Barcoding inventory is an efficient way to manage a large amount of stock. It’s also recommended if your inventory contains high value items that need to be carefully tracked and maintained. In both cases, barcodes are the starting point for efficient inventory management and a good way to save heaps of time and money.
Barcodes are extremely useful but it’s important to approach using them in the right way. This guide covers how to get started and gives plenty of best practice tips for creating and using a barcode inventory system. Follow the advice and it will help you maximize the efficiencies to be gained with barcoding.
What is a barcode, and how do barcodes work?
Barcodes play a huge role in our daily lives. We’ve all seen them used in numerous places – from retail and events to products and referencing systems – so most people have at least some understanding of the technology behind them. But how do barcodes work, and where did they originate?
A barcode is a series of thicker and thinner stripes enclosed between two parallel black lines at either end. In essence it’s a one-dimensional visual representation of data that a computer with a laser scanning device can read and translate. Interestingly, a barcode scanner doesn’t register the black lines as you may expect, but instead reads the white or colored gaps between them.
The barcode was invented in 1951, when Bernard Silver and Norman Woodland devised a system for automatically reading information in a visual format. The story goes that Woodland drew some Morse code on the beach and then extended the dots and dashes downwards to create lines – in a sense, this was the first ever barcode. Originally designed with both circular and rectangular versions, it wasn’t until supermarkets began using barcodes in 1973 that the familiar rectangular form that’s now standard became ubiquitous.
So that is how the one-dimensional barcode came about. Since then we’ve seen the development of two-dimensional codes such as QR codes and data matrix codes that are both able to store more information than a conventional barcode.
Conventional one-dimensional barcode
Data matrix code
More recently, systems using NFC and RFID chips have further increased the amount of information that can be associated with a product or other item. Thanks to these advances, barcodes are not the only way to represent information – however, they are still one of the simplest to use. For this reason they remain an integral part of retail, inventory management, and several other everyday processes that we may often take for granted.
How barcoding can be used in inventory management
Inventory management is essential to the efficient running of many businesses and organizations. Once a certain level of inventory has been acquired, it’s important to have a foolproof way of identifying, tracking, and recording information about each item, its location and use.
While it’s possible to monitor this information by hand or using a spreadsheet on a computer, it’s burdensome without using barcodes. It’s also easy to make mistakes, leading to items being unavailable and resources under-utilized. Barcode inventory systems eliminate such human errors by swapping manual data entry for machine-reading by scanner. This streamlines and automates many functions of inventory management.
As the basis for a unique record of each inventory item, barcodes help immensely with a multitude of tasks. It provides an accurate way of always identifying or looking up the correct item. In circumstances where items are used by multiple employees, students or customers, quickly scanning each item’s barcode each time means their usage history builds in the system. Their whereabouts is always known, and users remain accountable for their return due to the accuracy of the records kept.
Why use barcodes for inventory management?
The time used barcoding and scanning each item in your inventory is always well spent. Here are some of the main benefits:
- It speeds up how quickly you can identify items, check them out to users, and check them in again, with an accurate record kept each time
- This accurate record keeping leads to much greater accountability when borrowing and using items, resulting in far fewer losses or thefts
- The money saved from fewer lost items usually greatly outweighs the costs of barcoding, with materials and equipment costs fairly minimal
- An efficient system with visible asset tags promote more responsible borrowing – items tend to be returned more promptly for better availability for all
- Stocktaking is so much faster when all inventory is barcoded
- It’s easier to manage repairs and routine maintenance when you can reliably identify and review usage histories on each individual item
- A barcoded system supports further automations e.g. if items fail to be scanned back in by an agreed time, systems can automatically issue reminders and fines to users
How do I get started with barcoding?
Great, you’ve made the smart decision to start barcoding your inventory! Here's 12 steps to getting started:
- First consider how many items you need to manage and so how many barcodes you’ll need
- Decide which format of barcode is best to use. For inventory management, a code 39 or 128 with a simple alphanumeric format is usually sufficient. If you're barcoding very small items, you'll notice the Code 128 is more compact and so possibly better suited for the job.
Code 39 format
Code 128 format
- Barcode labels can be different sizes and made from different materials, so think about the variety of items that you’ll use them for, how small they need to be, where you will attach them and whether for indoor or outdoor use (think laminated or self-laminating if outdoors or for heavy use)
- Buying a series of barcodes as ready-to-use peel-off labels can be a quick way to get started. Make sure the print is good quality and the surface not too shiny for the barcodes to scan correctly and easily
- It’s possible to create your own barcode sequence with barcode generating software, then use a barcode label printer to print them to the size required. Brother P Touch Professional offers a popular barcode printer range
Image via Brother
- Some label printers come with software to generate the barcodes (as opposed to inputting each number manually or connecting to an excel list of barcode numbers), e.g. Brady BMP51 Label Printer includes a sequence generator in its software. A cheaper, handheld model is the BMP41 model. This one comes only with a trial of the software, so check first if this is sufficient for your needs
Image via Brady
- Alternatively, there's an abundance of companies that specialize in barcode production and label printing. Once you’ve considered what you need, talk to them about your specific requirements
- Use inventory software for storing the data and better tracking
- You’ll also need an input device, i.e. a barcode scanner suitable for the type of code used - 1D if using linear barcodes such as code 39, or 2D if you’ve opted for QR codes
- Barcode labels can be ordered in batches whenever you need more – keep a record of which numbers have been ordered so when the time comes to order a new batch, the provider can be instructed on which number to start from
- Use a consistent approach to attaching the barcodes onto items, making sure they’re in the same place on similar items so that they’re easy to find
- In addition to plain barcodes, it’s also possible to use specially made asset tags which feature information such as a company logo, department, or location identifier as needed. For extra security they can be produced to be tamper-proof and extra resilient. Materials used range from laminated vinyl to anodized aluminum which is especially hardwearing
Best practice tips for barcoding inventory
Be comprehensive: Firstly, aim to barcode each item you need to manage with a unique barcode. It always pay off. Unless you are totally indifferent to whether an item is returned or not (e.g. consumables), it’s worth finding a way to barcode it.
