The Who, What, When, and Why of Warehouse Wearables

Tags: E-commerce, Picking Solutions, Logistics, Technology , Supply Chain

Major technological gains in wearables and apps create intriguing new ways for workers to navigate the warehouse.

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Wearables and the apps that work with them have been readily available for years. But the increasing sophistication of wearable technology and its potential for improving warehouse operations is rapidly raising its profile. Cutting-edge wearable technology, such as smart glasses and augmented reality, seem poised to transform the modern warehouse, while more established wearables, such as voice headsets and activity-tracking bracelets, continue to make their own inroads in the field.

"When we talk about wearables today, we're talking about the new user interface for logistics software," explains Trever Ehrlich, creative solutions manager for Kenco, a privately held third-party logistics (3PL) provider based in Chattanooga, Tenn.

"Wearables are changing," he says. "They are no longer just about an app connected to a warehouse management system. Wearables today are full of smart sensors, connected to the web, location aware, and multipurpose. They can provide loads of information, and guide users to expedite tasks -- receiving, stocking, sorting, shipping, navigating to items, even showing the user how to lift safely -- and they can do all of this without workers having to take their eyes off their work.

"As these technologies become cheaper and more accessible, there has been a mad rush into research and prototyping, and using them for enterprise applications," he adds.

The newness of the emerging technology in apps and wearables, and its unproven nature, could slow widespread adoption in the near future, suggests Marco Nielsen, vice president of managed mobility services for Stratix Corp., an enterprise mobile management company based in Norcross, Ga. Companies often are particularly protective of warehouse costs and want to ensure the practicality of dramatic new technology. The warehouse industry has been slower than retail to adopt vanguard technology. "The warehouse just hasn't been as sexy," Nielsen says. The return on investment of emerging wearables will have to be more clear-cut "before there's mass consumption of it," he adds.

"Many companies still use legacy systems because they have worked well for a while," Nielsen says. "They don't think they need anything fancy."

It is important for companies with warehouse operations to be aware of emerging wearable technology whether they believe it will be a fit for them or not, according to Craig Mack, director at C.H. Robinson Worldwide, a third-party logistics and supply chain management provider based in Eden Prairie, Minn. Beware, however, of "impressive, shiny new objects," he warns.

"The worst thing you can do is put these emerging technologies into an operation in search of a problem," he says. "The emerging technologies provide significant value in high-volume e-commerce fulfillment pick and pack operations."

Kenco is exploring warehouse innovation through apps and wearables, even as it remains cognizant of the complexity of introducing them into that atmosphere on a large scale. Integrating apps and wearables, particularly ones based on emerging technology, "can cause significant headaches if it's not done well or carefully," says Kristi Montgomery, vice president of Kenco Innovation Labs.

For now, "it is hard to make the ROI work to support sweeping changes," says Ehrlich. "But we do see a newer generation of wearables creeping in around the edges."

Some larger organizations hesitate to adopt the technology "because of the stability factor that already exists," Montgomery says. That attitude might not hold, though.

"Adoption is slow right now, but it will ramp up in the next few years," he adds. "With large organizations, it takes time to bring change. But we are starting to see that change happen."

One of the more established realms of wearables is voice. Voice solutions in the warehouse can be traced to the 1990s, according to Intelligrated, a material handling automation and software engineering company based in Mason, Ohio, that recently became part of Honeywell.

Today, workers using voice in the warehouse typically employ a simple headset connected to a phone, which is strapped to a belt or placed in a pocket. Through the headset, workers receive directions for picking and putting items, and report their actions with their own voices. If their report does not match the directions, they are notified through their headphones so they can correct the error.

Intelligrated's voice solutions interface with a company's inventory system or warehouse management system to produce the worker directions. Because the solution is based on the mechanics of a phone call, a supervisor can tap into the line to interact with workers while they are on the floor.

"Essentially, workers are on an eight-hour phone call into the system, being directed where to go and verifying what they pick," says Michael Womeldorph, senior product manager for voice at Intelligrated Software.

