How to Barcode your Warehouse

How to Barcode your Warehouse


You want the advantages of a barcoded warehouse if you manufacture or package FDA regulated products. Especially if you have already suffered through the inventory spreadsheets, clipboards and cycle counts, or even the awkward interfaces of a current inventory “tracking” system– printing out reports, cycle counting, then clicking through a thousand software windows to make inventory accurate… for a few hours at least.

The purpose of this article is to share what we have learned from our own successes and failures in barcoding inventory locations in warehouses both large and small over the last couple of years.  We have learned a few tricks that should make your warehouse barcoding project easier. I also hope that you will appreciate a few insights about what NOT to do based our experience (experience is what you get, when you don’t get exactly what you want).

The value of a barcoded warehouse is obviously not only appearance – although it does look amazing to see 2D barcode labels everywhere -. The real business value is being able to rapidly access all inventory information so you can make real-time decisions on actionable data.  Businesses under FDA regulation need to know how much inventory they have, where they have it, and why it is there (QC status, transfer history, etc). If you take just one message from this article it should be this: If a barcode system is hard to use; then it won’t be used correctly, and the barcode labels will just end up as stickers on pallet racking. This is why many manufacturers are still using manual methods to track operations even after they have purchased “the inventory solution” software.

If a barcode system is hard to use; then it won’t be used correctly, and the barcode labels will just end up as stickers on pallet racking.

However, if your warehouse barcoding system is user friendly, your workforce will actually use it correctly, and you will get real business value out of those fancy 2D barcode labels.  We hope the following 8 tips help you implement a user-friendly warehouse barcoding system.

1. Make the Coding logical

I mean two separate things here. (1)Make the human readable bin locations easy for humans to remember, and (2) make it easy to translate a bin location ID, to its physical location in the warehouse.  Especially if you employ a temp workforce.

It should be easy for your staff to know where a location is by looking at human readable location ID. We recommend using an X-Y-Z scheme, where “X” represents the isle number, Y represents bin location and Z represents shelf height.

The Guinness book of world record for most digits of pi memorized by a human is 70,000, but non-super human brains are best able to store no more than 7 digits in their short term memory.

If you have any trouble getting started with this I recommend you start by learning from the best.  Ask for a tour, or better yet find a warehouse where you can walk in without a badge or asking permission. – Go to IKEA and learn how they do it. It’s a 500,000 sqft warehouse that is laid out so simply a husband can walk in to find that sheek nightstand his wife picked out.  That is the type of simple we are after here.

We like to use 00 to represent a shelf at ground height, 10 for first shelf, and 20 for second and so on.  At some places in your warehouse the shelf height might not line up across a whole isle, so sometimes we had a 15 level.  If your warehouse is sectioned for functional reasons or if you have multiple warehouses we recommend you add a single distinguishing letter in front of the X-Y-Z coding scheme. If you have racking with rollers so each isle-bin location is 2 pallets deep we recommend that you have one location barcode that represents both pallet locations. In other words, remember KISS, Keep it Simple Sam. It is better to rely on your system to get you there, and then rely on your people to distinguish between what is there.

2. Label Location, Location, Location.

The average human can comfortably reach a height of 6 feet. But odds are, the bottom of your highest pallet racking shelf is at least 25 feet off the ground.  It is important to make sure that each location is clearly labeled, and scannable.  There are two ways to do solve this problem.  The expensive way, and the hard way.

 The Expensive Way

Purchase long range barcode scanners. Long range barcode scanners have different lenses inside that have a narrower point of view.  In addition to the extra expense.  Long range scanners are generally far sighted and have a hard time with barcodes up close.

 The Hard Way

Label each location, and also put an additional barcode with graphic visualizations indicating which location it represents, but at the ground level.

The hard way will cost a few extra labels, but the savings in barcode scanners, and user-friendliness made it a great investment. Put all the labels down low with graphical visualizations as to which barcode relates to which rack level you don’t want people taking short cuts because the barcode that is 30 feet up has a smudge on it.

With our most recent warehouse barcoding project we decided to do a hybrid approach. We wanted to go with cheaper barcode scanners, so we put the labels all down low but we also want to make it easy to see what level was what location so we also put labels with very big bold location ID on the racks with a small barcode because why not?

If you opt for the long range barcode scanners and labels that are up high, we recommend that you use something to angle the barcode down. Since warehouse isles are narrow, it is more difficult to read barcodes that are up high, the viewing angle does not help visibility. To counter the viewing angle problem for human readable content on tall inventory locations make your text skinny and tall to cancel the optical illusion the same way street paint does it.

3. Don’t go Cheap on the label stock – Print on Ultra removable labels

If you have ever spent 30 man hours to scrape old labels off of every rack in a warehouse then you will agree that this is just the only way to do it. You shouldn’t have to relabel anything – but if you ever do, make it easy to remove. The best tool to remove unfriendly labels is a wide razor blade.

Some label stocks deteriorate due to heat or abrasion. I am not an expert on which label stock to use but we have found the guys at Emkat Solutions to be Responsive, honest and expert.

4. Make it look good.

You take pride in running an organized warehouse. If you put labels on every shelf make sure they line up. You can create a simple jig to create even spacing. We like to use a self-leveling crossline laser, it makes all the difference. It is easy to move, and it provides exactly vertical lines to reference for label placement.

5. Be safe, consider scaffolding.

If you are putting labels up high be smart and safe. It is very nice to not have to climb up and down a ladder a zillion times. Sometimes we use scaffolding on wheels with people stationed safely on guard railed platforms at various heights. This way you can literally roll down a warehouse isle and label all levels at the same time. Consider the time savings, and safety improvements against the rental costs of scaffolding.

6.Things to consider when designing your labels

Depending on your warehouse size, it might make sense to use a software program that makes printing hundreds of labels easier. We use Zebra Designer pro. I think it was like 200 dollars but it has allowed us to print many barcodes all at once with variable data from a spreadsheet.  Very handy if you are labeling more than a couple hundred locations

Consider your real estate. And choose label stock wisely.  You don’t want your labels to come right up to the shelfing edge, trust me they WILL get peeled off. Also, don’t assume that you will always have the full rack thickness to use. I have made this mistake. Some racks have metal grating that hangs over the lip of the rack, this could block a barcode scan and make your system less user friendly. Overall, aim to maximize readability and minimize miss-scans.

I personally believe that 2D barcodes are superior to 1D. But before you go 2D here are some things you should consider.

  • 2D barcodes can fit more information, and can be scanned at any orientation
  • They also don’t need to be as big
  • Sometimes it is advantageous to use 1D barcodes because you can make it harder to miss-scan. This could come with particular advantage if you decided to put all barcodes down at human-reachable level – if you have lots of barcodes that are right next to each other consider using 1D and orienting the barcodes at 90 degree off sets so the user has to consciously take action to scan the right barcode. And it becomes harder to mess up.

6.Things to consider when designing your labels

Now that you have put in a large amount of effort to make your barcoding user friendly, don’t let it go to waste.  I have been through several warehouse labeling projects, and ironically some companies go back to manual transactions. It is vital to get the right software systems in place for your industry. You need software that is compatible with your Accounting System, and user-friendly enough to make it easy for your operators to transfer, cycle count and transact inventory while on the go.   User friendly Inventory software should be self-healing, with missed transfers being automatically corrected so it makes it even easier to maintain accuracy.

See this Software focus sheet below for an example of an inventory software solution for FDA regulated manufacturing that supports a user-friendly, barcoded warehouse. 

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