It was predicted that wearables would have a blockbuster year in 2020 and they did. Just not necessarily for the reasons we thought.
Prior to the pandemic, the Zebra Warehousing Vision Study found that 62% of warehouse operators said they planned to upgrade or add wearable mobile computers to by 2022. These decision makers have long been seeking ways to boost worker productivity and safety, and the recent advancement in wearable technologies was making it easier to do just that. But COVID-19 motivated many to quickly put those plans into action. In recent months, both the smallest and largest warehouse operators have had to continuously improve productivity and look at safety in a whole new light, and the value wearables bring to an operation has become black and white, especially those purpose-built for warehouse workers and applications.
Productivity Targets Reach New Levels as the Warehouse Operational Tempo is Turned Up
Retail e-commerce grew 31.8% from the first quarter to the second quarter of 2020 and 44.5% year-over-year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and this growth has remained fairly consistent throughout the year. With more consumer and business-to-business (B2B) orders flooding in every day from both online shoppers and brick-and-mortar retailers feverishly trying to keep shelves stocked, warehouse workers have to move faster than ever to keep up with increasing order volume. They are spending long shifts, sometimes even extra shifts to pick, pack and load orders onto trailers to get consumers and businesses what they need. In many cases, inventory is being pulled off the shelf as soon as it is put away, if it even makes it to the shelf.
It is becoming a challenge to conduct accurate inventory cycle counts, even though they are crucial to managing shelf stock and fulfillment expectations. And businesses that are still operating with some paper-based systems or fragmented mobility are finding it even more difficult to keep up because their workers must constantly stop and log inventory moves pertaining to order status or quality control inspections. At the rate things are going right now, warehouse operators must find a way for workers to document everything in a split second, often while on the move, without making any mistakes. This is a tall order, especially for small- to medium-sized (SMB) warehouses who may not be as far along on their modernization journey as larger competitors.
Though primed for long-term growth, SMBs were not expecting demand to surge overnight. Those who did not yet have all the technology tools in place to put the pedal to the metal had to hit the brakes hard, turning away orders and disappointing customers who were eager to give them more business. On the other hand, those who were able to arm their workers with wearables found efficiency levels rise almost immediately.
Making the simple switch from a handheld barcode scanner or mobile computer to one worn on the finger or wrist allows for much faster item receiving, picking, packing, staging and loading. Even though it may only take a few seconds to pick up a device, scan a barcode and put it back down, those few seconds add up to minutes or hours, and many more completed tasks, in the course of a day (times 10, 15, 20 or more workers). And the best part is that there are options for creating a wearable solution. You can start from the ground-up with a new solution purpose-built as a total wearable solution or just convert your handheld mobile computers into a hands-free solution by simply syncing the larger devices with ring scanners so that you do not have to rip and replace all your devices. Mobile computers can then be worn on workers' hips with a belt clip or in their pockets all shift long. Alternatively, if your mobile computer is light enough, you can opt to turn it into a wrist-worn solution if that is more in line with your budget. No matter which approach you take, freeing up even a single hand with the use of wearable mobile computers and scanners empowers associates to handle more items at once, which also boosts productivity.
If you really want to go with a total wearable solution, give workers enterprise head-mounted displays that can visually guide them through each picking, put-away and staging task without ever having to look down at a device. This will enable them to move more quickly, accurately and safely through their workflows all shift long. Just know that adding this component may also need to include software programming to ensure the right user experience is presented through the glasses so you have out-of-the-box success.
Of course, the use of a hands-free data capture solution also contributes to the safe use of material-handling equipment such as pallet jacks pick carts, dollies and everyday carton movement. This helps to mitigate incidents that could temporarily reduce operational capacity whether due to injuries or asset losses. It also prevents mobile devices from getting left behind and lost as workers set devices down to use equipment or move cartons. With the fast-paced movement, workers may be distracted. Unlike larger warehouse operators, most SMBs do not have the luxury of "rainy day" labor, equipment or inventory resources.
New Social Distancing, Safety Mandates Move Wearables from "Must Watch" to "Must Have" Status
These days, labor is a very valuable resource for warehouse operations and protecting those resources has become a priority for businesses of all sizes. However, SMB warehouse operators must go to greater lengths than many of their larger competitors to execute operations in a safely distanced, "hands-off" manner as the COVID-19 virus remains prevalent.
Foot traffic and forklifts are being routed in such a way to avoid face-to-face interactions or prolonged contact. Packing workstations are being spaced at least six feet apart. And staffing is being managed in a way that reduces building occupancy without compromising operational capacity or quality. Perhaps most notable, though, is the increased effort being put into creating a low touch/no touch work environment.
Though it is impossible to create a completely contactless workflow in a warehousing environment, items still need to be handled multiple times during receiving, put-away and order fulfillment. Wearables make it possible to reduce the number of physical contacts that workers have with multi-touch and traditionally shared surfaces, such as mobile computer screens.
For example, the accessories used with each wearable - the wrist mount, finger straps, trigger mounts, commercial safety glasses and other components that remain in direct contact with people's skin for the whole shift - can be assigned to workers and managed as personal items to help improve hygiene. Meanwhile, the shared hardware component - the computing and scanning devices or head-mounted display camera - can easily be removed and disinfected between shifts.
In fact, you can set up the sanitation and hand-off process in a way that facilitates social distancing. Outbound workers can wipe down the hardware components and leave them in a charging station on one side of the room while inbound workers can take clean, charged devices from the station set up on the other side of the room. This helps to eliminate crowding during shift changes.
Remember, many wearable technologies were designed with health and safety in mind long before the pandemic. (COVID-19 isn't the only virus that can spread quickly in tight quarters and take entire workforces out of commission in the middle of peak season.) Actually, most rugged mobile computing solutions intended for use in business environments are built to be frequently disinfected, including wearables. They tend to be shared devices, after all, and users hands are touching other surfaces that could contribute to cross-contamination with keypad, scanner trigger or touch screen inputs. But the fact that enterprise-grade wearables are built to tolerate stringent device cleaning protocols makes them all the more beneficial to SMBs who can't afford to have ring scanners, wrist-worn terminals or head-mounted displays break after a few wipe downs.
Giving your warehouse workers rugged wearable scanners, mobile computers and head-mounted displays means they:
- Have one less thing they must handle when they have their hands full with the items that they are receiving, putting away, picking, packing, staging or loading.
- Can keep their heads up to stay more and remain better aware of their surroundings to avoid close encounters with others.
- Scan, grab and go faster when physical distancing isn't possible, to reduce the amount of time they are in close proximity with one another.
- Can feel confident that you are committed to protecting their well-being. Your prioritization of their health will help motivate them to show up each day and perform optimally. Besides, orders won't stop coming in, even if the workforce is reduced. The last thing you need is to further burden a team that has probably found fulfillment amidst the e-commerce explosion.
As a bonus, the easy implementation of wearables means that you don't have to break the bank or rebuild technology architectures in order to gain the benefits of these innovative technology tools. In fact, this is one of the easiest ways for you to optimize the use of mobility and begin to achieve a best-in-class mobility strategy, even as an SMB. It is a win-win!