Old Picking Process Sent Packing

When the Wyoming Liquor Division— a subsidiary agency of the Department of Revenue responsible for wholesale distribution of wine and spirits to state-licensed retailers—moved into a 145,000-square-foot facility in 2012, it turned to Intelligrated to update its picking process. In its previous warehouse, Wyoming Liquor Division used a manual, paper-based pick order fulfillment system that developed into a liability, particularly because customers increasingly opted for complex split-case orders rather than full cases or pallet loads. The Division hoped to improve picking efficiency in its new, larger facility and to identify a better way to manage its expanded inventory.

The Division opted for Intelligrated's voice solutions. Now, workers ride or walk through the warehouse wearing a headset that provides instructions for what to pick, where the item is located, and how many units to grab. Once workers secure the proper units, they speak the item and unit into the headset. A voice then directs them to the next item. The hands-free system allows them to steer and load without pausing to scan or record data, keeping them moving seamlessly from one item to the next.

With the new system, the Division saw a productivity increase of 15 percent over the manual pick order system, while maintaining a 99.9-percent order accuracy rate.

Finding Your Voice

As with any wearable technology, voice solutions must be tailored to the specific needs and processes of an individual warehouse operation. While voice solutions are sometimes sufficient for picking processes, additional resources may be necessary.

For instance, voice can be used without scanning technology when the warehouse work involves picking larger items, such as cases of beverages. With larger items, Womeldorph says, workers have time to manage data capture by voice, meaning they can say aloud the related digits of each item rather than needing to scan them.

In other operations, however, data capture by voice is impractical, such as when workers pick more items closer together. Voice would slow down the process and create inefficiency.

The voice solution can work in tandem with scanning technology, such as phones or mobile computing devices with scanning capabilities, or ring scanners that can connect to a telephony device via Bluetooth. Companies using Intelligrated solutions wear the scanning technology with an accessory that Intelligrated designed with one of its partners.

"We add different accessories for different use cases," Womeldorph says. "Companies get the eyes-up advantage of voice solutions, integrated with other solutions that fit their operation."

Another example is the Lydia Smart Watch, offered by topVox Voice Solutions, a manufacturer of voice-directed solutions with U.S. operations in Illinois. The watch serves as a supplementary device for its voice solution. The use of the Android watch varies greatly depending on the individual company, according to Ryan Absil, project manager at topVox, but the watch can commonly provide a picture of an item to help pick accuracy, all while maintaining a hands-free experience.

"When working with multiple products in a single warehouse location, voice applications typically rely on providing a product description or specific item code," Absil says. "The watch reduces those outputs and gives a visual cue."

Other possibilities for the watch include providing an order overview for a picker or listing potential voice commands if the worker does not know which ones to use. Information can appear on the watch with or without a voice command.

"One challenge is breaking the mental schema people can have about voice and vision technology combined," Absil says. "Some companies think they should use one or the other, and do not recognize the benefits that the combination can bring."

Fits Like a Glove

Sometimes, the piece that makes technology wearable is not the technological innovation itself. For instance, KoamTac, a Princeton, N.J.-based maker of Bluetooth barcode scanners and other mobile data collectors, offers finger-trigger gloves that transform its barcode scanners into wearables. Workers place a scanner in a pocket on the top of their gloves. The scanner is connected via a cord to a button at the index finger. Users simply point their hand at the appropriate item, and press the button with their finger to scan the barcode.

"The gloves are used in warehouses and package sorting facilities where individuals need to scan and maintain full use of their hands," says Alisha Hettinger, marketing manager for KoamTac. The gloves are helpful in settings where workers handle large or heavy items, she adds.

Another advantage is that a company can purchase more of the less expensive gloves for its workers, who can share the scanning tool that is inserted into the gloves. In this way, workers can pass the scanners to each other, from shift to shift, without having to share gloves.

A key piece of KoamTac's offerings is KoamTacON, which allows users to build their own web-based mobile enterprise app platform that works in tandem with the company's scanners. Customized wearable apps help ensure data is collected and processed based on users' specific needs.

"KoamTacON offers a full data collection ecosystem rather than just a scanner," Hettinger says. "And the technical expertise necessary to utilize the scanners and app for data collection is minimized because the system's drag-and-drop functionality does not require programming knowledge."

New Vision for Smart Glasses

The introduction of Google Glass smart glasses in 2012 marked an influential milestone for warehouse wearables—even though the technology was geared more to consumers. Today, no wearable generates more buzz than smart glasses.

