When you hear the word barcodes, your first thought is probably the “beep beep” of the scanner at a checkout lane in the grocery store. However, barcodes are used in more ways than just to purchase retail products. Maintenance departments use them to keep track of assets and inventory. There are entire barcode systems designed to work with computerized maintenance management system (CMMS) software. In this article, you’ll learn what a barcode system is, how barcodes work, more about the various types of scanners and label printing options, and how barcodes can be used to streamline maintenance management.

What is a Barcode?

A barcode is a code of information or representation of numbers and letters in the form of parallel lines or a square of strategically spaced pixels that can be read with a scanner. Each symbol represents a letter or piece of data. The barcode is written in a “language” that the scanner and software can understand. Barcodes are the standard for data collection as they include information that is crucial to businesses.

Barcoding, in maintenance, is a method of technology used for identifying assets and parts. It is used to track and manage these items. One might use the term “to barcode” or “barcoding” when inventory items or an asset is marked with a barcode and scanned.

Portable mobile computer barcode scanner sitting on boxes in a stockroom, to be used for barcoding inventory.

How Barcodes Work

To better understand the question “what is barcoding” and what purposes barcodes serve, it’s important to know how they work. Every barcode has a quiet zone, a blank margin located at the edge of the barcode. The minimal margin between barcodes is 2.5mm; therefore the quiet zone needs to be sufficient enough for a scanner to read the barcode easily. There is also a start and stop character, which represent the beginning and end of the data stored in the barcode. Lastly, the check digit is a digit for making sure the encoded barcode data is correct.

When a barcode is scanned with a laser, infrared, or LED light from a scanner, it translates the code into readable data. This data comes from information entered in the barcoding software when the barcode was created and assigned.

Since a barcode is a unique identifier (for all of the exact same items in stock), it stores information such as the asset category, project name (if applicable), asset or part name, and the current quantity of the asset or inventory item at the time it was scanned. If the barcode is a QR code, (a type of 2D barcode which we will talk more about in a minute), it can store more information than other barcodes. Scanning a QR code can take you to a webpage or product software page in a maintenance management record.

Types of Barcodes

There are 8 most commonly used types of barcodes. Some types are newer and more advanced than others, but each of them serves a purpose. There are 1D and 2D barcodes. 1D barcodes are vertical lines and numbers on a single horizontal line, while 2D barcodes are composed of pixels that make up a square shape and usually don’t contain numbers. 1D barcodes only read horizontal information while 2D barcodes read both horizontal and vertical information, storing up to 2,000 characters of data.

Examples of barcodes used in a barcode system

Clockwise from top left: Code 128, 1D; Code 39, 1D; Quick Response (QR) code, 2D; Universal Product Code (UPC), 1D

 

  • Code 39: Oldest type, linear and 1D, number can be any length that fits on the label
  • Code 128: Derived from the American Standard Code for Information Exchange (ASCII) 128 character set (encoding standard for electronic communication), compact, can automatically be switched to shortened version to optimize length
  • Interleaved 2 of 5: Numeric only barcode used for encoding pairs of numbers, so digits must be even
  • Universal Product Code (UPC): Found on nearly every retail item, originally created for grocery stores for quick receipt printing and inventory tracking, must be 11 characters
  • EAN: Subset of UPC, used by booksellers, libraries and universities for book tracking, created from 13-digit ISBN numbers
  • PDF417: A 2D code stacked linear barcode used for driver licenses and other government materials, can be linked to more than one file
  • Data Matrix: A 2D square that can encode huge amounts of information in one space, used in electronics and healthcare
  • Quick Response (QR): Newest type of barcode, marketing tool to link to web pages, add contacts, scan event tickets, and much more

The Value of Barcodes for Maintenance Management

When used correctly, barcoding can serve an important purpose in maintenance management.

What Problems Does Barcoding Solve?

Barcoding reduces the problem of excessive human error that occurs when manually entering or logging data. It also increases speed and efficiency for when assets or inventory shelves of parts need to be scanned into the software system. When inventory is accurately tracked, maintenance departments save money by only purchasing the quantity of items they need.

