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Wearable Technology by Industry: Warehousing and Distribution

Written BY

Emily Friedman

May 18, 2015

Wearables are not new to logistics; in fact, warehouse workers have been sporting wearable computers for years, including wrist scanners and headsets supplied mainly by Motorola. But now, we are seeing the next generation or phase of wearable technology emerging in the warehouse: the combination of smart glasses plus augmented reality is leaving the old, basic voice command system and wearable scanner in the dust in many warehouses & distribution centers, helping workers to multitask and do their jobs better like never before.

In the warehouse industry, companies are always looking for new ways to drive down costs and boost performance. As picking and replenishment processes account for up to 70% of operating costs in a typical warehouse, these areas are top priority for warehouse professionals seeking to increase operational efficiency, productivity and safety via advanced technology like wearables. And what logistics professionals are finding is that smart glasses by Google and Vuzix can indeed be used to pick the load and pack it safely, along with a host of other applications for wearable tech in the warehouse environment.

The ability for warehouse workers to perform their tasks hands-free has always been vital; although traditional wrists scanners left operatives’ hands free, they did not provide in-depth information that would, for instance, help workers navigate to an item or show them how to lift an item safely. But with modern wearables like smart glasses, workers need not take their hands or eyes off the job. Modern wearables can not only provide a direct interface with a company’s warehouse management system (and indeed, wearables are becoming the new user interface for logistics software), but they can also provide loads of additional key information to guide and expedite tasks from receiving and stocking to sorting and shipping—both visually and audibly.

So how does wearable technology stand to improve warehouse operations? Let’s examine the possible applications. Wearable devices can serve as a guiding tool, providing hands-free instruction to increase speed, productivity, safety and accuracy in a range of task-driven activities/processes, including order picking, packing, dispatching, and replenishment. And going paperless by sending orders directly to workers’ smart glasses (instead of having to print, sign and bind them) does more than just save time and paper; it also leads to greater efficiency and fewer errors. Just imagine the alternative: having to constantly look down at printed orders or repeatedly picking up and putting down a handheld device. Not only does this slow down the workforce (and overall warehouse operations) but it makes it impossible to stay focused on the task at hand.

Along with providing greater accessibility to information and knowledge, wearables allow for greater flexibility and mobility in completing tasks; instead of having to hold a binder, tablet, laptop, smartphone or even radio, warehouse workers can gain access to and interact with real-time instruction and other rich data, visual displays or graphics, audio and video features, and even live remote expertise via smart glasses and the like—and all while going about their normal operational activities with both hands free (of course) and with a greater range of motion.

With wearable devices, management can visualize and monitor operations; anticipate and tackle problems that might affect productivity; and communicate and collaborate with workers in the process of completing tasks, all without having to be on the warehouse (or DC) floor. Wearable tech can also be employed to track employees in an effort to ensure workers’ health, safety, and productivity.

While other mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets can deliver rich data anywhere it is needed in an automated fulfillment center, distribution center or warehouse; wearable devices do that plus they’re hands-free. Combined with vision, voice, gesture, and touch controls or capabilities (depending on the device and application), wearables stand to aid in streamlining warehouse operations by minimizing touchpoints and generally improve efficiencies “across the board,” from receiving to sorting, staging, palletizing, inventory management, replenishment, picking, packing, loading, shipping, and even quality control.

As far as popular devices in logistics, smart glasses with AR overlays; wearable computers from Motorola Solutions/Zebra, including the HC1 Headset Computer and the RS419 Ring Scanner; and also wrist-worn devices are the most frequently profiled, trialed, and adopted. For a number of companies, voice-directed wearable solutions are a great entry point to improving picking speed. While the voice commands are used for task direction and confirmation, the wearable part of the solution meets the data capture requirements of the picking process by enabling warehouse workers to scan and interact with a variety of data – serial numbers and expiration dates as well as upcoming assignments, guiding visuals, and safety suggestions – via a wearable screen. A combination voice-directed and text-based wearable solution can be extended to other operations beyond picking, as well, empowering companies to automate warehouse functions and prevent both major and minor disruptions of workflow.

With augmented reality glasses, a worker could receive pick requests and lists in the corner of his vision while simultaneously operating a forklift and driving around the warehouse. Warehouse workers could effortlessly request assignments, scan picked items and log in their completed tasks; receive alerts and warnings to nearby hazards and equipment malfunctions; and consult with remote manufacturers to perform maintenance. Imagine a package deliverer being able to scan packages, confirm delivery information, and update shipping statuses all with sight and voice, thereby leaving his hands free to carry packages.
So smart glasses can guide a worker to find, move, pick, pack and ship a product and warn him about such issues as whether he’s about to fill an order incorrectly or perhaps crash his forklift. What else? Well, with wearable tech, a brand new worker on day one could be nearly as productive as an experienced one; and wearables can be used to detect and correct manual handling behavior, as manual handling injuries are a key risk factor in the warehousing industry.

Of course, as in every other industry, the adoption of wearable tech in logistics does not come without challenges, the most obvious being cost and implementation. Just consider outfitting an entire warehouse workforce with pricey wearable devices; it’s just not feasible (or affordable) unless you have thoroughly tested the use case and can ensure ROI. Furthermore, there are concerns across all industries about whether current hardware offerings are truly ready for the enterprise, and the general consensus is that they’re not, especially Google Glass. On top of battery life, a few other kinks have got to be worked out first. Logistics companies, for one, require a device that can be manufactured to scale, that works right out of the box, that lasts, and that is comfortable. Nevertheless, the hands-free possibilities are clutch for workers in this industry, and for that reason alone I believe wearables will play a large role in warehousing & distribution in the years ahead.

Further Reading