Mobile Devices vs Dedicated Barcode Handhelds: Which is Better?

  • Data Collection
  • Hardware

When implementing a mobile solution for your warehouse, manufacturing plant, or maintenance team, it’s important to use the right hardware. Most mobile devices will work to some extent. Beyond basic functionality, the choice gets more complicated.

Common questions arise—

Will the device be worth the cost? How long it will last before it breaks? Can it function in an industrial environment? Am I better off using consumer-grade mobile devices or dedicated barcode handhelds that are industrial-grade? Is it compatible with my mobile software and operating system?

This guide aims to shed light on these questions, offering insights and expert advice to help you select the right mobile hardware devices for your operations.

Consumer-Grade vs. Dedicated Barcode Handhelds

Mobile hardware falls into two main classifications: consumer-grade devices and enterprise-grade devices.

Consumer-Grade Devices

As the name suggests, these are devices made for general consumption. Think of your typical smartphone or tablet. While they are versatile and often more familiar to employees, their durability and longevity in industrial settings can be questionable. Barcode scanning tends to be slow and close-range.

Enterprise-Grade Devices

These are purpose-built devices designed for the enterprise supply chain setting. Robust and often rugged, they can withstand the harsh environments typical in industrial or logistical operations. Dedicated handheld barcode scanners capture data quickly and up to several dozen feet away.

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Total Cost of Ownership (TCO)

One of the biggest disparities between consumer and dedicated handheld computers lies in the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO). TCO represents the true cost of your mobile hardware investment.

Consumer devices have an initial lower cost of entry while enterprise-grade devices cost more upfront. But this initial price tag is deceptive. To calculate true TCO, you must take into account these long-term costs as well:

  • Maintenance
  • Replacements
  • Potential Downtime
  • Lost Productivity

Enterprise-grade devices typically include “ruggedized” features that make them more durable. This enhances resistance to dropping, dust, water, and extreme temperatures, helping offset the initial entry costs. The initial purchase of an enterprise-grade device may also include a service plan that allows for replacements, in the event of damage, or routine upgrades when new OS versions are released.

Compare that to consumer-grade devices, which have a shorter length of service by several years, are less reliable and thus more prone to break, and are slower than dedicated handhelds at supply chain tasks like scanning and interacting with enterprise systems.

Warehouses and production facilities can be harsh environments, so lack of hardening against dust, temperature, and drops shortens consumer device lifespans even further.

So, despite the initial lower cost of entry with consumer mobile devices, their estimated TCO is 41.6% higher over their lifetime than a rugged enterprise-grade device.

Adapting to Operational Environments

Every operational environment is unique, demanding specific device capabilities. The devices you select should be appropriate for the conditions in which they will be used.

Manufacturing facilities, for instance, often grapple with dust, moisture, and mechanical impacts. A typical smartphone might struggle in such an environment, leading to frequent device failures.

On the other hand, healthcare facilities, with their controlled and sterile environments, might find consumer-grade devices perfectly adequate.

For industries that conduct a lot of work in the field, like oil and gas, utilities, and municipal governments, mobile devices must also accommodate rough handling and off-network functionality as well. Enterprise devices are more suited to these requirements.

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Adapting to Workforce Demographics

Different age groups interact with technology differently. While younger “digital natives” might prefer the touchscreen interface of a consumer-grade device, older workers might favor enterprise-grade devices with physical buttons and simpler interfaces.

Consumer mobile devices incorporate intuitive touch and swipe technology familiar to a younger workforce. Meanwhile, older workers prefer a physical keyboard.

Dedicated handhelds can incorporate both touchscreens and physical keyboards for all demographics. This added flexibility helps increase user adoption of the mobile software.

Training is another consideration. Familiarity with consumer-grade interfaces might reduce training time and costs for younger employees. However, for an older demographic, a simple, straightforward interface might prove more intuitive.

Gathering feedback from different age groups within the company on their device preferences can provide valuable insights into the ideal choice.

