For university equipment stores with large amounts of stock, finding efficient ways to barcode items is practically a way of life! For these folks, barcoding always pays off in both time and money. So who better to give advice about barcode inventory systems than two of our connect2 equipment checkout customers: Rowan University and Leeds Trinity University. Read on to hear their stories…
Barcoding in the Radio, Television and Film Department at Rowan University
Barcodes are key to successful equipment lending services at Rowan University. Radio, Television and Film Production Coordinator, Sean O’Leary has a lot of experience making sure the barcodes are fit for purpose. They need to be sufficiently small to attach to equipment yet remain readable, reliably staying put over time.
The secret to success is to barcode everything that needs to come back from lending out. Even cheap items are useful to get back as they would otherwise amount to a cost over time and it avoids the trouble of reordering them too often.
Sean organises the creation of 4,000 barcodes at a time via a local provider. The barcodes come as peel off labels around 0.5 x 1.5” in size and include the university’s name under the barcode. When it’s time to reorder them every few years, you simply instruct what number to start from.
The barcode labels work well for most of the larger items. You just stick them straight on the equipment and they’re reasonably resilient. For other smaller or fiddly items, they use a Brother label maker which produces smaller barcodes in a choice of formats. Overall it’s a really versatile solution. You just input the required barcode number, and it produces a smaller barcode label. This retains the number series provided by the external provider, you just need to remember to dispose of the original labels with the numbers used.
Getting around problems
XLR cables are found to be the fiddliest to barcode. As the cables bend a lot the barcode labels don’t read so well and risk coming off. If needed, the label maker can print a longer label with the barcode at each end and a white space in between them, then this can be used as a ‘flag’ type label which sticks together, wrapped around a cable. Even still, these can sometimes get in the way and become annoying. Alternatively, Sean has found that if you stick the label on a cable lengthways and use clear packing tape over the top it keeps the label more rigid and much easier to read.
For some items, more ingenuity is required for successfully attaching barcodes. Sandbags are a case in point. When lent out, it’s always useful to get them back but you can’t stick a label on the cloth surface. Sean sourced some small vinyl tags with a hole at one end and that come with tiny zip ties. The barcodes are affixed onto these tags which are tied onto the sandbags’ handles.
- Avoid attaching a barcode where moving parts will damage it, e.g. on an extending light stand
- Try to barcode on a surface which is visible without removing the item from its case
- Sometimes you might need to cut a barcode label smaller. Still it’s important to leave some white label at either end, as the scanner might read the edge of the equipment visible at the side of the label as part of the code, and so fail to scan it successfully. So take care when cutting the label - it beats using your thumb later to block it to allow the barcode to scan!
How it works in connect2
In the connect2 online catalogue items are grouped by type e.g. model of camera. As each item has its unique barcode the system builds a record of its usage and maintenance history. At the same time, grouping the items means that inventory stock management and budgeting is made much easier.
Students independently book what they need for their assignment. As a film and TV department, this can amount to a number of items but the ‘Frequently Booked With’ feature helps. Sometimes students still make mistakes or leave items out. However, building a complete kit list is part of the learning process. They need to build their knowledge of all items required and also what’s most suitable for the production location in mind.
Connect2 enables staff to review what students have reserved, enabling them to advise them if mistakes have been made prior to checkout or at pick up time. This amounts to a better learning experience.
- Have an established barcode number sequence but invest in a versatile label printer for different formats and sizes
- With experience and determination, you can barcode almost anything!
- Collections of items with individual barcodes can be organised for different classes – this helps with budget management while retaining individual item histories
- Connect2 makes it easy to preview bookings and talk to students in advance of checkout if changes are required (this is how they learn)
- Don't cut labels too small - barcodes need a surrounding white margin to scan
Barcoding Best Practice at Leeds Trinity University
Experience at Leeds Trinity is that barcoding items is always worthwhile. Senior Media Technician, Mark Willett routinely labels lenses, SD cards, cables and presentation clickers with unique barcodes. Not only does it support individual responsibility when borrowing and using items, it means there’s no human error that items missing from kits have been returned. All stock is accurately accounted for when staff check items back in. Without barcodes, staff would have to be exceptionally vigilant that all items are present and correct.
Mark advises that the barcodes need to be unique even for low cost items like cables and batteries. If you used generic barcodes for identical items, you would never know who had failed to bring one back. These small components often get mixed up between students when working together in groups and it’s important to expect individual responsibility to return all that’s been borrowed.
Value of taking time to barcode
Even though barcoding and scanning everything takes time, it’s still worth it and makes it possible to chase up on what’s missing with the last person that used it. Staff can weigh up when it makes sense to write off items when it’s no longer cost effective. Even so, the odd SD card still turns up months later as students understand that everything is expected back.
Some of the loaned items are very expensive, so tracking and prompt return is extremely important as supported by the unique barcode system. If items are returned late, students are fined. In the outside world, daily hire costs would run into £100s or more, so the fines encourage responsible borrowing as well as ensuring items are available for others to use.
It pays off to be creative where you attach the barcodes, so you can checkout items easily that come in cases. You don’t want to dig everything out to reach the barcodes with the scanner. It’s also best not to cover up the make/model with the tag.
Although tiny, SD cards are especially useful to barcode. Film making students often need to hold on to them longer than the rest of the kit, so it’s important they have their own separate barcode. Unfortunately, it isn’t easy because of their size. You have to be extra careful cutting down the barcode label as it won’t scan if a bit of the code has been ‘snipped’! The students are encouraged to hand back everything else as soon as possible– to return the rest of the camera kit for others to use and so it’s no longer their responsibility to keep safe. The student can then go on to use the memory card in the edit suite. They can return it later, renewing it for a longer loan if necessary.
An organised approach
Leeds Trinity outsource the production of the barcodes, ordering 1500 at a time every few years. You simply advise the last number used to generate the next sequence of codes. It only costs around £160 ($200) each time which lasts years and helps avoid any risk of duplication which would prevent adding new items to the connect2 system. Black asset tags are ordered using the barcodes in batches of 500 at a cost of £150, which lasts around a year. These are tamper proof and include a log number for their AV capital spend record for all portable and fixed equipment.
For smaller items, Leeds Trinity use A4 sheets of unique barcode stickers, each 1 x 3cm big. They laminate and trim them down as much as necessary, leaving enough space for a hole punch to tie onto cables etc with a tiny tie wrap (see photo).
Images left to right: tamper-proof asset tag example; cable barcoded with laminated label and tie wrap; proof that even SD cards are possible to barcode!
If sticking directly to the item, they use ‘magic tape’ over the top to protect it against wear and tear. This way, it doesn’t start peeling off and you would never lose the whole label. It also stops the ink wearing off so they always scan.
Being able to track items and enforce individual responsibility for borrowing is really helping to get items back on time at Leeds Trinity. Previously it wasn’t unusual to have 130-180 items late back. Now 20 is more usual, with all items neatly listed to view each morning in the connect2 dashboard. It’s a system that works well for both students and staff and ensures better availability of equipment all round.
- Barcode everything – it pays off in saved costs and less chasing up
- Barcodes remove the risk of human error for better stock control
- Unique barcodes promote individual responsibility and much fewer lost items
- Avoid obscuring make and model when attaching the labels
- Having all items barcoded for a shoot means post-production items (e.g. SD cards) can be returned later
With thanks to Sean O'Leary, Rowan University and Mark Willett, Leeds Trinity University, for sharing their barcoding and connect2 experiences for successful inventory management and equipment lending. For further advice and best practice, see our Guide to Barcoding Inventory.