At first glance, the warehouse run by North Central Sight Services (NCSS) in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, looks like any other fulfillment operation. Workers there carry out the same kinds of tasks performed by their counterparts at third-party fulfillment centers everywhere—in this case, counting, packaging, and shipping office supplies, flash drives, labels, and CD/DVD packs for their client, the U.S. AbilityOne Commission. But there's one important difference in this operation: The 29 workers at the site are all visually impaired.
The facility in question is a collaborative venture between NCSS, a not-for-profit agency that provides services and employment to individuals who are blind or visually impaired, and the U.S. AbilityOne Commission, a federal agency that provides employment opportunities for people who are blind or have significant disabilities in the manufacture and delivery of products and services to the government.
What brought the site to our attention was an announcement highlighting the results of its recent warehouse modernization program. In late September, NCSS, in collaboration with Zebra Technologies and CSSI Technologies, completely overhauled the operation, introducing automated systems and processes. As part of the initiative, NCSS equipped its workers with customized mobile computers (Zebra's MC3300 models) that feature large characters, color coding, and voice-directed picking capabilities and run on a customized warehouse management system developed by CSSI.
A driving force in the design process was James Morley-Smith, global director of user experience design at Zebra. "Zebra is committed to providing reasonable accommodations for persons with disabilities, " he said in a statement. "[We] design products with an 'accessible-first' approach," Morley-Smith added. "This allows us to provide an improved user experience for all end users—from those with disabilities like complete loss of sight to those with situational impairments like bulky work gloves."
Morley-Smith's interest in adaptive technologies is both personal and professional. His son, Fintan, lost his sight to cancer at an early age. "By watching how Fintan adapted to his environment without his sight, I realized that warehouse workers might face similar challenges—dimly lit conditions and protective goggles that impair their vision while they work," he wrote in a blog post on Zebra's website. "Recently, my team and I drew on this experience in designing tools for these front-line workers, developing larger buttons and other design modifications that ... help the users perform their jobs better and with fewer risks for error." (Editor's note: You can learn more about his work and inspiration in his TED Talk, "How your impairments can be an advantage," here.)
As for the project's outcome, the results speak for themselves. "The solution has helped us modernize our warehouse from a manual-based process to an automated one that has increased worker productivity and picking accuracy, which has led to the near elimination of returns," said Terri Kio, industry operations manager at NCSS, in the statement.
There's a broader lesson in this story than just the benefits of automation or the rewards of helping others. It also holds an important message for an industry that's chronically strapped for labor. Though it wasn't designed as a recruitment initiative, the NCSS project nonetheless illustrates how fresh thinking and the innovative application of logistics technology can open up career opportunities to a previously overlooked pool of candidates and, at the same time, help DCs ease their staffing woes.
Creating work environments that allow people with disabilities to not only work, but thrive, is one way to take the edge off the labor crunch. More than that, it enables companies to do well while doing good.