When you think of warehouse equipment, printers and barcode scanners are probably not the first things that pop into your head.
Barcode printers and scanners are amongst the most important tools in your warehouse. It happens to be a pretty big market too. From an inventory management standpoint, these items are invaluable. Without them, tracking stock levels and reducing losses and shrink is harder than it has to be.
Barcoding reduces human error in your warehouse. It can also reduce labor costs by allowing you to know exactly where an item is in your storage facility at any given time.
Barcode tracking is a key component of successful inventory management. Because of this, you’ll want to pick the right barcode scanners and printers for your operation.
With a wide range of options available, the task of choosing the right tools for this important job can feel daunting, but we’re here to help.
Here are the things you should look for and consider when selecting barcode printers and scanners.
Choosing the right barcode printer
A barcode’s scannability is its most important feature.
An unscannable or unreadable barcode helps no one.
Because of this, it’s important to choose a printer that’s going to create legible barcodes for the products in your warehouse.
The issue most companies experience is that there are an overwhelming number of printer options available. The good news is that you have choices. The bad news is you may not know where to start or succumb to “analysis paralysis” as you explore your options.
Don’t panic. We’ll break down all the options in this article so you make the best choice.
Choosing basic technology
The first step in this process is understanding basic printer technology.
There are four basic printing options out there: dot matrix, inkjet, laser, and thermal printers.
Dot matrix is a terrible choice for labels. The print quality is not good enough for barcode scanners. They are also slow and not good at printing tiny barcodes. Because of this, you’ll want to avoid these kinds of printers.
Inkjet printers and laser printers are both better options than dot matrix, but both also have the same basic issues: Since both printer types require storing the thing being printed as an image, it takes up a lot of memory and slows down the printing process.
Beyond that, inkjet and laser printers both require the user to print an entire sheet of labels. This is not time or cost-efficient if you only need a small number of labels at any given time.
Lastly, these types of printers have a limited number of the kinds of materials they can print on. This will limit your options too.
Because of these problems, it’s hard to recommend inkjet or laser printers for your warehouse. The cons outweigh the pros.
Which brings us to our final option: thermal printers.
Thermal barcode printers can create high-quality barcodes that are easily scanned by a wide range of barcode readers. They print barcodes faster than their counterparts, requiring less memory in the process. And they can print entire sheets of labels when needed or a single barcode. They can do all of this on a wide range of barcode stock, so you’ll have material options.
If you’re printing barcodes, the thermal printer is the best choice.
Before you run off to order a thermal printer, there’s one more key area to talk about: direct thermal versus thermal transfer.
One of the biggest issues with printers is they’re always out of ink, or they need new ribbons, or they need toner.
With direct thermal technology, this is never an issue.
Direct thermal printers don’t use ink, toner, or ribbons. Instead, they create the barcode directly on a chemically treated, heat-sensitive label. As the label passes the thermal printhead, the key parts darken.
The upside of direct thermal is that the machines require little maintenance. With no toner or cartridges to replace, they are plug-and-play devices.
The downside is that the labels created this way are heat-sensitive and not super durable overall.
The other option is thermal transfer.
These machines do use a ribbon to create barcode labels. Heat from the printhead transfers ink to the label to create the image in this technology. The result is a high-quality barcode.
Because the thermal transfer printers can print on a wide range of materials, they’re more versatile than the direct thermal printers discussed above. Thermal transfer also creates more durable labels, ones able to withstand extreme temperatures, chemicals, and other harsh environmental factors.
So, which do you choose? The answer is, “it depends.”
If your warehouse isn’t in a harsh environment, then direct thermal could be the solution for you. If you need a more durable label that can withstand harsh conditions, thermal transfer is the better option.
The next thing to consider is the printing resolution of the device.
When we talk about resolution, we’re talking about the quality of the printed barcode.
Resolution is measured in DPI (Dots Per Inch), and most barcode printers live in the 200, 300, and 600 DPI range.
The higher your DPI is, the better quality the barcode image will be. If you’re printing very small barcodes, a higher DPI will be better.
Before you run out and buy the highest resolution printer you can find, take a moment to consider your needs.
If you’re not printing small, detailed, dense barcodes, you may not need the highest DPI printer out there. You can create scannable, readable barcodes at 200DPI.
If you can, do some tests. Print your barcodes at 200DPI and see how they scan and look.
You should generally only consider the higher-end DPI printers if you print small barcodes or if you want to future proof your barcode printing needs.
There are two types of memory to consider when looking at barcode printers: RAM and flash.
RAM is your short-term memory. This is where the label image from the PC is stored during the printing process. The bigger the barcode labels, the more RAM you will need.
Flash is the long-term memory of the device. This is where you can store your most used barcode labels.
The best advice when it comes to memory applies here: more is better.
Barcode printers are designed to deliver barcode labels of a specific length and width. All barcode printers have a maximum print width of 4.09″. Minimum print widths vary between 1″ and 1.5”, depending on the model.
Speed and volume
Speed matters when considering a barcode printer.
Imagine having to print thousands of barcode labels. Depending on the speed and the volume output of your device, this could take minutes or hours. Do you have hours to spare waiting for labels to print?
Because of this, you’ll want to inquire about the printing speed of any device you’re considering. Can the machine handle high volume? How long will it take to print a hundred labels?
These are all questions to consider before making a purchase.
Interface type and software
In today’s world, most barcode printers are going to come with Bluetooth, USB connections, Ethernet, and wireless capabilities.
