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Technology
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May 13, 2024
May 13, 2024

What Is an RF Scanner? A Complete Guide

In warehousing and retail, efficient inventory management is key. RF scanners provide solutions to streamline such processes and improve overall operational efficiency. This guide covers all you need to know about RF scanning, demonstrating its impact and its versatility in various sectors.

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Key takeaways

What is an RF scanner?

In warehousing and retail, efficient inventory management is key. Inventory management goes by many names;  traceability, stock control, auditability, supply chain management, lineage — the list goes on. In order to track your inventory through your process, you need a way to identify each item. Some small operations have gotten by with pen and paper, but nearly every operation can get a boost from automating this task with scanners/readers coupled with barcodes and other identification tags on each product.

Radio frequency (RF) scanners provide solutions to streamline such processes and improve overall operational efficiency. This guide covers all you need to know about RF scanning, demonstrating its impact and its versatility in various sectors. The article also compares radio frequency identification (RFID) tags and barcodes as ways to trace items through your process, and it touches on alternative approaches to gathering identification data. Let's first define barcodes and RFID tags:

What is an RFID tag?

An RFID tag is a small electronic device that consists of a microchip attached to an antenna. These tags can store and transmit data wirelessly via radio waves to an RFID reader. They're used for various purposes such as tracking inventory in retail stores, managing building access control, tracking pets, and even in electronic toll collection systems.

What is a barcode?

A barcode is a graphical representation of data that is machine-readable. It consists of a series of parallel lines or geometric patterns of varying widths and spacing. Barcodes are used to encode information such as product numbers, serial numbers, or other data, which can then be quickly and accurately read by a barcode reader.

RF scanners often don't read RFID tags

“RF scanners,” “RF guns,” etc. are commonly used names to refer to mobile terminals that acquire inventory and process data. This naming convention comes not from the type of ID tag being read, barcodes being the most prevalent, but by the way the data is transmitted back to the inventory management system or other control network.

RF scanners use radio waves to wirelessly transmit data back to a base station or directly to the warehouse network. Typical data inputs into an RF scanner are from barcodes, but they also read RFID tags and collect manual data.

RF scanners commonly collect data from barcodes, but they can also read RFID tags or accept manual inputs entered with an onboard keyboard or touchpad.

How RFID readers differ from RF scanners

If RF scanners typically read barcodes, what technology typically reads RFID tags?

RFID usually requires two pieces of technology to work together — tags and readers. The RFID reader emits radio waves that interact with the RFID tag. The RFID tag transmits its identification data back to the reader. The reader then transmits the data to the inventory management system or control network.

RFID scanning can retrieve data from tags without direct visibility, unlike traditional barcode scanning, which requires a line of sight to the printed or etched barcode. This comes with certain drawbacks, however, which will be discussed in later sections.

RFID tags can be read by fixed-mounted RFID readers or by RF scanners equipped with RFID-reading capability. The manufacturing and/or warehouse process will dictate which is a more efficient and effective way to track each item through each step of the supply chain.

RF scanners can be configured to read RFID tags, but at present, it is much more common for an RF scanner to read a printed barcode.

How does an RFID reader work?

An RFID scanner, then, is a handheld or stationary device that functions as a bridge between physical goods and the digital inventory management software. It operates using a combination of radio frequency communication, digital data processing, and electromagnetic principles. The fundamental components of an RFID scanning system include the readers, the RFID tags, and the inventory management software.

RFID tags are small, often adhesive labels affixed to individual items, pallets, or containers. An RFID reader comes equipped with a radio transmitter and receiver. When activated, the reader emits a radio frequency signal that is designed to interact with the tags. It communicates with tags through radio waves, allowing for greater flexibility in item placement and orientation.

RFID tags are small, often adhesive labels affixed to individual items, pallets, or containers.

