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“A picture is worth a thousand words,” they say. In the warehouse, it’s really more about efficiency. What I’m talking about, of course, is imaging technology for barcode reading.

We all know that you need a 2D imager to read matrix symbols, since they’re essentially cameras that take high-resolution pictures. This “picture” is what’s necessary for decoding software to find, orient and decode 2D matrix symbols.

Many people have associated imagers with matrix symbols—meaning if you’re not reading matrix symbols, you don’t need an imager. They also have the impression that a 2D imager is more expensive and fragile than a laser scanner, even a rastering laser.

If you’re one of these folks, it’s time for an update.

Just as laser scanners got a tremendous boost in popularity when laser LEDs began to be mass produced for use in CD players (lowering their cost and improving consistency), imagers are taking advantage of advances in digital camera technology.

Most people think of CCD technology when they think of imagers. This is no longer the case. Modern imagers use CMOS technology, which is much more rugged than CCD. If you’ve ever wondered how cell phones can have cameras, well, there’s the answer.

Cameras—hence, 2D imagers—are now small, light and rugged. In other words, they’re a far cry from the original imagers that were essentially repackaged digital cameras. While today’s imagers still use commercially available components, those components offer significantly improved performance for a fraction of the price.

But, why would you want an imager if you’re not reading matrix symbols? The answer is in the fact that imagers take pictures that can be manipulated, rotated and even improved.

In many warehousing operations, items are stored (or labeled) so that barcodes end up in a “ladder” configuration. To read these with a laser scanner, workers have to rotate the scanner 90 degrees. Repetitive scanning like this can lead to fatigue and wrist stress. Imagers don’t have to be aligned to the symbol; decoding software can rotate the image to decode the symbol. With proper software, imagers can also read and decode multiple symbols on a label with a single “shot.” This offers both ergonomic and productivity benefits.

In other instances, symbols may be dirty, damaged or low contrast. Imaging software can enhance those symbols to make decoding easier.

For more conventional scanning applications, there are also linear imagers that have also improved dramatically over the original linear CCD units. Some of these can be extremely inexpensive (although some of the least expensive models are better suited to office environments rather than manufacturing or warehouse facilities).

There are even a few wearable imagers (and laser scanners) that are designed to be worn as “rings.” This means workers don’t have to pick up or hold a scanner. That can offer significant ergonomic and productivity benefits (and a bit of “science fiction” flavor in just pointing your hand to read a symbol.) These ring scanners are triggered by a thumb switch, which is simple to use and stress free.

Are imagers ideal for every application? Of course not. Lasers still excel in low light and distance-reading applications. And, some very large (low-density) symbols may exceed the size of an imager’s effective reading field.

However, next time you walk through your facility, take a look at the barcodes your employees have to read, and see if some of them might be better read with an imager. If there’s a large percentage of symbols that are awkwardly placed, dirty or just plain inconvenient to read, an imager may be an important part of the “big picture” in your future operations.

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