Imagine having your own personal pointer to show you the way around the warehouse. Sounds like science fiction, doesn't it? But such a visual aid could be available in the not-too-distant future. An Austrian material handling company is developing a device that provides visual direction to warehouse workers as they go about their daily storage and retrieval routines.
This new type of visual assistance technology is a form of "augmented reality," in which simulated imagery, graphics, or symbols are superimposed on a view of the surrounding environment. The Knapp Group of Graz, Austria, has been working on logistics-related applications for the technology since 2008. It initially began developing an optical guidance device as a way to help companies comply with strict laws and regulations requiring them to track and verify the lot and serial numbers of items they ship from their warehouses. The device—dubbed KiSoft Vision—is intended to assure 100 percent order accuracy without slowing down the actual fulfillment process.
The KiSoft Vision device, which I tried out at the recent NA 2010 North American Material Handling & Logistics Show in Cleveland, resembles a special pair of glasses outfitted with a tiny camera on the bridge. When you look through the special glasses, you see pointers overlaid on the scene. Picture a warehouse aisle. Now, picture a red arrow indicating what you should pick from the bin or shelf, and you get an idea of what it's like to look through these revolutionary goggles. The arrows and other kinds of markers would direct a warehouse worker through the distribution center, offering visual prompts as to where to go and what to retrieve.
Once the worker arrives at the pick location, the camera incorporated into the unit reads and records the bar-code label in order to capture data on what the warehouse worker puts away or retrieves. Knapp claims that the camera will record lot and serial numbers automatically—there's no need for the worker to perform any additional steps. It further claims that this "license plate" tracking provides for "100 percent error-free picking."
Knapp plans to test the device this summer in Europe, with the aim of bringing it to market by year's end. Robert Engelmayer, business area manager for Knapp Systemintegration GmbH, says that his company will conduct a pilot at either a food or pharmaceutical DC—both types of facilities require automatic lot and serial number tracking.
As for applications, Engelmayer says KiSoft Vision, which is designed as a manual picking solution, would be well suited for use in operations where the shape of the product or "the moving behavior" of the item is a factor in selection.
In either case, augmented reality technology can be expected to compete with voice-directed picking technology, which also offers hands-free operation and has earned a reputation for boosting accuracy at a relatively low cost. "Whatever you can imagine for voice, it can be used for this," says Engelmayer. He adds that the visual guidance technology will be priced "at about the same level as a voice-picking project."
Although voice has been making headway in the market lately, success has been a long time coming for this technology. Voice-directed systems have been around for a couple of decades now. In fact, I remember seeing my first installation of voice technology back in 1992, at a Boeing facility, where workers in receiving were reading part numbers into a microphone.
Does that mean it's likely to take augmented reality technology two decades to catch on as well? Although I don't have a crystal ball, I don't think that will be the case. Given its capabilities and price point, it's a pretty sure bet that visual guidance technology will take hold in the warehouse world much more quickly than its predecessor did.