Jerry Sacks' first encounter with wearable computers came back in 1996, when—in what was a radical move for the time—his systems integration firm, SAE, installed them in a client's DC. In those days, the decision to deploy wearables seemed a bit of a gamble. They were relatively new to the market. They were largely untested. And by today's standards, they were both primitive and unwieldy, with their tangle of belts, cables, keyboards, displays and scanners. But they also offered a revolutionary promise: hands-free operation.
SAE's big bet paid off. Its client, a major grocery chain, had been looking for a system to verify pick accuracy, and as Sacks had predicted, wearable computers filled the bill. Once SAE had deployed the first computers, Symbol's Gladiator units, the grocery chain saw huge gains in both productivity and pick accuracy, Sacks reports. After the test, the company ordered more than 600 additional Gladiator units.
But the technology's early promise was to go unfulfilled. Despite success stories like SAE's, the technology gained only limited traction over the next few years. It developed a small but loyal following among parcel carriers and customers in the food-service industry, which found wearable computers useful for picking and truck-loading applications. But as the novelty of wearable computers wore off and potential customers got sidetracked by newer, flashier devices, the technology languished.
"For the past couple of years, we would go to trade shows and customers [only wanted to talk about] voice technology," says Sacks, who is president of SAE. "They didn't want to deal with wearables 'cause it was old technology." But that's starting to change, Sacks reports. "In the last six months, we've had people come in to talk to us about voice, but by the time they leave they want to use the new wearables."
New and improved
What's causing all the stir is the arrival of a whole new generation of wearables—units that are far lighter, sleeker and more versatile than the ones they replaced. The models hitting the market today have evolved well beyond the bulky back-of-the-hand scanning devices sold in the '90s.
Take the Gladiator, for instance. Introduced by Symbol Technologies back in 1992, the Gladiator, which earned its nickname for its resemblance to the hand armor worn by Roman fighters, was anything but sleek. "You wore the Gladiator on a belt in a pouch on your back," Sacks recalls. "It had two cables coming out of the pouch. One went to the right arm, the other the left. The right arm had a [keyboard and] display, the left had a [bar code] scanner." The unit, officially known as the Application Productivity System (APS) 3395, ran on a 16-bit, DOS-based computer.
Symbol updated the technology in the mid '90s, introducing a miniature scanner that was worn as a ring. A worker using this system, called the WS 1000, could scan an item by simply pointing the ring scanner at the bar code.
This past fall, Symbol—which was acquired by Motorola last month—introduced the newest version of its wearable mobile computer, the WT4000. This system uses either a RS309 wearable scanner or a RS409 ring scanner. The RS309, worn on the back of the hand, is designed for use in both freezer and non-freezer warehouse environments. The RS409 scanner is a lightweight, rugged device that can be worn directly on the finger or over a glove.
Not only are the WT4000 units smaller, lighter and sleeker than their predecessors, but they're also designed to integrate with voice technology and come with a color display screen, says Jerry McNerney, the company's senior director of transportation, distribution and logistics solutions. McNerney adds that the new WT4000 units also feature an improved ergonomic design, with what he terms a "more arm-pleasing fit." The unit carries a list price of $2,790.
Slipping into something a little more compatible
Yet for all the WT4000's ergonomic improvements, perhaps the most significant breakthrough involves its operating system. The WT4000 runs on the Windows CE platform rather than the DOS operating system, which makes it easier to integrate into modern warehouse management systems (WMS) and IT networks. The Win CE system also accommodates a graphical user interface (GUI) with the facility's host warehousing system, which allows the familiar Windows icons to be displayed on the unit's screen.
"The company has migrated to Win CE because that's where the computer industry has gone," says Tom Singer, a principal at Tompkins Associates, a supply chain consulting firm based in Raleigh, N.C. "A lot of WMS systems now have a GUI interface for Windows CE."
Motorola (as Symbol is now known) isn't the only manufacturer that now offers Windows CE-compatible wearable computers. At the moment, it faces competition from LXE Inc. The Norcross, Ga.-based company plans to market its mobile computer, the HX2, this spring. Like Motorola's model, the HX2 runs on the Windows CE operating system and offers a color display. It's designed to be worn on the arm or waist and comes with a ring scanner. The HX2 unit, which uses an Intel Xscale processor, is also voice-technology enabled. LXE has priced its system just a dollar below Motorola's, at $2,789.
Motorola and LXE also face competition from Psion Teklogix Inc. of Mississauga, Ontario, which recently teamed up with Socket Communications of Newark, Calif., to offer a wearable unit. The two companies have bundled together Socket's Cordless Ring Scanner 9P with Psion's 7535 and Workabout Pro Mobile Computing devices, both of which feature color displays. The system runs on Win CE as well as the Windows XP and Windows Mobile platforms. A spokesman for Psion Teklogix says that the ring scanner is priced at around $1,220 ($1,438 Canadian) per unit, but that the cost of the complete system varies.
