Productivity in today's distribution chain is increasingly based on electronic "wearables" that are voice-, motion- or vision-activated. These cloud-connected devices are now embedded into eyewear, gloves, earpieces and wrist wear, and provide hands-free efficiency and access to a new world of efficiency-boosting data. In the process, they are transforming tech manufacturers' daily operations, especially in warehousing and distribution.
Analysts point to 2017 as the tipping point for companies with plant operations and warehouse environments as wearable devices grow physically smaller, while linking to increasingly robust data sets stored in the cloud. Tractica, a market research firm based in Boulder, Colorado, forecasts a nearly four-fold rise in device shipments from 118 million units in 2016 to 430 million units by 2022. Midsized technology companies using these wearables are especially well positioned to gain the competitive advantages long promised by the Internet of Things.
"We're seeing an industry-led demand for supply chain flexibility," says Mark Ferguson, Director of Technology and Innovation, UPS Supply Chain Solutions. "Wearable technology empowers your workforce to operate faster with real-time direction. It blends the power of automation with onsite human attention," he says. Manufacturers can use these new processes to deploy new products and brand extensions for their consumer-facing businesses, conduct direct-store deliveries, and fulfill custom orders within short timeframes.
For instance, warehouse workers who wear smart glasses can be directed to pallet locations in their heads-up display and literally see instructions on what to pick, increasing speed and accuracy. That means more efficient warehouse operations. One European-based manufacturer, for instance, is using smart eyewear headsets to guide warehouse employees through plant facilities to find the optimal route for pallet locations. The manufacturer reported unnecessary travel time was reduced by 40 percent and the accuracy and efficiency of the pick was increased by 18 percent.
The benefits to post-sales service is also substantial. Writing in Inbound Logistics magazine, Tom Gresham notes, "By equipping field service technicians with smart glasses, they can easily sync up with internal product maintenance teams to better diagnose malfunctions and ultimately resolve them more quickly."
The "pick-and-pack" accuracy results using wearables are practically flawless. Analysts at Tractica conducted a three-year study of commercial deployment of wearable solutions in logistics and warehousing facilities. Since 2014, they measured efficiency gains of up to 25 percent in supply chain operations with near 100% picking accuracy.
"We're also seeing health benefits from using these devices in distribution centers," says UPS's Ferguson. Wearable devices are more compact than early model ring scanners or 'point-and-shoot' radio frequency scanners worn on an employee's wrist or hips. "As these devices get smaller," he says, "they are more ergonomic and comfortable for employees to use during eight-hour work shifts."
Logistics provider UPS® was an early adopter of wearable technology, spending years to investigate best-in-class offerings. In 2011, the company outfitted its international supply chain operations with radio frequency-enabled ring scanners, which accelerated package transfer and travel reliability throughout UPS's global facilities. Then in 2015, UPS started testing Google Glass to speed package sorting, boost efficiencies, and shrink the number of labels required for shipments. Currently, the company is developing uses for Virtual Reality in its operations.
Recently, a Germany-based electronics company outfitted employees at its main distribution center with smart glass headsets. Their goal was to test hands-free, sight-controlled barcode and QR code scanning during normal work conditions. They found the devices were so reliable and effective, they could eliminate manual input of small-parts inventory during the picking process.
Deploying wearables in the supply chain can have a beneficial and immediate impact on inventory management, distribution, warehousing, service parts logistics, and especially customer satisfaction. "The ability to view business intelligence in the blink of an eye is leading our industry to realize competitive advantage and future growth," Ferguson says. Plus, it's accessible to businesses of every size. If your company infrastructure isn't large enough to warrant building out this capability, you can partner with top-flight logistics provider that has already incorporated wearable technology into its supply chain. That way, you can benefit from improved efficiency regardless of whether you have invested in it.
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