I like barcoding.

You will too, once you understand its merits.

Many business people think that the advantage to using barcode scanners is that they're faster than punching data into a keyboard. That's true, but the use of bar code scanners does something that's more important: it virtually eliminates data entry errors.

Each barcode standard includes a method of ensuring that the scanner sends accurate data, and only accurate data, to the computer. Each printed barcode contains more than just a part number or tracking number -- it also contains one or more check digits. The scanner reads the part number (to use an inventory example), as well as the check digits. Then the scanner performs a quick calculation to see if the check digits agree with the part number. If they don't agree -- and this is the important part -- the scanner will not send the incorrect part number to the computer. Once the scanner determines that the check digits that it read and the part number that it read agree, it sends the part number to the computer.

Simply by employing barcode scanning, I've seen data entry errors drop to almost zero at every step of order processing. Small businesses can print their own barcode labels with a small desktop printer like this one:

Typical barcode label
If you're interested in the mathematics of check digits, here's an excellent description.

Here's a simple retailing example of what happens without barcode scanning:

Imagine a busy retailer, with paying customers queued up at his cash register (okay, his point of sale terminal). Each item has a tag with a barcoded part number. Suppose that the customer wishes to buy a blue shirt. If the cashier keys the wrong part number for the shirt, the point of sale software may detect the error if the number is incorrect length or unassigned. If, however, he punches in a valid part number but one that's not the part number for the item being sold, there's a problem.

Let's say that the cashier has punched in a part number that identifies the shirt, size M, but red, and is marked down fifty percent. He collects the customer's money (only half of what he should have), prints out the receipt, hands it to the customer, and helps the next customer in line.

At this point, we hope that either the cashier or the customer detects the error -- but they rarely do. If neither does, multiple errors enter the business' records: in the inventory file, the quantity on hand for blue shirts is one too high, and the quantity on hand for red shirts is one too low. This single keyboard error results in two errors which affect ordering, parts count, parts bin allocation, sales forecasting, profit and loss statement, and balance sheet.

Barcode scanners quickly pay for themselves in:

Point of Sale
Receiving / Incoming inspection
Shipping
Inventory control

By using handheld barcode scanners to scan barcoded inventory labels and fixed asset tags, the tedious but important job of performing physical inventory counts becomes more accurate and less work. Workers like it and management likes it. How many other investments can you say that about?

In my experience, the most popular barcode standards are UPC (Universal Product Code) and code 39. UPC is used in the retail industry; Code 39 is found almost everywhere else.

Barcode printer

I've found that the fastest and most reliable hand held scanners contain a laser whose beam is rapidly swept at multiple angles. They're more expensive to buy than the simple "wands", but their speed and ability to read damaged barcode labels make them a good investmant. Here are the innards of such a scanner: