Magazine Article | November 1, 2002

Handheld Scanners Do Double (And Triple) Duty

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

With advances in linear and 2-D imaging, handheld bar code scanners are finding more uses within the enterprise and giving laser scanners a run for their money.

Integrated Solutions, November 2002

One of the first things that come to mind when people think about scanning technology is the laser. Laser scanning technology has been around for more than 20 years and for years has been the de facto standard. But, in recent years newer technology has come along that is making headway into the handheld scanner market. What is this rival technology? Linear imaging and 2-D imaging. Three or four years ago this technology was used in limited contact scanning applications. Besides the inherent limitations of touch scanning, it also had a slow read rate. In the last few years, however, things have changed.

Linear Imagers Compete With Lasers
Because of advances in optical sensor technology and improved algorithms for signal processing, linear imagers are now able to scan at rates up to 300 scans per second. Additionally, these solid-state devices can read bar code labels at distances up to 18 inches, delivering the same scan performance as conventional lasers. "Linear imagers have no moving parts, which makes them highly reliable," says David Latimer, VP of product marketing for PSC Inc. (Portland, OR), a data capture solutions provider. "Lasers are still the best solution for long distance scanning, however. Some laser scanners can read bar code labels up to 35 feet away."

Linear image technology still has a way to go before it can match data capturing from such a distance, making it an impractical technology for some warehouse applications. However, because linear imagers cost about 20% less than their laser counterparts, linear imagers are making headway in the market.

2-D Imaging Integrates Pictures With Data
A second important trend in handheld scanning technology is 2-D imaging. This technology is opening doors for new uses of handheld scanning devices including damage reporting and signature capture. Consider a few real world examples of how this technology is being used. In the shipping industry, 2-D imaging is used to take digital photos of damaged products. The user can key in comments that add further details to give the supplier or manufacturer enough evidence to be able to understand the problem and award credit to the third party shipping company or send replacement products to the company. "The significance of having the 2-D imager built into the handheld scanner is that it ensures the data and image information are integrated," says Don Flynn, senior VP of sales and marketing for HHP (Skaneateles Falls, NY), an image-based data capture products and solutions provider. "Additionally, it is much easier to support one device running on one platform versus two devices with two platforms."

Another common use for 2-D imaging handheld scanners is receipt verification. For instance, after the receiver signs the delivery receipt, he scans the 2-D bar code label. Immediately the receiver's signature and the tracking number listed on the 2-D bar code label are posted on the receiving company's intranet or Web site. This feature gives customers, suppliers, and partners deeper visibility into the supply chain, and it provides a higher level of verification compared to traditional bar code scanning solutions.

"We've seen some customers buy scanners with imaging capabilities years before making use of the imaging technology," says Flynn. "They make the investment because they've seen what 2-D imaging technology has to offer, they plan to use it in three to five years, and they want to future-proof their investment."

Doing Double (And Triple) Duty
One of the main trends regarding how handheld scanners are being used capitalizes on their diversity. Besides the dual uses of some handheld scanners, which can scan bar codes and capture images, short-range linear imagers are doing double duty in long-range applications. "Through the use of vehicle-mounted docking units, handheld scanners can be placed in a cradle with an attached long range scanner, and they can scan bar codes on aisle entrances 20 feet away," says Dick Sorenson, director of product management at LXE (Norcross, GA), a wireless data collection solution provider. "After the user arrives at the aisle and gets off the vehicle, he can pull the handheld scanner from the dock and use the handheld's embedded scanner for scanning bar code labels on crates or boxes from distances less than 2 feet away." By using the handheld scanners in this manner, enterprises can save money by purchasing and supporting fewer devices.

Thin Clients And Real-Time Data
Another important trend happening with handheld scanners is a transition from client/server use to thin client use. Traditionally, handhelds were used to capture data within a warehouse or grocery store and update a database via an attachment to a PC or sometimes via a wireless LAN. "Nowadays enterprises are using handheld scanners in the field to capture data and transmit it in real time over the Internet or wide area networks," says Sorenson. This trend gives customers greater supply chain visibility by providing enterprises an up-to-the-minute view of their data. The other advantage of working with a browser-based or TCP/IP (an open computer communications language) solution is that the application does not need to be copied onto each device. This makes administration of the devices much simpler and changes the IT administrative focus from the application to the type of browser and operating system that is being used. For instance, users may find that a particular version of Internet Explorer does not present certain bar code label or image information correctly. But, in this environment the administrator can direct the user to a particular Web site, download an updated browser, and be back in business in a few minutes. For enterprises with handheld scanners at a single location, this feature may not be significant. But for enterprises operating handheld scanners at multiple satellite branches with minimal IT support, this feature is a necessity.