For signal transmission and reception, the reader sends out a signal which is captured by the antenna on the RFID tag. This interaction energizes the tag, enabling it to transmit its stored data back to the reader. This back-and-forth communication happens almost instantaneously, allowing for quick and accurate data capture.

Once the RFID reader receives the data from the tag, it decodes and processes this information. It then transmits this data to the warehouse's central inventory management system, updating records such as stock levels, locations, and movement history. This process ensures that inventory data remains current and accurate, facilitating informed decision-making.

Hopefully, you now understand how RFID tags work and how they can overlap with RF scanners. Let’s dig deeper into RF scanners.

Benefits of RF scanners

There are many benefits of using RF scanners in warehousing. They are transformative tools that can streamline operations from inventory management to shipping. Their integration into various processes underscores the shift toward more automated, efficient, and safe warehouse environments. By focusing on key areas, RF scanners elevate operational success and adaptability across industries:

Comprehensive inventory and asset management

RF scanners provide real-time updates on stock levels, locations, and movements, essential for minimizing excess stock and avoiding shortages. This level of detail supports better retail availability and uninterrupted manufacturing. Furthermore, they extend their utility to asset tracking, safeguarding valuable company resources and ensuring efficient operation.

Streamlining order processes: picking to shipping

By guiding employees through optimized routes, RF scanners facilitate faster, more accurate order picking, reducing manual errors and enhancing customer satisfaction. They also ensure that packing and shipping operations are meticulously managed, verifying order accuracy and improving delivery efficiency. This comprehensive approach from picking to shipping minimizes delays and enhances productivity.

Advancing safety, quality, and compliance

RF scanners play a crucial role in maintaining workplace safety, with some models allowing for hands-free operation, reducing the risk of accidents. They assist in quality control by swiftly checking items against batch numbers and expiry dates, ensuring only compliant products leave the warehouse. This adherence to standards fosters a safer, more compliant working environment, crucial for industries with stringent regulations.

Integration and customization for future-proof operations

The adaptability of RF scanners to integrate with existing warehouse management systems enables a seamless flow of information, enhancing inventory control and facilitating better decision-making. Their customizable nature ensures they can evolve with technological advancements and changing business needs, providing a scalable solution that grows with your operations.

The utilization of RF scanners extends beyond traditional inventory tasks. They are important in enhancing operational efficiency, customer service, and decision-making capabilities. By embracing these tools, businesses from retail logistics to manufacturing can navigate the challenges of digital transformation more effectively, ensuring they remain competitive and responsive to market demands.

Now that we’ve covered some of the benefits of mobile RF scanners, we can zoom out and explore other scanning technologies.

Different types of ID readers and where to use them

Once you’ve made the decision to invest in or upgrade a traceability system, you’ll find that the market is diverse, with a range of models designed to meet the specific needs of various industries and operational environments. Understanding the different types of ID readers and their typical applications is important to make informed investment decisions.  

Types of ID Readers

Manual: Handheld RF Scanners

These are one of the most common types of scanner across all process types and industries, known for their portability and ease of use. Handheld scanners are ideal for operations where mobility is required, such as order picking, stock replenishment, and inventory checks. They come in various forms, from gun-style to smartphone-like devices, each offering different levels of functionality and ergonomics. As mentioned previously, they can be used to read barcodes, RFID tags, and also accept manual data entry.

Handheld RF scanners come in various forms, from gun-style to smartphone-like devices.

Manual: Mobile Cart RF Scanners

These systems incorporate RF scanning capabilities into a mobile workstation, complete with a computer, scanner, and sometimes even a printer. They are often utilized in large warehouses where workers need access to full database functionality across the facility.

Mobile cart RF scanners give employees the ability to access data across a large warehouse facility.

Manual: Wearable RF Scanners

Designed for hands-free operation, wearable scanners can be attached to a worker’s wrist or finger, allowing for seamless scanning while handling items. These are particularly effective in improving efficiency and reducing the physical strain associated with holding a device throughout the workday. These are typically not as durable as larger RF scanners, nor do the batteries typically last as long.