Be practical and determined: Barcode labels attached directly to equipment works well for most items. They’re reasonably resilient as long as they’re not placed in a location where moving parts could damage them. Some items may be more tricky though, due to size or shape. But with some forethought and a little determination, it’s possible to barcode almost anything.
Get help with a label maker: Using a label maker that produces smaller barcodes in a choice of dimensions is a versatile solution to tagging inventory of all shapes and sizes - see some examples pictured above. These printers are fairly simple to use – the required barcode number is entered, and the label maker creates a barcode label using this number. If the new label’s barcode is a duplicate from a batch of larger labels, remember to dispose of the original to avoid mix ups later.
No job too small: When it comes to very small or fiddly items, don’t be put off. Remember, it’s worthwhile to apply unique barcodes to inventory of all sizes. Equipment loan programs for filmmaking equipment is a case in point. Lenses are tricky to barcode, but as they are often very expensive, it’s important to do so. SD cards and cables, although of lower value, are still useful to get back, and save money over time when fewer need replacing. If the barcode labels are too big, you can cut them down somewhat to fit, but you must ensure you leave a sufficient blank margin around the edge of the code for successful scanning!
Working with kits: When everything is barcoded, kits are returned with all items present and correct for the next person’s use, and no time is wasted reordering specific cables and accessories. It’s also worth noting that having all items barcoded for a project allows some items to be retained by the user for postproduction work (e.g. SD cards), while other valuable or bulky items can be returned more quickly for safe keeping. When a number of items are borrowed by a single user, the system will always be able to tell you what’s back and what’s not for 100% efficient tracking.
Labeling cables: Barcodes need to be well attached to articles, and this can require some inventive solutions. Long, thin items such as cables can be especially difficult to deal with but there’s always a way. In our case study on equipment lending at Rowan University, we saw that sticking a barcode label on lengthways and then using clear packing tape over the top helps to keep the label more rigid and therefore easier to read with the scanner. Otherwise, flag type labels can work well with cables.
Tricky surfaces: For items with no suitable surfaces to stick labels onto, even more ingenuity is required – for example, it’s often not possible to stick labels onto cloth surfaces. However, our Rowan case study shows that even sandbags can be barcoded using small vinyl tags and tiny zip ties. If an item really has no way of sticking or tying on a barcode label (footballs are one example here!), then you may need to consider storing the barcodes on a laminated sheet for scanning and marking the items themselves with a single corresponding number.
Taking stock and using collections: If you have a large amount of inventory available for employees, students or customers to borrow, it’s worth grouping it in collections of similar or identical items. This makes it easier for users to assess the range of items available and order or reserve what they need. Stocktaking and budgeting also become easier with this approach. Finally, the checkout process is speeded up as staff aren’t looking to find and checkout a single unique item. Instead they can just grab one from the larger collection. However, once it’s checked out, the borrower is responsible for the safe use and return of that specific barcoded item. There’s one further benefit here to collection groups: as long as returned and cleaned items are placed to the back of the shelf, it ensures wear and tear is distributed evenly across the collection of items.
Identifying users: A barcode inventory system can also make use of students’ or employees’ ID cards as these probably include barcodes too. These can be included in an equipment order, so at checkout, you would scan both the item barcode and the ID badge. This reliably links the checkout to the correct user for 100% accurate tracking. It also makes the checkout process incredibly fast!
Reducing losses: Although barcoding your inventory vastly reduces the number of overdue items – by around 90% in our case study from Leeds Trinity University – there will always be some items that go astray. For these, it’s worthwhile chasing up and there are various tactics you can use to help get them back. For some of the less expensive items though, you should bear in mind that there will always be a point where it’s simply more cost effective to write them off.
Want to know more about barcoding inventory?
We hope that you’ve found this barcoding guide for inventory management useful. If you’re planning on using a barcode inventory system for tracking, equipment lending or stocktaking, the tips we’ve provided will serve as a great starting point.
For further information and ideas on setting up or improving a barcode inventory system, remember to take a look at our university case studies here.
If you’d like to know more about connect2, our compatible software for barcoding and lending your inventory, please get in touch with us at Lorensbergs to discuss your requirements in more detail.