Readers Between the Lines


When the Ritty Model I cash register came to market in 1879, businesses gained one of their first revolutionary pieces of technology. The Commodore PET and APPLE II further overhauled commerce when introduced in the late ‘70s, spurring multiple industries to adapt to computing technologies. With dozens of new innovations introduced into the market each month – all claiming to be unsurpassed – selecting the technology with which to adapt is not as simple as it has been for previous generations. While no current product is poised to revamp business as the cash register and computer did; there are smaller innovations making everyday functions easier. The introduction of high-speed, superior-accuracy image-based ID readers has compelled the trend for business owners to consider transitioning their business toward a more scanner-ready operation. Laser scanners have been standard in the material handling industry for decades: they are easy to install, operate and use on multiple barcodes to be read at high-speeds. With the advent and ease of Internet shopping, coupled with the growing volume of products shipped from warehouses to vendors and retailers, logistical data has become paramount in aiding organization and reducing costs through automation. As a result, image-based ID readers are changing the way the material handling industry does business.

Tracking a product through the production supply chain is integral, and this process relies on barcodes retaining a high visibility quality. But, with being handled numerous times and moved from one location to another, errors will occur with the barcode. Image-based readers record and give feedback on print quality, so producers can make adjustments to barcodes before the product is shipped. This feature keeps a supply chain running smoothly and decreases the allotment of extra man-hours for errors.

Proficiency is about speed and accuracy, and this is what to analyze when considering making the transition from laser scanners to image-based readers. Image scanners were once thought to be too expensive for businesses to implement in their day-to-day operations, but with advanced microprocessors, imaging sensors and decoding algorithms, these scanners have not only become easily affordable, but more powerful than ever before. Conventional laser scanners operate through light reflected off a printed barcode. But, these types of scanners fail if barcodes are printed improperly, damaged, or any number of common issues that arise (see fig.1). Image-based ID readers work by taking a picture of the entire image and reconstructing any damaged or unclear sections in an effort to override issues associated with unreadable barcodes. Image readers read images by using optics and codes printed with UV ink to overcome conventional laser scanner hurdles. Given all of these factors, image-based ID readers have an impressive read rate. Higher-end models can read upwards of 1,000 frames per second, which lets a variety of package sizes be read and recorded moving at speeds upwards of 500 feet per minute (152.4m/min).

Image-based readers also allow for one-dimensional barcodes to be read from 360 degrees, whereas laser readers need multiple passes or adjustments to read a barcode situated awkwardly. This allows image-based readers to be utilized on shipping lines where 1D barcoded items are not always in the same orientation – again increasing efficiency and productivity. A matrix code, better known as a 2D barcode, is a two-dimensional representation of information. 2D codes are similar to 1D barcodes but are capable of representing a greater amount of data, and these types of codes are heavily infiltrating industries such as pharmaceuticals and retail where great amounts of information need to be stored. 2D codes allow a product to be tracked throughout the entire manufacturing and supply chain process. Image-based readers are capable of reading poorly marked 2D codes and those on curved surfaces thanks to their ability to interpret advanced algorithms. Laser scanners don’t have this ability.

While a warehouse may consider making the transition from laser readers to image-based readers, it’s important to know that not all image-based readers are the same caliber. The most sophisticated image-based readers have algorithms that can decode and search for a multitude of barcodes of any type. This ability allows an operator to configure the output method, making it much easier for the operator during use. Manufacturing and supply chains must take into consideration the speed with which goods move through assembly and shipping. Doing so will determine which IBR best fits their needs, considering the ones that have a faster capture rate are more expensive. With the increase of Internet shopping, suppliers are shipping more products – and read error mistakes – than ever. If a supplier’s read rate is 96 percent per day, that 4 percent error rate can mean hundreds or even thousands of lost dollars, depending on the amount of goods being moved. Image-based readers give supervisors and managers the ability to analyze and adjust how products are loaded onto lines by taking an actual image of faulty or unread barcodes, highlighting present problems and possibly saving a considerable sum in the long run.

Image-based readers record both barcodes that have and have not been read successfully, which allows for troubleshooting and interpretation later of why a code wasn’t correctly read. This also helps keep inventory under control so parts that have been scanned, and those that haven’t, can be kept separate. This information is stored, so when a faulty barcode passes through later, the image-based reader can recognize parts of the label and reconstruct the rest, ensuring the movement of the product is uninterrupted and reaches its appropriate destination. Industries such as aerospace and automotive are using image archiving to ensure superior traceability among products during manufacturing.

Less is more when it comes to needed repairs. Unlike laser scanners, which have motors and rotating mirrors that move the lasers across barcodes, image-based readers have no moving parts, safeguarding themselves against mechanical failure. These readers are also packaged in tough industrial casings, diminishing the likeliness of cracking or breaking, allowing for next to no maintenance and long-term reliability.

Image-based readers also allow the operator to view the read rate statistics of codes and look at the images as the reader captures them. This lets the operator quickly and efficiently analyze if there are any problems in the system or why a code isn’t scanning correctly. Changes can be made during this process through the online viewing system, disregarding a need for an operator to find a manual for help.

Future proofing is integral for business when making any changes in a production line or business model. It is important to gauge immediate needs, but attempting to see growth in two to five years is vital as well. Varying degrees of image-based readers allow upgrades from 1D to 2D barcode reading, and some of the more progressive models have firmware updates, which upgrade the system to meet the latest decoding methods. With the cost of image-based readers dropping and the growing integration of 2D barcoding, laser readers are rapidly becoming old technology.