Need help implementing a simple barcode system.
March 23, 2010 9:23 AM   Subscribe

I want to implement a simple barcode inventory system, but this has lead to surprisingly complicated questions.

The equipment being inventoried is stored at different field locations. The minimal requirement is that someone can go to a field office, scan everything (less than 100 barcode labels), come back to the main office, and sync with a computer there.

The end result should be a file with a list of what was scanned, in some sort of standard format that can then be manipulated by an in-house program.

From what little I can tell, any untethered scanner that has a batch mode will do this and transfer over a text file when synced, in which each new item is separated by a carriage return. Is that correct?

Second question:

Could an expected inventory be uploaded into a more complex scanner, so that while in the field, there is a running count of scanned items vs. the expected # of items? (A display that says something like, 34 of 55 items scanned, for example? And/or that indicates if a scanned item was not an expected one?)

If so, what are the standards involved? How difficult would this hypothetical more comlpicated scanner be to program? What is the "name" of that feature so I can compare prices? Etc.

Third question:

Will any ol' barcode printer do, or are there certain requirements I need to make sure are met in order for a barcode printer and scanner to speak the same languages?

Fourth question:

Any website with a basic introduction to terms, standards, etc., might be helpful. (I've already read wikipedia.)
posted by Nonce to Computers & Internet (8 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Barcode2file, for Android phones, will scan barcodes (using the camera) and make a list. A decent programmer could make a custom Android application for your particular needs if you want more (i.e. countdown, etc.)

This might be more cost-effective than a barcode scanner for smallish jobs.
posted by JMOZ at 9:46 AM on March 23, 2010

Response by poster: Paying for a dedicated handheld scanner is within the budget for this, and the phone thing would be a hard sell. Thanks though. It's a neat app.
posted by Nonce at 10:07 AM on March 23, 2010

Will any ol' barcode printer do, or are there certain requirements I need to make sure are met in order for a barcode printer and scanner to speak the same languages?

If you get a dedicated barcode label printer, it should be able to print out something that any given scanner will be able to read. Most of them come with software that will let you make a template and then print out a bunch of labels.
posted by burnmp3s at 10:22 AM on March 23, 2010

"Portable Data Collector" is a good starting point. I built a very simple system last year for a remote warehouse that due to it's location, couldn't integrate with our main systems. They scan every item, entered the quantity as they went. Then plug it into the computer over there, ran a shortcut on the desktop and it would email the results to me. I'd highly recommend getting dedicated hardware instead of a app that works through a phones camera, much quicker, more hardy and light conditions don't matter.

Now, unfortunately, the remote warehouse is on another island, so I don't have the name of the device to hand. But drop me an meta-mail if you're interested and I'll send you the details next time I get in contact with them. It was quite a basic gun, a few hundred dollars at most. I have a Symbol MC9090 sitting on my desk at the moment for a bigger project and we currently use Symbol 6800's for most operations but both would be overkill for what you're after.

The software that came with it was pretty straight-forward, and I'd assume most devices come with similar, though playing around with this MC9090 it seems that higher end gear requires a programmer, whereas the lower end stuff is aimed more for mom and pop operations and is far more friendly. The software for the lower-end gun was almost like creating a flow-chart, each box represented a screen, then the lines were the data/processing flows. Some programming experience did help, but it wasn't absolutely needed. The sample inventory programs that come with the guns are pretty generic, can take item 'description' files and output in various formats so might be fine.

Most hardware reads a large range of barcodes. Some simple types (CODE 39) can be easily made on any computer with the correct font (free39 if you're searching) and I'd go so far to say ANY scanner would read a CODE 39 code.
Others need some more intelligence (they put a check-digit at the end of the barcode to make sure the barcode was accurately scanned). Worth-data did an acceptable label generator program and it looks like they do a total end-to-end system now which might fit your needs. It wasn't perfect, but if I hadn't been looking for a pet-project, we'd still be using it for printing labels.

If you are a programmer- I've pretty much fallen in love with Python and the ReportLab library, it's brilliant.

Drop me a message if you need any other questions and I'll try to help.
posted by Static Vagabond at 12:05 PM on March 23, 2010

Yes, Portable Data Collector is the right term, although it's kinda generic as a term, and they also use various other terms for the same thing, too. I bought and configured for a client a Unitech HT580 for inventory purposes. It came with a scripting programming language that lets you write a little menu-driven program to get data from the barcode reader, the keypad, and from the text file itself, to write to a downloadable text file that you could import in Excel or any other place. The language the scanner used was relatively flexible, and I am fairly certain there is a way to load up an inventory beforehand and 'de-increment' items as the barcode was scanned. The level of programming-skills was relatively low, on a VisualBasic level, but still beyond an average user's skills. At the link above, on the "download" tab, there's some software called EasyJob. It has a 'virtual data collector' and the programming IDE, letting you write and test the software before loading it on the scanner. I don't think you need the scanner attached to run the software, so you might be able to get an idea of what the programming looks like.

Barcode 'printers', for the most part, are just a little printer; for example, the one at my client regularly gets the Windows Test Page printed out across four or five labels because it's networked and people don't pay attention. You need the right software to print out the barcodes in an understandable language. I believe the languages are so standardized today that you have to be using some really off-the-wall barcode for it to not be understood by both scanner and printer. I believe my client used Code 39 on their inventory. They're rough on their barcode scanners so they get replaced regularly, and for fifteen years they've never had a problem reading or printing barcodes with straight-out-of-the-box settings.

So, I think everything you're hoping for is reasonable to expect from a midrange data collector and barcode software, but you probably won't be able to find a pre-made system to do what you want, so you will need quite a bit of planning and a bit of computer expertise available to put it into practice.
posted by AzraelBrown at 1:59 PM on March 23, 2010

Response by poster: Printing barcodes seems to be extremely straightforward: use a barcode font, don't use any special characters that aren't a part of the font, and make sure it prints at a large enough size for the scanners to read.

Is there any part of the barcode-printing process I'm missing? Because it seems like something that would be easy for our programmer to put together.
posted by Nonce at 2:11 PM on March 23, 2010

Ahh, thanks-- Unitech was the brand I used too-- though a lower model the HT630 and the software was called JobGen.

Looks like you can a find a demo of JobGen online, so might be worth playing with it first— as AzraelBrown said, it has a simulator, so you don't need the gun handy.

When I did it, I ended up using the apps that came with the gun to pull the data into a directory and renamed it as a timestamp. Then an external program to actually email if off, I believe I used bmail which I just attached to a batchfile which sent the most recent file off to me without the user having to dig through directories.
posted by Static Vagabond at 2:27 PM on March 23, 2010

Nonce-- barcodes without check-digits are extremely easy (and if you have a coder handy, checkdigits aren't a problem either if you want some error controls).
I think with free39 font you just have to enclose the number in asterisks to tell the bar-code reader "this is where I start, and here is where I end".
posted by Static Vagabond at 2:30 PM on March 23, 2010

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