It’s the paradox of digital era: logistics industry leaders have invested billions in equipping their warehouses with automation, sensors, robotics, data-driven processes and IoT. Then every holiday season, they bring in hundreds of thousands of temporary workers with uneven skills and experience to handle the year’s most critical workload.
Fortunately, there’s a new technology that can help harmonize humans and machines in the smart, connected warehouse — and can help material handlers turn the challenges of the seasonal surge into the opportunity to maximize results.
Augmented reality (AR) delivered via smart glasses provides access to visual information, real-time updates, documents, human expertise, enterprise systems and step-by-step guidance, smoothing the integration between people, data and machines in the smart, connected warehouse.
There are many versions of AR, ranging from head-mounted displays to immersive systems that overlay digital data on top of objects and locations in the physical world. But even at its most basic level, AR solves an important problem in the warehouse: providing a rich, intuitive visual interface to display real-time data while keeping workers on the move and their hands free.
AR technology offers all kinds of benefits in warehouse scenarios, but one of the most compelling is how it can help integrate seasonal workers faster and at lower cost. Its advantages break down into three areas:
- Employee training and knowledge transfer. Training manuals and other printed materials can be made available digitally, where workers can access them as needed on their smart glasses. The same goes for recorded videos and other visual materials like maps and graphics. In many cases, tasks can be broken down into a series of discrete steps and relayed to the worker in real-time, as they are working. This not only avoids the need for significant training before moving seasonal associates into production environments, but it also simplifies the process and promotes better retention of information, because the trainee is actually doing the task as they are learning it. In addition, a picture is worth a thousand words and providing this information and instruction in a visual form via smart glasses makes it easier to be understood by workers irrespective of language or literacy.
- Communication and collaboration. With smart glasses, workers can keep in touch with colleagues and supervisors at all times, so they can ask questions and receive guidance on issues before they become problems. Workers can even hold items up to the camera to remove any guesswork. These capabilities can also address issues of knowledge transfer. Experienced, full-time staff can record videos documenting their informal knowledge, making it easier for new and temporary workers to embrace best practices that are not documented or included in formal training. As employers build a repository of these ad-hoc tips and tricks, they can be made searchable and incorporated into formal training and documentation later.
- Simplification of key processes. Smart glasses can help with every phase of the warehouse workflow, from loading and unloading, receiving, and picking to kitting, shipping and returns. AR can also be helpful with other common warehouse tasks like cycle counting. In each case, workers have access to digital processes and real-time order data that can expedite tasks, assist in navigation around the warehouse, automate and digitize record-keeping, and provide a digital audit trail for forensics and compliance.
Using smart glasses, we’ve seen warehouse and logistics leaders experience efficiency gains as high as 46% in a typically picking and kitting scenario, with better accuracy and fewer errors. The time to ramp new hires up to this level of productivity is remarkably short.
That’s just one example of the quantifiable benefits of this technology in a tactical deployment. Once it is deployed at scale, the ROI potential is enormous.