Wearable RF scanners improve efficiency and reduce the physical strain associated with holding a device throughout the workday.

Manual: Handheld Barcode Readers

The most common and affordable type of barcode reader is the traditional gun-shaped device that reads codes and transmits data via USB, Ethernet, Serial, or Wi-Fi protocols. These can be found at many workstations in manufacturing and logistics, tracking items through your process. To increase throughput and safety, some can be used in “presentation mode” that allows for them to be mounted in a bracket where they continuously scan for items that an associate presents to them with both hands free. To truly maximize throughput, though, most operations will opt for a dedicated fixed-mount reader to accomplish this.

The most common type of barcode reader is the traditional gun-shaped device used at many workstations in manufacturing and logistics.

Fully- or Semi-Automated: Fixed Barcode Readers

Mounted in a stationary position, these readers are typically used at process entry and exit points, on conveyors, or within automated sorting systems. They automatically scan item barcodes as they pass by, making them suitable for high-volume, fast-paced environments where manual scanning is impractical. The most commonly used types are area-scan cameras and lasers.

They can also be used in a hands-free mode to increase throughput at locations where associates would traditionally use handheld barcode readers. These essentially operate like grocery store scanners where associates have both hands free to manipulate items, improving speed and safety.

Fixed barcode readers scan item barcodes as they pass by, making them suitable for high-volume, fast-paced environments where manual scanning is impractical.

Fully- or Semi-Automated: Fixed RFID Readers

Similar to the fixed barcode readers, fixed RFID readers are utilized in locations where items are conveyed, or otherwise handled, adjacent to the reader. While it is nice that you do not need line-of-sight to read a tag, the operation must move at a slower pace than barcode-based operations to ensure that tags are properly read and correctly assigned to the right tote or sequential location on the conveyor.

In reality, it is best to have the RFID reader placed in a way that allows for items to move slowly or stop, with all items being enclosed in a tote or other enclosure that shields the target tags from other tags in the process that could accidentally be picked up.

Investing wisely

When considering an investment in scanning technology, it's essential to evaluate the operational needs and expected ROI. A small retail operation might find handheld scanners sufficient, while a large distribution center could benefit from the speed and efficiency of fixed readers or even mobile cart scanning setups. The key is to choose a type that aligns with your operational workflow, environment, and budget.

Remember, the cheapest option isn’t always the most cost-effective in the long run. Consider durability, functionality, and how the technology will grow with your business. Investing in the right traceability solution can lead to significant improvements in efficiency, accuracy, and ultimately, profitability.

Choosing and using scanners to suit your business needs

Selecting the right scanning technology is not just about purchasing a device; it's about integrating a solution that aligns with your operational needs and goals. To fully leverage the potential of scanning technology it's essential to consider various factors that impact its performance and compatibility with your business processes. Furthermore, implementing best practices when using these devices can significantly enhance their efficacy and lifespan.

Factors to consider when choosing scanners

In the selection process for scanners, several key factors should guide your decision:

Operational range  

Consider the distance over which the scanner must effectively read barcodes or tags. Different environments and layouts may require different scanning ranges, from close-range handheld devices to mid-range fixed scanners or long-range RF scanners. For example, if someone needs to scan bay locations and item barcodes from a forklift, an RF scan gun is the natural fit.

Durability and environment suitability

Assess the working conditions in your facility. If your operations involve harsh environments, look for devices designed to withstand elements like dust, water, and extreme temperatures.

Battery life and mobility

For operations requiring high mobility, ensure the scanner has sufficient battery life to last through shifts and is lightweight and ergonomic.

Compatibility with existing systems

Verify that the scanner can seamlessly integrate with your current inventory management software and hardware, to avoid additional investments and ensure a smooth workflow.

Scanning speed and memory

Evaluate the scanner’s ability to quickly and accurately capture data, as well as its memory capacity, to ensure it can handle your operation's volume and pace.

