Barcode scanning serial numbers and batch numbers

If you operate a business in which you are buying and reselling items that have serial numbers or lot numbers, you may have looked into barcode scanning as a method of recording shipments or stock takes more efficiently and with less chance of human error.  If you searched on the internet for “barcode scanners for serial numbers” you probably discovered that it is easy to buy a barcode scanner but astonishingly difficult to get information about how to use it for keeping track of serial numbers or batch numbers.  We’ve encountered the same thing.

image of barcode displaying on mobile phone

As far as we can tell, the reason this information is hard to come by is that for anything other than the simplest of barcode tasks — and this includes serial numbers and batch numbers — most solutions require some custom programming on the scanner itself or some custom adaptation of the inventory management software.  “Out of the box” solutions are not the predominant model in which complex barcode scanning solutions are sold, so internet quests for information usually end up at consultants and system integrators who have the expertise to program the components and put together a somewhat custom system.  If you are looking for an affordable system that you can buy and deploy on your own, you are left out in the cold.

We’ve tried to solve this problem in Finale Inventory, and we’ve succeeded for a large class of companies.  We’ll explain what we’ve done, and hopefully you’ll either find our solution applicable or at least end up with a better understanding of the issues.

The fundamental difference between serial numbers and batch numbers on the one hand, and SKUs or Product IDs on the other hand, is that serial number and batch numbers can be different for items of the same kind, whereas Product IDs and for the most part SKUs are the same for items of the same kind.  Product ID identifies what kind of product an item is; serial numbers identify each item individually.  This difference explains why barcode scanning is more complex if you are keeping track of serial numbers or batch numbers — if you receive a shipment of items or if you pack items or transfer items you can’t just scan the Product ID and type in a quantity because that wouldn’t tell you which items you are receiving, shipping, packing, or transferring.

In most cases the first time you see the specific barcodes of items is when you receive the items in a shipment.  At that point in time, for each item you need to scan in or select two pieces of information: (1) what kind of product it is (identified by the Product ID), and (2) which product it is (identified by serial number or batch).  In a common scenario, if each item has a single barcode representing the serial number or batch number, then you can scan in that barcode and select the Product ID in the user interface of the inventory management system rather than scanning it (or if there’s a second barcode representing the Product ID you can scan that also).  In the common scenario that you receive a box of items of the same type, then you’d like to select the Product ID only once and either scan in each barcode once per item if they are serial numbers, or if they are all from the same batch then you’d like to scan the batch barcode once for the whole box and simply type in a quantity for number of items received having that batch.  This step is where customization is often required.  Finale Inventory has a user interface that works great for most companies, but even our own solution doesn’t work for everyone.  I’ve rattled through some “common scenario” paths.  If your requirements are similar to these, Finale Inventory’s solution probably has you covered.

Cardboard boxes in a warehouse

 

The good news is that after you’ve scanned in the serial number or batch numbers of the items received and scanned or selected the associated Product IDs, Finale Inventory remembers the associations in a lookup table, so for all subsequent operations like transfers, packing, stock changes, or shipping, you only have to scan a single piece of information — the serial number or batch number — and Finale looks up the associated Product ID in the lookup table.  Thus for all of these operations, the barcode scanning process is as simple as scanning each item or entering a quantity for items of the same batch.

The kind of barcode scanner you choose to buy will depend on whether a computer will be nearby or attached to the scanner at the time of doing the operation, or whether you are scanning in batch mode while disconnected from a computer.  In most circumstances Finale Inventory’s general purpose user interface will accommodate a company’s needs without customization for both kinds of scanners.  In the cases requiring customization, the key to understanding what customization you need is to have a clear idea of the information represented by the barcodes and the information that is required for the inventory operation you are recording.

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