Mobile barcode scanning can greatly reduce manual, error-prone receiving, picking, and packing processes in the warehouse, in addition to more efficiently managing inventory. As third-party logistics (3PLs) warehouses look to scale up their operations, I asked 3PL Central’s Senior Product Manager, Jeff Harris, for some tips. Jeff has more than 12 years of experience building SaaS products around the user experience.

Jeff Harris, 3PL Central's Senior Product Manager

Using SmartScan, the mobile barcode scanning application inside of 3PL Warehouse Manager, as an example, Jeff says: “As we’ve developed SmartScan, we’ve done so with an eye on best practices. The purpose of SmartScan, contrary to what people may think, is not to make things faster but to make things more accurate within the warehouse, which reduces the need for rework. This, overall, can make a warehouse more efficient and possibly faster depending on how the software is configured and the number of barcodes involved.”

Below are Jeff’s thoughts on dos and don’ts for 3PLs considering or implementing mobile scanning in the warehouse. 

Choosing a Mobile Barcode Scanning Software/Application

There are certain tasks that every warehouse performs, and most people can identify those readily. On the inbound side, you’ll be receiving inventory and putting inventory away, and on the outbound side, you’re going to be picking, packing, and shipping that inventory. From a practical perspective, and in the experience that we’ve seen with SmartScan, by far the most used feature is pick capability.

These are the capabilities that 3PLs should look at when choosing an application. Can it help you receive inventory? Can it help you process orders for the outbound (pick, pack, ship)? For those who do B2B fulfillment or have business customers, the ability to process full truckload/less than truckload (FTL/LTL) freight orders and shipments is important. The ability to print movable unit (MU)/pallet labels (license plates) is important.

Between those two places is the inventory management area where you may need to move things around or to get information about a particular piece of inventory that you come across on the warehouse floor. Something else in inventory management worth considering would be doing inventory counts or audits of inventory levels.

Do – Evaluate pick operations and needs, and make sure that a barcode scanning solution addresses those needs. Does it support the types of picks that you want to be able to do? Are you doing single order picks or multi-order picks? Are you picking to bin? Are you packing from shelves or doing a pick and pack directly into a box? Look at all these different scenarios, decide what you need, and make sure your barcode scanning solution supports that.

Do – Choose a barcode scanning solution built around the idea of best practice workflows. There is probably a certain amount of tailoring of your workflows that may make sense if the application is encouraging you to implement best practices. In SmartScan’s design, we made choices not to support certain workflows because they are not recommended. They can create problems with managing inventory and keeping data clean. You want a flexible solution, but you don’t want a solution that will allow you to shoot yourself in the foot, especially if you are looking at it from the perspective of employees who may be new or inexperienced. You don’t want to give them too much space and end up potentially causing problems for your operations.

Do – Regularly evaluate workflows and processes on the warehouse floor to make sure that no bad practices are creeping in. Sometimes we have a tendency do what’s easiest, even if it’s not the best. A barcode solution like SmartScan helps to avoid that because it tends to drive best practice. So, you can help keep your workflows on more of a best practice footing by implementing a barcode scanning solution. Having someone come in who has expertise and can help you optimize your workflows around best practices is always a good idea. Once you’re there, SmartScan, or a solution like SmartScan, can help keep you oriented around those best practices.

Configuration and Maintenance

We’ve tried to make SmartScan flexible from the perspective of types of devices it will work with. We support what we call purpose-built devices or barcode scanning-specific devices primarily from Zebra, but we also support consumer-grade devices (non-specific devices) like smart phones, tablets, and things like that. The biggest difference is that Zebra devices have a lot of additional tools that we can leverage from a development perspective to enable more efficient functionality and more efficient integration with those devices. They’re built specifically for barcode scanning on the warehouse floor, so Zebra understands that space very well and builds their devices accordingly.

Do – Consider purpose-built devices before consumer devices for barcode scanning. The overall experience will be better. There is typically a higher cost associated, although not as high as you might expect because Zebra has some pretty affordable devices in the $400-$500 range. Whereas if you look at the cost of tablets or phones, you’re not saving much money.

Do – Use a partner that has remote control or remote management capability, which makes it much easier for us (3PL Central) to get involved if there is a problem with a device because we can look at that device directly. A hardware partner can do the same if a user is experiencing trouble, so having that ability to remote control or remote manage those devices is very helpful as 3PL warehouses look to roll out a barcode scanning strategy.

Do – Make sure barcodes are high quality and can exist and be used for a long time. Specific types of papers are highly reflective and work best with barcode scanning, especially if you want to label things that you’ll need to scan from far away. Both hardware and printed label should be optimized for that type of use.

Don’t – Try to implement barcode scanning in the warehouse without any support because there’s a lot that goes into setting up barcode scanning in a warehouse. Not only is evaluating and selecting devices an important consideration, but there’s also printing, Wi-Fi connectivity, and even creation of barcodes that you want to use within your facility, especially for marking locations and things like that. Hardware partners typically have the expertise to walk you through that entire process. That’s why we partner with Zebra resellers like Barcodes Inc. (previously Emkat). Whether customers choose to use them as a partner, it’s recommended that they have somebody to work with on getting barcode scanning implemented in their facility.

Freight Shipping

The way that we approached supporting freight shipping with SmartScan was to evaluate the typical process and then build a best practice workflow into SmartScan that would help walk people through that process. Load-out for freight shipping is complicated because it involves three primary activities – you must go get the inventory from a storage location wherever that may be, you move that inventory forward to a staging area where it is then prepared for shipping and loading onto the trailer, and then you have the actual load process where you’re putting everything onto the trailer. Load-Out should be specifically designed to address those three steps in the process.

With SmartScan specifically, we walk the user through the pick process where they can pick either by or to a moveable unit and then move that inventory forward to a staging area. The reason why we didn’t try to make that process very rigid was because everybody has different types of things that they do once inventory is in the staging area, a lot of which are driven by the organizations that are being shipped to. They may have very specific needs, so we wanted to provide the flexibility to do whatever they need to do prior to the actual load-out process.

Don’t – Skip steps; this opens the risk of picking incorrect items and putting them straight on the trailer. You’ll miss the validation that what’s picked should be in the trailer. The quality check at the staging area is an important part of the process to prevent mistakes.

Do – Capture all the details of the load-out process, including the door number, seal number, time-in, time-out for inventory management purposes and utilizing inventory management best practices. Down the line, this helps with customer service, inventory management, quality control, employee management, and several other functions where increased knowledge of your inventory can be very helpful.

Barcode Scanning Frequently Asked Questions

Q: What do you think is the greatest benefit of implementing mobile scanning in the warehouse?

A: Driving accuracy into the process -- increasing accuracy in warehouse floor operations, as well as reducing training time for employees. SmartScan has most of the intelligence that it needs so the user doesn’t have to spend hours learning how to pick. They can follow SmartScan’s prompts to make sure that the job gets done properly.

Q: What do you think is the greatest challenge in implementing mobile scanning in the warehouse?

A: The biggest challenge by far is getting barcodes onto SKUs, which typically requires involvement from your customer and that can be a real challenge. If your customers don’t have barcodes and doesn’t want to implement them on their side, you then must decide whether it’s worth creating them when inventory comes in.

To learn more about how SmartScan can help your operation become an efficient, paperless warehouse schedule your demo today.

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