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OM in the News: Bar-Code Scanners Pick Up Speed

January 12, 2016
‘Brick on a stick’ scanner guns are being revamped. Shown, a new scanner from Zebra.

‘Brick on a stick’ scanner guns are being revamped. Shown, a new scanner from Zebra.

Scanner guns—the bar-code readers used in warehouses world-wide—are getting a makeover, as retailers scramble to boost productivity amid a surge in online orders, reports The Wall Street Journal (Jan. 8, 2016). From “rings” that workers wear on their hands to modified smartphones, companies are testing alternatives to the “brick on a stick” scanners that have been the industry standard for decades. The goal: shave a few precious seconds off the time it takes for workers to select, pack and ship items. Warehouse workers use scanners thousands of times a day. Retailers rely on the devices to keep track of hundreds of thousands of goods stored in, and moving around, massive distribution centers.

Retailers and others that sell online, as well as logistics companies, are hungry for new ways to improve efficiency to counter the added labor and transportation costs associated with filling online orders. Competition from e-commerce giant on both price and speed has forced them look for any possible way to cut costs and shorten delivery times, experts say. The most sophisticated of these companies already analyze the movements of their employees down to minute details. Global sales of mobile scanning devices used in warehouses reached about $850 million in 2015, up 33% since 2013.

Warehouse workers can suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome and other injuries from repetitive movement. The transportation and warehousing industry has the highest rate of occupational injuries and illnesses among private sector industries.

Classroom discussion questions:

  1. Why are scanners so important in operations?
  2. The Zebra device shown in the photo can improve picking rates by 10-20%. How would that impact an Amazon warehouse?


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