This should cover all your connection bases, but it’s important to understand ahead of time what kind of connections you’ll be using most often. Getting a device that you can’t connect with in the way you want is not a good long-term solution for your business.
Beyond that, you’ll want to think about software as well. Printers are fickle. Will there be conflicts between your computers and software and the device? Better to find out now than after you’ve made a purchase.
Finally, is the printer’s software easy to use and intuitive? The best printer in the world is no good if you can’t figure out how to use it.
Most label stock is perforated, meaning you can tear apart different barcode stickers with minimal effort.
Despite this, there will be times when your stock is continuous without perforations and will require a cutter. Ensuring your printer has a cutter option to separate labels on these occasions is important. You don’t want to spend hours manually cutting labels with scissors.
Another great way to save time and needless manual labor is by having a label peeler on the printer. This device will separate the barcode label from its backing, making it easier to apply it directly to the item without you having to stop and do it by hand.
One final option to consider is the rewinder.
This tool lets you print labels, but then winds the printed labels onto a new roll. This will save you from manually rolling up spools of labels.
With these things in mind, choosing the right barcode printer should be a breeze.
Let’s now jump over and discuss barcode scanners so you have the tool to read all these amazing new labels you’ve just created.
Choosing the right barcode scanners
Today’s barcode scanners come with a wide variety of features, which can make the task of choosing the right one for your business challenging.
For most warehouses, a simple Bluetooth scanner is more than enough, but as with the printers, exploring your options is a good thing. If you can future-proof your scanners so that they grow with your needs, you’ll be ahead of the game.
Here are the basic things you’ll want in any barcode scanner. If a scanner fails these basic tests, it’s time to consider another option:
- The ability to scan barcodes correctly on the first try
- The laser should be visible and moving of its own accord when you push the button
- The scanner should read labels at a distance or up close. Scanners should work without issue at distances ranging from 1” to 24”.
If you find a scanner that passes all these basic requirements, you’re in a good place. Scanners that don’t meet these requirements will frustrate your workers and slow down the workflow in your warehouse.
With your basic needs met, here are some other things to consider when selecting a barcode scanner.
There are essentially two types of technology when it comes to barcode scanners: laser and image-based. Each has its advantages and disadvantages.
Laser barcode scanners
A laser-based barcode scanner works by refracting laser beams through a series of mirrors and lenses to read a barcode.
Given that they have a lot of moving parts, laser barcode readers are often less durable than their image-based counterparts. If your team is hard on equipment, or you’re scanning in a rough environment, you’ll have to replace these scanners regularly.
The upside here is that laser scanners have a better scanning distance than their image-based counterparts. A laser scanner should be able to read a barcode from up to 24 inches away. An image-based scanner will often need to be closer to the barcode to be effective.
Image barcode scanners
Unlike laser scanners, image-based barcode readers use a tiny camera to capture an image of the barcode in digital format. That barcode is then scanned into a computer for interpretation.
Since they have fewer moving parts, they’re less likely to be damaged, which will save you money on repairs and replacements. They’re also cheaper than laser barcode scanners when making the initial purchase.
The issue with these scanners is their scan distance. An image-based barcode reader will need to be closer to the barcode than a laser model.
There’s no wrong choice here. Whether you choose image-based or laser scanners will depend on your specific needs and the environment.
Ruggedness and durability
We touched on this in the previous point, but it bears repeating: select a scanner based on the environment of your warehouse.
Scanners are not inexpensive, and having them down for repairs or constantly replacing them is an added expense.
Odds are you’re going to want a wireless scanner. Otherwise, you’ll wind up with cords everywhere.
Think about the size of your warehouse. If it’s big and filled with aisles and lots of things in motion, you’ll want to opt for a fully wireless and portable solution. Consider the weight of the scanner, what kind of charging stations it will require, and how often the devices will need recharging before making a purchase.
Most cordless scanners use Bluetooth to communicate, which gives you a range of 33ft. There are some specialized Bluetooth and proprietary wireless units that can transmit beyond 200ft. These are still the most common scanner type and interface with a PC through a USB connection. Serial (RS232), PS/2, and proprietary terminal connections are also available for many models.
Ability to withstand temperature
Is your warehouse in a freezing cold environment? Is it in a building that isn’t air-conditioned? Consider the temperature of your environment (and the humidity) when selecting a scanner.
Temperature cannot only affect performance; it can also impact battery life, charging times, and other things. Save yourself a headache and factor this into your buying decision early on.
Without taking a deep dive down the barcode rabbit hole, consider compatibility issues when selecting your scanner.
There are different barcode formats. Do you want to be able to scan all of them? Does your company only use one specific format? Will you change the format at some point in the future?
Answering these questions now can ensure you get a scanner that works for you today and will grow with you as your company evolves.
If your business is using inventory management software, you’ll want to be sure your scanners will work with the program.
Some barcode software applications only work with specific (and often expensive) scanners. If you’re not using those scanners, you’ll have to either replace your scanners or your software.
There are two solutions here: either select a scanner that works with your current inventory management software, or if you haven’t selected software yet, research which scanners work with the options you’re considering.
This will save you time, headache, and money in the long run.
The barcode scanner and printer are two of the most important pieces of equipment in your warehouse. These tools help you better manage your inventory, which makes your operation more efficient and saves you money.
Because of this, choosing the right printer and scanner is important. There are a lot of options out there, but not every one is right for your business.
Choosing the wrong printer or scanner can be avoided by doing research and thinking about your needs. Follow the guidelines in this article, and you’ll be well on your way to picking a printer and scanners that are perfectly suited for your business.