Future scalability

Consider whether the scanner can grow with your business. It should be adaptable to future expansions or changes in your operational model.

Support and warranty

Look into the manufacturer's support services and warranty policies. Reliable customer support and an adequate warranty can significantly reduce total ownership costs.

Integrating ID scanners with goods-to-person systems for warehouse excellence

ID scanners are a crucial component of the warehouse automation ecosystem. Their integration with goods-to-person systems such as AutoStore not only streamlines operations but also elevates efficiency across all warehouse processes. Here's a closer look at how scanners work in tandem with the AutoStore system to meet and exceed warehousing needs.

Step 1: Assigning and tracking inventory

Upon receipt at the warehouse, the first step involves each item immediately being assigned a unique identifier through a barcode or RFID tag. Warehouse staff use RF scanners to scan these identifiers, enabling real-time tracking of the items as they move within the facility. This step is essential for maintaining accurate and up-to-date inventory counts.

Step 2: Facilitating efficient receiving and putaway

An empty inventory Bin is automatically brought to the worker at the putaway station, such as an AutoStore Port. Scanning items as they're placed into Bins allows the warehouse management system (WMS) to confirm the item storage location and, in combination with the AutoStore integration, direct where each item should be stored within the Grid.

Step 3: Verifying order accuracy during picking

When an order needs to be fulfilled, the WMS displays the specific items to be picked on a screen at the AutoStore workstation. As workers select the items, they scan them, typically with handheld or fixed-mount ID readers. This action confirms the match between the picked item and the order details in the WMS, ensuring the accuracy of the order.

At Benetton in Italy, workers use wearable RF scanners to confirm that order details from the WMS match items either picked or replenished at an AutoStore Port. The system was designed and integrated by AutoStore partner Dematic.

Step 4: Streamlining the sortation process

After packing, some orders may undergo a sortation process to organize them for shipping. This might involve automated sortation systems, like conveyors that feed pop-up or shoe sorters which require scanners to properly divert packages. Scanning during this phase ensures that packages are accurately sorted according to their shipping destinations or elsewhere according to other process criteria.

Step 5: Ensuring shipping accuracy

As orders are prepared for shipment, the accuracy of the loading process is critical. Workers often use RF scanners, or automated systems use fixed-mount scanners, to verify that the correct items are loaded onto the appropriate transport vehicles. This final scan against the shipping manifest confirms the accuracy of the outgoing orders, minimizing errors and ensuring customer satisfaction.

Conclusion

Overall, the integration of RF scanners and other ID-reading technologies with the AutoStore system creates a streamlined process that enhances various aspects of warehouse operations. From the initial receipt and tracking of inventory to the accurate fulfillment and shipping of orders, each step is designed to optimize efficiency, accuracy, and customer satisfaction. This collaborative approach demonstrates the powerful capabilities of combining advanced technologies in a modern warehouse setting.

FAQ

What are RF scanners used for?

RF scanners, more technically called mobile terminals, are used to scan barcodes and RFID tags in various industries for tasks like inventory tracking, stock management, order picking, and audits, improving efficiency and accuracy.

What does RF mean in an RF scanner?

In scanners, RF stands for "radio frequency," a technology allowing wireless data communication between the scanner and the facility’s inventory control system.

What is the difference between RFID readers and RF scanners?

RFID readers emit radio waves that interact with RFID tags, allowing the reader to acquire the data from the tag. RF scanners can be equipped to read RFID tags, but in most operations they read barcodes.

What is the difference between a barcode scanner and an RF gun?

Barcode scanners are optimized to read barcodes in various form factors — handheld or fixed-mount, camera or laser. RF guns can read barcodes and RFID tags, and also accept manual data entry. They are best-suited for operations where the device needs to be mobile with an operator, like on a fork truck or at dock doors where multiple bays need to be supported by a single associate.

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