February 13, 2017
strategic insight | Mobile Tech

Smartglasses get a second look from warehouses

Smartglasses get a second look from warehouses

With several successful pilots in the books, DCs are starting to show real interest in the technology, vendors say. But is it ready for prime time?

By Ben Ames

Always on the lookout for ways to improve efficiency in their logistics operations, companies are increasingly experimenting with smartglasses in the warehouse. Powered by their own processor and battery, these wearable high-tech eyeglasses collect data from a building's wireless network, then project text and numbers onto a tiny screen incorporated into the glasses. From a user's perspective, the display looks like full-sized text, overlaid on top of whatever "real world" scene the wearer is viewing at the time. The idea is to give workers hands-free access to computer-generated info, eliminating the need to carry handheld scanners or written documents—like pick lists, manuals, or printed instructions—with them, thereby boosting productivity.

Applied to logistics, smartglass technology can enable "vision picking" by projecting visual cues and directions for order fulfillment tasks into a wearer's field of view. But the technology holds the potential to do much more than that. Advocates say it can support various warehouse applications from training programs to forklift navigation, helping build a case for adding smartglasses to the supply chain.

Among the early adopters is DHL Supply Chain, the supply chain services division of the giant international parcel carrier and logistics specialist. After the success of an initial smartglass trial in 2014, the company announced in August 2016 that it was rolling out a second phase of the project. Phase two will include pilot programs in facilities in the U.S., the Netherlands, and the U.K.

By providing its warehouse workers with an augmented reality (AR) view—a live view of the physical environment supplemented by computer-generated input—of their surroundings, the company can give individual workers visual instructions on where each picked item needs to be placed on a trolley, DHL says. This vision picking approach enables hands-free order picking that is faster and more accurate than other methods, and also generates a digital record of the traditionally manual process of moving items around the shop floor, according to the German company.

Despite its early success, DHL's vision picking pilot offers just a glimpse of the impact smartglasses may have as the technology matures, experts say. Smartglasses are still a nascent technology, and many adopters still need to experiment with different products and applications before they can make it pay off for wider use in the warehouse.

BARRIERS TO ADOPTION

Material handling operations see a bright future for wearables and mobile technology, with 75 percent of the industry looking to adopt this technology in the warehouse within six to 10 years, according to the 2016 MHI Annual Industry Report, "Accelerating change: How innovation is driving digital, always-on supply chains." However, the survey showed that current rates of adoption lag far behind that at just 26 percent. Produced by MHI and Deloitte Consulting, the study was based on responses from nearly 900 manufacturers, distributors, service providers, and other industry players.

As for what accounts for the lag in adoption rates, the survey found that with emerging technologies in general—a class that includes robotics, sensors, drones, cloud computing, and 3-D printing as well as smartglasses—the major barrier to investment is the lack of a clear business case to justify the cost (43 percent of respondents). That was followed by the lack of talent to utilize new technology effectively (38 percent) and a cultural aversion to risk (35 percent).

For smartglass wearables in particular, barriers to adoption include the need for smaller, more powerful batteries; the high price of smartglass hardware in comparison with tablets and smartphones; and the difficulties of software integration with back-end platforms like customer relationship management (CRM), inventory management, point of sale (POS), accounting, or enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems, the MHI study found.

Despite those challenges, a growing number of companies are launching smartglass warehouse pilots. In most cases, these trials are aimed at identifying applications that will provide the quickest return on investment (ROI), according to Jay Kim, chief strategy officer at Upskill, a Herndon, Va., firm that makes a wearable software platform called Skylight that powers many smartglass hardware products.

So far, he said, smartglass technology is producing the best results in warehouse picking applications, where mistakes tend to be very expensive. Prime candidates for smartglass use include operations that handle a low volume of high-value parts and high-throughput third-party e-commerce fulfillment operations.

Other applications in which smartglass technology has delivered a swift ROI include training seasonal DC workers and streamlining maintenance operations, Kim said.

POISED FOR TAKEOFF

Smartglass technology might be in limited use today, but that may soon change. Smartglass and AR technology is advancing quickly, and logistics will probably be one of the first industries to reap the benefits, said Eric Abbruzzese, a senior analyst with ABI Research, a London-based technology consulting and analyst firm. In fact, ABI has identified logistics as the most promising vertical category for augmented reality out of a list of 12 industries that include healthcare, energy, manufacturing, education, entertainment, military, and retail.

That's a little ironic as it was the entertainment industry that first brought AR to popular attention. Many movie fans got their first glimpse of augmented reality in the 1984 "Terminator" action film, in which a robot viewed our world through a screen that supplied digital overlays of information. It took nearly another 30 years for smartglasses with AR displays to hit consumer store shelves. That finally happened in 2013, when Alphabet Inc. released Google Glass. In 2016, AR hit the big time when Niantic Inc. released Pokémon Go, a video game that superimposed cartoon monsters on players' smartphone-screen views of the physical world around them.

