Mobility solutions and wearable warehouse technology are not new trends, but the new level of sophistication that they now offer is helping warehouses re-invent their operations and achieve new levels of efficiency and productivity.
As a result, an increasing number of warehouses are adopting these solutions as they progress towards warehouse digitalization.
But are most warehouses ready to adopt these technology enablers yet?
This blog walks you through the basics of what wearable and mobile technologies are, the opportunities they offer, their applicability as it relates to warehouse and DC operations, and whether you should invest in them now or wait.
What are Warehouse Mobility Solutions?
Warehouse mobility solutions include vehicle-mounted computers, smartphones, tablets, handheld scanners, and mobile printers that allow warehouse clerks to freely move around the warehouse and remain fully connected regardless of location.
These technologies have now become part of standard warehousing operations and have enabled an uninterrupted flow of information across the business and the supply chain (almost) in real-time.
According to a 2018 white paper from Zebra,
66% of respondents plan to adopt hand-held computers backed with WMS access by 2018.
Handheld Mobile Computers: By far, the most popular of mobile devices for warehouses of all sizes. You can integrate these with a WMS to manage almost all operations.
Rugged Tablets: Quite handy when you need access to data, dashboards, emails, documents, etc., on the go in the facility. The idea is to decouple managers from their workstations while allowing them access to computers.
Mobile Printers: An excellent way of reducing walking time in the facility by allowing warehouse clerks to print labels right at the point of application.
Vehicle-mounted Computers: Used mostly by forklift operators, these allow them the ease of hands-free mobility management & access to information without having to go fetch it from the central station.
What is Warehouse Wearable Technology?
Wearable tech includes devices (connected via Internet) that can be worn on the wrist, head, face, or any other body part. These allow warehouse clerks and managers the same freedom as mobile devices, but with a higher degree of ease.
Wearable warehouse technology is equipped with smart sensors and is calibrated with warehouse management systems to expedite warehouse processes by providing access to a vast amount of information on the go.
Wearable technology vendors suggest that,
Wearable voice command tools can increase the efficiency of warehouse processes by up to 30%.
These solutions include:
Wearable Computers: These provide the functionality of rugged tablets and vehicle-mounted computers but offer much more ease for warehouse clerks during the picking process.
Smart Glasses: Augmented reality and virtual reality with smart glasses are the most radical additions to warehouses. They provide advanced efficiency in navigation, labeling, picking, etc.
Voice Headsets: These facilitate voice picking through voice command, without needing to scan labels—already very popular in distribution centers.
Activity-tracking Bracelets: These GPS and movement sensor based trackers let the managers monitor the activity and performance of the warehouse clerks.
Finger-trigger Gloves: Though not very popular yet, these wearables are equipped with barcode scanners that allow full use of hands while sorting, especially when heavy packages are involved.
The Value of Mobile and Wearable Solutions for Warehouses
Both kinds of solutions add to warehouse mobility on a broad level. However, there are three important aspects of a warehouse that each helps improving.
Speed: Having access to the right data without walking up to the workstation time and again speeds up warehouse processes and operations. Solutions like smart glasses, handheld computers, wearable computers, voice headsets, and wearable finger triggers, etc., help you carry out tasks with absolute ease, thus speeding up processes.
Safety: Wearables and mobility solutions for warehouses add safety to tasks that involve the agility of hands and repetitive motions. By keeping the hands as free as possible, they allow the clerks to focus more on the physical process of material handling. Also, devices with sensors can warn them about potential dangers in certain activities and locations, and even suggest preventive measures.
Accuracy: The level of sophistication that these devices provide reduces error rates associated with larger barcode scanners. The more advanced the technology you choose, the more accuracy you are equipped with.
As early as 2012,
Wyoming Liquor Division attained a whopping 99.9% accuracy in order picking with voice solutions in their facility.
Where Are Wearable and Mobile Solutions Now?
You can fairly estimate the right time to adopt these technologies once you have assessed them using three important frameworks — the S Curve of Innovation Diffusion, the Technology Adoption Life Cycle, and the Hype Cycle.
We’ve measured mobile and wearable warehouse solutions on these cycles/curves to help you determine its present viability.
The S Curve of Innovation Diffusion
To see how far these have proceeded on the S-curve, we found it useful to view them separately.
Warehouse mobility solutions, such as warehouse tablets and handheld computers, seem to have moved beyond the Ferment Stage as they Take Off, particularly in distribution centers. There is still constant and consistent innovation.
As for wearable technology in the warehouse, it's still brewing in the Ferment Stage. It is always adapting itself to the warehouse scene, trying to achieve efficiencies in battery life and the durability of hardware under harsh warehouse conditions. Nevertheless, the stage marks immense innovation and useful features.
The Innovation Adoption Life Cycle
Warehouse mobile workstations and mobile barcode scanners are a common sight in modern warehouses and distribution centers. Evidently, they have been adopted by Early Adopters and crossed the Chasm of Death, soon to be adopted by an Early Majority.
Wearables, on the other hand, are still being used only by Innovators or Early Adopters, at best, who have a clear case for investment in wearable tech. The innovation that is being carried out for adaptation of wearables to specific warehouse conditions may soon make the industry open to its adoption.
The Hype Cycle
With the Gartner 2015 Hype Cycle for Wearable Devices, mobile technology and wearables made their first appearance on the falling curve of the Peak of Inflated Expectations. However, in 2016, things look different for both when seen differently.
We now see that mobile technology is on the Slope of Enlightenment, considering that warehouses understand its potential very well, and many are already benefiting from it.
Additionally, more and more of them are fast adopting mobile technologies, and new and better mobile technology is already available in the market, ready to be used by warehouses and DCs.
As for wearable technologies, we deduce that they are in a transition period headed from the Peak of Inflated Expectations towards the stage of Trough of Disillusionment.
We assumed this position because wearable warehouse technologies have already been implemented and/or tested by “early adopters,” but they have met with some success and some failures (phase: Peak of Inflated Expectations).
On the other hand, it is evident that some of the most important technological flaws do exist, but benefits are very clear, indeed. Additionally, leading industry leaders such as Zebra are fast innovating to address problems and improve the solutions (phase: Trough of Disillusionment).
Mobile solutions and wearable warehouse technology are slowly making their way into warehouses and distribution centers across the world, adding efficiency and accuracy to processes and converting warehouses into 21st-century digital warehouses.
However, since wearables, in particular, are relatively newer to the industry, you may want to explore more about their benefits before you adopt them. On the other hand, mobile solutions offer an easy and low-risk investment option.
As always, if there is anything else that you would like to know about this topic, or if you need some tips on warehouse digitalization, do not hesitate to comment or contact us.