Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Taking Stock. . . Literally

One of the challenges for any science educator is keeping tabs on materials.  As a department chair, I often struggled with inventory and equipment accounting.  All teachers had specific equipment that belonged to their rooms.  However, we regularly shared equipment for lab work, demos, etc.  This made it near impossible to locate that errant triple beam balance when a teacher needed it most.  I tried and tested numerous accounting methods from the age-old silver sharpie routine to a more "high-tech" Microsoft Access file.  For whatever reason, none of the methods I tried worked as well as I would have hoped.

One of the first obstacles I tackled in my new position was figuring out how to efficiently catalog and inventory our equipment.  I wanted a no-cost system that could be accessed whenever and wherever it was needed.  In talking with one of my colleagues, we identified a few options: marking them with markers, putting together a database file, tagging them into our regional library system, or using QR codes (if I could figure out a way to make them do some accounting).

The first two options were automatically out as I had tried them before with limited success.  My colleague, who runs our regional library system, was more than happy to add the equipment to her roster, but that seemed like an easy way out for me and one that took the inventory control out of our hands.  So, I decided to explore using QR codes (you know, those funky little designs that are rivaling bar codes for their simplicity and readability) for inventory.

QR codes are becoming more and more ubiquitous with every passing day.  You see them regularly in magazines, in advertisements, and even on business cards.  Here's an image of one in case you haven't really thought about them, or more importantly, what they can do.

QR codes can easily be scanned with reader apps for just about any smartphone, and the data embedded in them can range from text to URLs.  My thinking was if I could generate a database online, I could create a QR code with the database URL embedded.  I could then print the code on label paper, attach it to a piece of equipment, and by scanning it, be taken to the database for that item.

So, after some trial and error, that is just what I did.  I started by using Google Docs to create separate databases for each piece of equipment that we had.  While this was somewhat time consuming, it allowed me to generate an individual URL for each piece of equipment (which would be necessary later).  I then used a QR code generator to input the URLs and create a QR code.  Since I would be using these on a variety of different pieces of equipment, I created the smallest size codes to maximize my placement options.  I then printed these codes on label paper and attached them to our equipment (see below).

By scanning the code with a free code scanning app, I was able to access the database directly from my phone.  I could then edit in information, see who had the equipment on lease, etc.  In this way, whether I was in front of my computer or lending equipment during a training session, I always had access.  The best part was, this was an entirely free system.  The QR code generator is free, as is the use of Google Docs.  Add in the free code reader app, and this is an inventory method that included no overhead and provided our team with an ability to use current tools and technology to always know where our equipment is.

There are a few caveats, however.  I have yet to find a way to do what I would call "multi-linking" with QR codes.  The epitome of awesomeness would be to scan a piece of equipment and then scan a person's name tag or work badge thereby linking the item with the person and populating the data table without having to manually enter information.  Despite spending quite a bit of time trying, I could not achieve this, and I'm not sure if this is even possible. . .yet.  A second issue is that most reader apps can be finicky.  I find that with my Android phone I've got to be in a "Goldilocks zone" to read the codes accurately.  Too far or too close and I just look like a fool pointing a phone at a microscope, triple beam, or camera.  I've also found that Google doc editing capabilities vary from one phone OS to another.  Our program assistant can access the databases with her Blackberry, but has a heck of a time editing them.  My Droid Incredible is a breeze to access, read, and edit from.

All told, this proved to highlight just what one can accomplish with collaboration, determination, and a little technological know-how.  If you're interested in creating a free inventory system of our own, drop me a line. I'll be more than happy to help out.

Truly, "You are Here."



  1. Hi Fred,

    This was an extremely useful post. I am in the process of doing something similar to track inventory and change comments based on the various stages. Will try out your example. Thanks again


    1. Glad you found it worthwhile! Let me know how it goes!



  2. I like your inventory management solutions. I think the common problem in this area is finding a cost-effective system. Yes, you can find a lot of free software on the Internet, but these apps cannot provide you with everything you need (at least not yet). Thus, you have to do your part of the bargain and really study how these programs work. That way, you can fully maximize the features of the software and be creative with it — just like you did!

    Ethan Mudgett

    1. Thanks, Ethan. There is a lot out there, but with budget belt-tightening, it certainly isn't getting any easier to afford it. Sometimes simple solutions work. As you mention, the key is figuring out what you need to do and then designing creative means to take a step forward!