Still another player in the wearables market is Metrologic Instruments Inc. of Blackwood, N.J., which makes a glove scanner that fits over a worker's hand and wrist. The wearable laser scanner sits on top of the glove, allowing a worker to scan a bar code by pointing at it. The scanners are designed to be connected to a personal data terminal or desktop computer. Each glove scanner costs about $200. A spokesman for Metrologic says the cost of a system that includes the scanner varies based on the data terminal selected.
Look, Ma—no hands!
Operating systems aside, the primary selling point of the wearable, mobile computer remains its ability to boost productivity by freeing up workers' hands. With a traditional bar-code scanning gun, the worker has to take the unit out and point it at a bar code to scan it. "Taking a scan gun out of a holster creates wasted motion," says Sacks.
With a wearable computer, a worker can read a bar code by simply pointing a hand or ring scanner at it, which makes it ideal for use in picking applications. "It's a picking tool," explains Mark Dessommes of LXE. "You'll get picking efficiencies with an arm-wearable scanner because you don't have to pull a unit in and out of a holster." Wearable computers hold particular appeal for warehouses and DCs that require workers to pick large volumes of individual items. Wearables are also well suited to truck-loading applications in which workers have to stack boxes and scan their bar codes for verification. The technology has also found a place in warehouses that process returned items.
Despite the attraction of hands-free picking, the units do have some drawbacks. For starters, there's the question of weight. Some observers believe that in spite of the advances made in recent years, the units are still too heavy for workers to carry around comfortably for a full shift.
Another drawback is that in many centers, workers must share equipment. Singer reports that he's seen some worker resistance to sharing wearable units with workers on different shifts. But that doesn't have to be a deal breaker, he says. "You handle this issue by getting multiple bands for each individual worker to strap on the computer."
But perhaps the biggest drawback has been price. Wearable units are more expensive than the traditional handheld scanning guns, which means that a DC must have a fairly high-volume picking operation in order to justify the cost. "I've got clients who love them, and some who hate them," says Singer of Tompkins Associates. "It has to be … the right environment."
In tune with voice
Strange as it may seem, the renewed interest in wearables is also due in part to another technology that's sweeping through warehouses across the country: voice. True, wearable computers, which are somewhat less expensive than voice systems, compete with voice for business, especially in the hands-free picking market. But they can also complement voice technology when combined with it in dual-purpose systems.
That's particularly true of applications that require workers to verify their picks. In the typical voice-directed picking operation, workers are required to recite a series of check digits to verify that they've taken the right item from the right slot. But all too often, workers end up circumventing the tedious check process. As they become familiar with the coding system, they'll read back the check digits before they actually retrieve the item—a deviation from procedure that can lead to errors.
Systems that combine wearable computers with voice technology eliminate that problem. With dual-purpose systems, workers no longer have to stop and read a multi-digit check number into a headset; once they retrieve an item, they simply scan its bar code with a ring scanner. And the potential benefits don't end there. Along with the promise of enhanced accuracy, dual-purpose systems also offer the productivity benefits associated with a system that delivers picking instructions verbally, freeing the workers' eyes as well as their hands.
The dual technology is already here. "The next generation of wearables, both from LXE and Motorola, are voice enabled," says Singer. "So you can use them as dual-purpose units."
The potential benefits of the dual system haven't gone unnoticed by DCs. Richard Barnes, a project manager with the consulting firm Tom Zosel Associates of Long Grove, Ill., says that one of his clients is considering deploying the dual-purpose system in its high-volume DC. A large part of its appeal lies in the dual system's hands-free operation, he says. "They're looking at saving a few seconds between putting down the [scanning] gun and having to pick it up," Barnes explains. "Hands-free saves those seconds. Our labor standards group has confirmed [that the client can expect] productivity improvements with a hands-free option."
Steve Banker, an analyst with ARC Research in Dedham, Mass., agrees. This combination of voice and wearables creates a "broader set of capabilities" for a warehousing operation, says Banker. And DCs don't have to take it on faith. Banker reports that DCs can now use simulation software to test the concept before they buy the technology. "Without risk, you can pre-verify whether changes make sense," he says.
They've gotta have it
That's not to say that the wearable computers' market prospects depend on voice technology's success. Even if dual-purpose systems fail to catch on, many industry experts expect sales of the new wearables to surge over the next few years. Market research firm Venture Development Corp. (VDC) in Natick, Mass., which pegged the rugged wearables market at $110 million in 2005, predicts the market will reach $291.91 million by 2010.
Some of that growth is expected to come from upgrades. Existing customers will find the new, improved technology hard to resist, observers say. For some, the attraction will be the opportunity to replace their old DOS units with the new Win CE version. For others, it will be the chance to upgrade to the new color display screens, which are offered on the Motorola, LXE and Psion Teklogix/Socket units. "Color displays are easier to read," says Sacks. "Companies expect that by trading up from monochrome to color, they'll see productivity gains because it's faster for workers to read. The old DOS units [with monochrome screens] could be hard to read in warehouses that weren't well lit."
The new systems—with their dazzling features and promise of quantifiable business benefits—are expected to attract new customers as well. "Every warehouse will want this new stuff," predicts Sacks. "In part that's because it's a new toy, but it's also because they can expect productivity improvements."