As for what makes logistics and warehousing particularly suitable for AR, it's partly that a DC operation is a relatively controlled and predictable environment. "A warehouse is busy but well planned out," Abbruzzese said. "So you can outfit employees with AR to improve their efficiency and reduce errors. You can eliminate paper requirements, error check, make sure they're picking the right packages, and do it all autonomously in the headset."

Because of warehouse work's relatively modest technical requirements, many DCs can get by with midrange smartglass products from Vuzix, Epson, or Google, Abbruzzese said. At about $1,500 per unit, these smartglasses provide all the tech needed for warehouse work without the need to pay $3,000 to $4,000 for high-end products like the Microsoft HoloLens, Osterhout Design Group's R-series, Atheer Air, or the Daqri smart helmet.

But before the glasses really take off, a few bugs remain to be worked out. Even the top platforms have some basic constraints with respect to battery life and comfort that restrict them from being used for full work shifts, Abbruzzese said. However, he sees that as just a bump in the road. "Vendors are working on better form factors, so in two or three years, we'll start to see devices with the potential for all-day use," he said. "And while right now, pilot projects for many [companies] are still limited to one to 50 devices, that will be moving up to 50 to 100 devices, or 100 to 500 devices in [the second quarter of 2017]."

TECHNOLOGY COMES INTO FOCUS

Smartglass vendor Vuzix agrees that the future of vision technology in the supply chain is quickly coming into focus.

"Three years ago, the first generation of Google Glass and Vuzix smartglasses came out, [but] they were mainly intended to help people figure out where the technology was and how to fit it into their current processes," said Lance Anderson, vice president of enterprise sales at Vuzix.

Because of ergonomic considerations like weight, battery life, and overheating, those early models were never intended to be worn for a full eight-hour warehouse shift. Now, a second generation of smartglass products has made great strides in addressing those problems, thereby opening the technology up to a wider range of applications. "You're going to see a bunch of smartglasses popping up in the market," Anderson said.

Among other improvements, second-generation smartglasses now come with features like a microphone and audio link, an embedded digital camera, geolocating capability, and the ability to display real-time text messages in a user's AR view. Companies can leverage those features to expand the devices' use far beyond basic picking applications, where the glasses simply display the location and number of items needed, Anderson said.

As for what these applications might be, Anderson said warehouse-related uses for second-generation smartglasses could include:

  • Managing exceptions. If a warehouse picker is directed to a rack location but finds it empty, he or she can now share his screen with a back-office supervisor. That supervisor can then link to the smartglass video display, see exactly what the employee is looking at, and change the pick order accordingly, without ever having to leave his or her office.
     
  • Training workers. That same "telemonitoring" ability could allow managers to view exactly what each employee is seeing at any given time. The ability to share a view could enable managers to act like a coach perched on the user's shoulder, although workers might have privacy concerns.
     
  • Remote maintenance. If a high-speed shoe sorter breaks down, a maintenance worker could launch a video conference with a remote expert, who could see the problem in real time, then use AR annotation to type instructions that appear in the worker's field of view and help him or her identify the broken part.
     
  • Inventory putaway. In putaway applications, smartglass technology could be used to provide a forklift driver with a view of the warehouse with driving directions overlaid on the actual aisles and racks in front of him or her.
     
  • Receiving goods. In cases where an item arrives with its bar code missing or in unreadable condition, a warehouse worker could take a picture of it and then use image recognition software to identify the item.
     
  • Put-wall operations. A worker at a sorting station could scan an item, then look at a wall of bins and see an overlay of geolocated data that identifies the number and location of items to be placed in a container. The glasses could even track the worker's hand as he or she drops the item in the bin and confirm that the task has been completed.

While these applications are already technically possible, engineers remain hard at work refining both smartglass hardware and software. In addition to the need to extend battery life as mentioned earlier, improvements are still needed to address heat buildup in processor chips, integrate smartglass platforms with warehouse management systems and other software, offer translucent data overlays instead of displays that can occlude a wearer's field of vision, and improve the size and style of smartglasses to make them more appealing to users.

Keep an eye on this space as hardware vendors, software coders, systems integrators, and warehouse managers collaborate to find new logistics-related applications for powerful smartglass technology.

About the Author

Ben Ames
Senior Editor
Ben Ames has spent 20 years as a journalist since starting out as a daily newspaper reporter in Pennsylvania in 1995. From 1999 forward, he has focused on business and technology reporting for a number of trade journals, beginning when he joined Design News and Modern Materials Handling magazines. Ames is author of the trail guide "Hiking Massachusetts" and is a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism.

More articles by Ben Ames

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