Primer on scanners for warehouse inventory processing
Scanners for warehouse inventory management are integral to the storage and retrieval of goods. The classic design is handheld with a screen, keypad, and trigger to activate the barcode scanner. But there are other options to consider too, including voice-directed units featuring a headset and microphone. In this case, audio commands are fed to the operative, who can talk back to confirm item selection and even speak stock-keeping unit (SKU) codes into the system. However, depending on the length of the ID it may still be more practical to use a scanner of some sort – perhaps a lighter-weight version worn on the back of the hand or wrist.
Warehouse configurations may vary depending on the types of goods being managed, but there are common operations. Overall, the warehousing process can be summarized into the following actions:
- Goods receiving
- Picking and replenishment
- Dispatch and stock management
Once goods have been received, one option – as part of the putaway process – is to place pallets of boxed-up incoming stock at higher-up shelf locations for storage. When unpacked stock shelved below starts to run low, the warehouse management system (WMS) can send a request for pallets to be dropped down – figuratively, not literally – to replenish picking supplies. And boxes on the pallets lowered by machine operators can then be opened to fill up any emptying slots across the picker locations on lower-level shelving.
During picking, the relevant location of the order received by the WMS will be displayed on the screen of the scanner, together with the quantity to be selected. Operatives can log in to scanners for warehouse inventory processing, keying in a username and password. And the WMS will direct staff to pick up all of the goods required in the most efficient sequence of shelf edge stops. Alternatively, warehouse operatives may find themselves guided by audio prompts, if voice systems are preferred. Data suggests that efficiency gains using voice systems can reduce overall warehouse costs by as much as 5%. But setups might not suit all environments – for example, if there’s persistent background noise.
At each stop, the stock picker will check-in at the location – for example, by scanning a barcode – and then scan the SKU of the item to register that goods have been picked up. The SKU data also serves as a double-check that the right item has been selected, as scanners for warehouse inventory processing will reject the scan if the barcode information is wrong and doesn’t match the order details.
Depending on the warehouse setup, the operative may place the picked item in a bin (or tote) on their trolley. Putting items into totes sets things up for the next step in the process – packing – as bins can be conveyed to the dispatch area of the warehouse, once picking is complete. Bins could also be dropped off mid-way through if trollies become full and need to be emptied. Scanning the barcode on the tote, as part of the picking process, tells the WMS where each element of the order resides. Traceability is key.
To keep wheels turning efficiently, the WMS will need to know where items in the warehouse can be found. Although inevitably, there will be data gaps, hence the need for periodic whole warehouse stock checks. But increasingly, warehouse drones can help with inventory monitoring, as we’ve covered on TechHQ.
Streamlining picking processes is often a priority inside the warehouse as mismanagement can soon dent company profits. Picking can be an expensive element of warehousing, which means that there’s much to be gained from coordinating company efforts. And optimizing scanning equipment setups can make a big difference in performance. This includes battery life.
Devices will have rechargeable packs that operatives can swap in and then put on charge at the end of the shift. Naturally, units can be switched off to save power. Also, scanners for warehouse inventory management may go into hibernate mode during prolonged periods of inactivity. Bringing the unit back to life requires just a press of the keypad. Staff may have to log back in, depending on how long the unit has been left hibernating.
Evolving warehouse designs
Scanners for warehouse inventory management and processing are used across operations, although much of the focus can be on the picking steps. And there are business reasons for this, as mentioned. Picking can be costly and involve the largest number of staff. As a result, these costs also make picking a target for higher levels of automation, and warehouse designs are evolving to accommodate greater numbers of robots. However, no matter who’s pulling the trigger, inventory scanners remain critical for smooth-running warehouse operations.