Barcoding also helps with organization of stockrooms and creating a more balanced maintenance schedule. Scanning barcodes on assets and stockroom shelves keeps the maintenance department organized and able to work more efficiently. When all inventory items are accounted for and information about assets is stored accurately, the maintenance operation as a whole runs smoother.

Why Should Maintenance Departments Consider Barcoding?

Maintenance departments should consider integrating barcoding into their maintenance management software because the money the organization will save on inventory costs, corrective maintenance, and asset replacement will provide a fairly quick return on investment (ROI). Barcoding software and scanners are fairly inexpensive in comparison to regularly experiencing excessive emergency maintenance or overstock.

How are Barcodes Used in Maintenance?

Barcodes are used in maintenance to link work orders, purchase orders, spare MRO inventory parts, and assets together within CMMS software. A complete barcoding system has the software component, barcode labels, scanners, and barcode printing equipment.

Types of Barcode Scanners

A barcode scanner is a device used to scan or read a barcode with a red laser, infrared light, or LED light, or in the case of QR codes, a mobile app. (A mobile app can also scan other types of barcodes). It can pull up data stored in the product information assigned to the barcode. There are three different types of barcode scanners: wired, wireless, and a mobile computer with a scanner built in. You can also use a mobile phone’s camera application to scan QR codes. The right type of scanner for your organization will depend on your maintenance department’s needs and budget. Keep in mind that barcode scanning software technology is robust; therefore, it won’t need to be updated. Rather, the scanner itself gets replaced after it is damaged or breaks down.

Wired

Wired barcode scanners are the type you see used for larger items at self-checkout counters in stores, alongside the built-in scanners they have. They are handheld, but have a cradle like a phone and are connected with a cord. These work well for small rooms where the cord can reach where you need it to, or for barcode scanning small items you can bring to the area of the scanner. They are more cumbersome and less convenient than wireless scanners, but they often cost less.

 

A wired barcode scanner placed on top of boxes during barcoding in a stock room.

Wireless

Wireless barcode scanners are the most common ones found in an asset management and MRO inventory management environment. They are a bit more expensive than wired scanners, but they are still affordable. They are easy to carry around and you can walk up to any asset or stock room shelf and scan it easily. The scanner can be plugged into a computer via USB port. The information is stored in a memory card and is saved to the database. These scanners are compatible with most barcode types.

Mobile Device

A mobile device barcode scanner is the most advanced type and while it is the most expensive, you get the most benefits from them. Also called a handheld computer barcode scanner, these devices are multi-functional and often have barcode scanning software as one of those functions. There are options for batch and real-time wireless data capture. Models with industrial and rugged hardware designs can withstand harsh environments. The operating systems they have ensure seamless software integration with back-end systems while being able to quickly scan barcodes in many types of environments.

Barcode Label Printing Options

In order to use the information stored in barcode database software, you need a barcode label to scan. There are multiple printing options available that suit different sizes and types of barcodes, various types of assets and parts, and withstand different types of environments (hot, cold, dry, dusty, or wet).

For environments that are subjected to fluctuating temperatures and dirt, a synthetic (or plastic) label will hold up better than a paper label. Synthetic materials include polyolefin, polypropylene, polyester, polyimide, and long-life acrylic. For areas that stay cool and dry, paper labels may suffice. There are various standard sizes to choose from, or you can print custom sizes.

Thermal transfer printing technology allows heat to transfer a ribbon with ink to the material of the label. Inkjet printing is used for color printing and places liquid ink on paper. Laser printing uses a powder and a laser to fuse ink to the label of either paper or plastic material. Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) printing writes data to RFID chips which are embedded in smart labels.

Barcoding with FTMaintenance

FTMaintenance is a robust, comprehensive CMMS system with barcoding capabilities. At FasTrak SoftWorks, consulting services are available to assist you in implementing a barcoding system. The experienced FTMaintenance team can answer all of your questions. When you work with us, we will make recommendations on how to integrate barcoding with FTMaintenance and ensure everything goes smoothly. Contact us with any questions you have or request a demo to learn more.

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