Functional Requirements of Barcode Scanners

Functional requirements can vary widely based on the specifics of the operation. Factors to consider include scan volume, scan range, and speed per scan.

This is where the biggest difference between consumer devices and dedicated handhelds becomes apparent.

If you have a lower inventory volume, starting with a consumer-grade device may make more sense. In this setting, taking a few seconds for each barcode scan makes little difference. If volume increases, then you can reevaluate your options.

However, if you already process significant volume, dedicated barcode devices are better suited to manage larger workloads. Enterprise-grade devices offer longer scan ranges of up to 75 feet and virtually instant scans, making them necessary for high-volume environments and warehouses where items may be stored on high racks.

Some industries, like food and beverage, may need to complete inventory counts in extremely cold or hot environments. This was the case with top ice cream manufacturer Blue Bell Creameries, who was having issues with connection drops in freezer cabinets. Their solution was to implement cold-rated enterprise devices that incorporated offline data collection.

Industry-Specific Needs and Solutions

Each industry has its own set of challenges and requirements for mobile hardware, making it essential to choose the right devices for efficient inventory management and maintenance.

  • Manufacturing: Factories with heavy machinery, dust, and high noise levels may require rugged tablets and dedicated mobile handhelds that can withstand hard conditions, drops, and exposure to dust and liquids.
  • Warehousing & Distribution: Distribution centers with large spaces, high shelving, and occasionally cold or yard storage need long-range barcode scanners and mobile computers with strong battery life.
  • Retail: Customer-facing environments that must remain clean and organized may demand sleek, user-friendly consumer tablets and smartphones capable of handling point-of-sale transactions and inventory checks simultaneously.
  • Transportation & Logistics: Variable lighting, changing weather conditions, and on-the-road field services typically need GPS-enabled rugged handhelds with off-network capabilities.
  • Agriculture: Outdoor environments exposed to weather elements, dirt, mud, and chemicals require water-resistant ruggedized devices with long battery life.
  • Food & Beverage: Fast-paced environments that may be cold, hot, wet, or in Wi-Fi dead zones require moisture- and temperature-resistant devices with offline data collection capabilities.
  • Construction / Building Materials: Ultra-rugged tablets with high-visibility screens for use in bright sunlight are essential in areas that may be outdoors, dusty, or noisy with heavy machinery.

If you have questions about what mobile hardware is best suited for your operational environments, RFgen’s hardware expert can help you select optimal devices.

Driven by advancements in technology and the growing need for real-time, data-driven decision-making, the supply chain is rapidly transforming. Meanwhile, mobile devices are developing more slowly—and that isn’t a bad thing.

The majority of emerging innovations like IoT, AI, and blockchain are being driven by software solutions. Mobile inventory software can already operate very efficiently on almost any type of mobile hardware, consumer-grade, or dedicated barcode handheld.

As supply chains integrate more devices into their technical environments, expect to see a continuing rise in non-handheld solutions like augmented reality (AR), wearable devices, helper co-bots, and IoT and IIoT devices.

In general, however, consumer mobile devices and enterprise-grade hardware aren’t going anywhere.

Key Takeaways: Consumer-Grade or Dedicated Barcoding Devices

To review, choosing the right devices for your mobile software solution is an important choice with long-term impact. Making an informed decision requires a holistic view that considers:

  • Total cost of ownership (TCO) beyond initial costs.
  • Devices specs that match operational environments.
  • The demographic of your workforce.
  • Functional capabilities that fulfill operational needs.
  • Devices appropriate for your industry.

Remember, one size doesn’t fit all. While consumer-grade devices offer the allure of lower initial costs and familiar interfaces, enterprise-grade devices tout durability, longevity, and often, superior performance in task-specific scenarios. By understanding the nuanced needs of your operations, workforce, industry, and budget, you can make an informed decision, ensuring optimal efficiency and productivity.

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