"Google Glass got people comfortable with the idea of wearing smart glasses and understanding their benefits," Ehrlich says. "It got the idea of wearables on the radar, even though it was also before its time."

Today, Vuzix, a supplier of smart glasses, augmented reality, and virtual reality technologies with a U.S. base in Rochester, N.Y., is making crucial strides in the use of smart glasses for logistics applications. The glasses are user-friendly, easy to wear, and comfortable for the workforce to adopt.

Vuzix has been building smart glasses with logistics top of mind. "We never saw smart glasses as a consumer device," says Lance Anderson, vice president of enterprise sales. "We knew it was an industrial device and designed it accordingly."

The Reality of the Situation

Wearables, particularly smart glasses, provide an entry to the cutting-edge world of augmented reality (AR), which is a live view of a real setting whose elements are augmented by computer-generated sensory input, such as sound or visual elements. AR seems poised to have a widespread disruptive influence on logistics and supply chain management in the years ahead, particularly in the warehouse. SAP, Ubimax, DHL and Vuzix are among those companies ambitiously working on solutions.

Logistics company DHL has especially embraced augmented reality applications in the warehouse. In its 2014 white paper, Augmented Reality in Logistics, DHL cites research that the task of picking accounts for 55 to 65 percent of the total cost of the warehousing operation, while noting, "in logistics, the most tangible AR solutions are systems to optimize the picking process." Therefore, the warehouse offers a particularly fertile area for possible cost and efficiency gains, the white paper concludes.

In 2016, DHL rolled out an expanded pilot program for vision picking that incorporates AR. The company will implement the program, which will include multiple partners, in warehouses in the United States, Europe, and the United Kingdom.

Under the program, pickers are equipped with smart glasses that display each item that needs to be picked, including the quantity needed. The picker subsequently picks the item, and the glasses read the barcode, confirming that the right item was selected. The glasses then show the wearer where the picked item needs to be placed on the pick cart.

"The Vision Picking Program is DHL Supply Chain's first translation of what augmented reality solutions can look like for supply chains," said Markus Voss, CIO of supply chain at DHL, in a press release. "The potential of this technology for business is still largely untapped."

The ambitious effort follows in the wake of a three-week AR pilot program DHL managed with Ricoh in The Netherlands using Vuzix M100 smart glasses and Ubimax's vision picking X-Pick software solution. That project produced a 25-percent increase in efficiency, as well as reduced error rates and improved employee satisfaction. Products and processes have been refined since, including the development of Vuzix's new M300 smart glasses, which were designed based on lessons learned as companies spent three years testing the M100 in pilots, proof of concepts, and smaller rollouts.

As an example of the work being done on the software side, SAP is creating augmented reality mobile apps that work with smart glasses enabling workers to use visual enterprise 3-D models, voice recognition, and gesture control in the warehouse. The SAP AR Warehouse Picker mobile app connects smart glasses with a company's backend or gateway system.

AR can be incorporated with smart glasses in a straightforward way that avoids making workers' jobs more complex or confusing. In fact, the glasses' ease of use makes them ideal for temporary workers during busy periods, Anderson says.

It also helps with troubleshooting and maintenance. A supervisor can patch into a worker's glasses to see what they see and help solve problems on the floor. Items with missing barcodes can be entered into automated systems and affixed with a barcode with the help of image recognition. Remote technicians can help on-site workers with repairs without leaving their office.

Another new AR device that could prove influential in the supply chain, particularly in the warehouse, is the Microsoft HoloLens, the first self-contained holographic computer that will allow people to engage with their digital content and interact with holograms in the world around them. This could be another tool for hands-free, AR-enabled picking and workflow tracking and planning, Montgomery says.

Many companies want to wait and see how those leading the charge in wearables do with their efforts. With enough success, Nielsen says, the attitude will shift to, "We can do that now."

Starting small will be the best option for many organizations. "Doing things on the fringes of existing platforms is where you can start to see benefits," Montgomery says. Many companies have already started down that path.

The adjustment period is an important part of the process. It offers an opportunity for organizations to see what all the hype is about, and whether it makes sense to join the race. "Taking wearables in small pieces allows companies to get their feet wet, and to discover the benefits and pitfalls of the technology," Ehrlich says.

And like every emerging technology, there is still a lot to learn.