves many of your barcode quality challenges without the need to change printing workflows.

Environmental factors affecting barcode scanning performance

Environmental factors can significantly affect barcode scanning performance, leading to errors and inefficiencies.

  • Insufficient or uneven lighting.
  • Dirt, dust, and smudges on the barcode or the scanner’s lens.
  • Reflective surfaces that create glare – for example, if a package is wrapped in plastic.

Controlling environmental conditions (for example, by carefully controlling lighting conditions, keeping barcodes and scanners clean and addressing reflective surfaces) are one way to minimize the impact.

Similarly to printing quality, it’s also worth considering whether hardware or software upgrades are a more cost-effective, long-term and scalable solution.

  • Hardware: Some barcode scanning hardware provides its own source of illumination. For example, Scandit SparkScan running on a smartphone can be configured to use the device’s torch in low lighting conditions.
  • Software: Industry-leading barcode scanning software can effortlessly handle glare, reflections and dust and dirt on the lens. However, you’re unlikely to get performance in these edge cases with an open-source library – you will need to choose a commercial option.

Barcode duplication and cross-contamination problems

Barcode duplication occurs when two or more items have the same barcode, leading to confusion, incorrect tracking and errors in stock management. Cross-contamination is when barcodes from different products or batches mix up, causing misidentification and incorrect inventory tracking.

To solve barcode duplication and cross-contamination issues, barcode verification processes should be put in place to detect and prevent duplicate barcodes and cross-contamination during the manufacturing or labeling process.

Using barcode scanners with advanced smart data capture software can also prevent cross-contamination. Smart data capture solutions can not only scan but validate barcodes. They automatically check that the scanned code matches the expected product or batch and alert users if this is not the case.

For example, Scandit MatrixScan Count for inventory counting and receiving automatically detects if an item has been delivered by mistake. It then instantly alerts frontline workers to the problem using an augmented reality (AR) overlay.

Scandit MatrixScan Count running on smartphone preventing cross-contamination of barcodes.

Mobile barcode scanning challenges

Using commodity smartphones or tablets rather than dedicated barcode scanners reduces hardware costs. It also improves flexibility and convenience by enabling a single device to be used for multiple purposes.

For example, a retail associate could use the same device to scan in deliveries, retrieve product information for customers, manage their shifts and communicate with co-workers and head office.

Advances in barcode scanning software and camera quality mean that, today, the scan performance of smartphones matches or exceeds that of dedicated barcode scanners. Rugged smartphones are also suitable even for challenging environments.

However, scanning barcodes on smartphones does come with some unique challenges. Barcode scanning is very different to an e-commerce app or something like WhatsApp. If you’re used to designing apps used solely on screen, and apply the same UX processes to scanning design, you run the risk of it going wrong.

This factor is often underestimated when moving to smartphone scanning, and can result in issues with ergonomics, efficiency and user adoption. The easiest way to solve it is to use a pre-built smartphone scanning user interface, such as SparkScan, from an experienced mobile scanning provider.

These typically allow for some customization, but do the heavy lifting for you. It results in more efficient allocation of in-house IT resources, faster time to market, better user experience and higher user adoption.

Of course, if you need a highly customized scanning solution you may have to build your own interface. If you do need to go down this route, Scandit’s UX director talks more about some of the things you’ll need to bear in mind when scanning at scale in this blog.

Human error in scanning operations

Human error in barcode scanning can occur due to various factors, such as poor scanning techniques, distractions, lack of training, or fatigue.

Proper training on barcode scanning techniques, including positioning the scanner correctly and maintaining consistency, can reduce errors. Employees should also be familiarized with different barcode symbologies to ensure accurate scanning.

However, while training and education can reduce error, it’s important to understand that any process requiring a user to aim carefully at thousands of individual codes and repeatedly press a button will inevitably result in human error – not to mention being extremely tedious for users.

Imagine being given the task of scanning every individual shoebox on this shelf. How many do you think you might miss or scan more than once? And how long do you think you would be able to maintain your concentration?

Warehouse shelf with hundreds of shoeboxes with barcodes, all needing to be scanned.

Technology offers alternative solutions to reduce human error. Smart barcode scanning software includes error reduction and efficiency-boosting features such as batch scanning, built-in validation, auto-correct capabilities and AR overlays with real-time insights.

These operate on the principle of error-proof design, shifting the burden of repetitive barcode scanning from people to technology. Compared to an approach that focuses solely on training and education, technology solutions are more scalable and go the final mile to address root causes of human error and inefficiency in scanning operations.

The real-world impact of solving barcode scanning challenges

Here are just a few examples of the real-world business results achieved by businesses through a focus on improving their barcode scanning.

  • VF Corporation: One of the world’s largest apparel, footwear and accessories companies achieved 100% inventory accuracy for omnichannel orders and over 50% time saving for store associates, by upgrading their hardware from legacy single-purpose scanners to smartphones, and their barcode scanning software to Scandit’s high-performance solution.
  • OK Corporation: The chain of Japanese discount supermarkets reduced in-store picking time from 5 seconds to 2 seconds and picking error rate to almost zero by upgrading their barcode scanning engine.
  • Stockholm Public Transport: The public transport organization improved service efficiency and ticket validation accuracy by switching from legacy handheld scanners to smartphones. They also upgraded their barcode scanning software to a solution optimized to scan smartphone screens, even when they reflect sunlight or the glare of an overhead light.

Solving barcode scanning challenges is a fast track to better business performance

In a world where more barcodes are being scanned than ever before, solving common barcode scanning challenges is a fast track to more efficient operations, better data accuracy, improved employee satisfaction and better customer experience.

To find out more about Scandit’s barcode scanning solutions, sign up for a free trial of our software or talk to one of our experts to find the right solution for you.

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