Electronics distribution warehouses are among the most automated in the world. Because electronics component part numbers can be 12 or more characters long, the likelihood of human error – in data entry, storage and picking -- is significant. Scanning technologies have vastly improved those processes; and robotics have eliminated much of the handling associated with incoming and outgoing shipments.
Augmented reality seems like an unlikely candidate for warehouse improvement, but logistics company DHL recently tested that and smart glasses in a warehouse in the Netherlands. The technologies were used to implement ‘vision picking’ in warehousing operations, and DHL reported a 25 percent efficiency increase during the picking process.
Staffers were guided through the warehouse by graphics displayed on the smart glass. “Vision picking enables hands free order picking and greatly increases productivity,” said Jan-Willem De Jong, Business Unit Director Technology, DHL Supply Chain, Benelux, in a press release.
“The technology significantly supports our staff and brings exciting value to our customers. However, this is just the first step in our innovation journey as we believe augmented reality will become relevant for even more supply chain areas.”
DHL said the program’s objective was to gain insights on the technology’s benefits and limitations. For three weeks, warehouse staff in Bergen op Zoom was equipped with head mounted displays such as Google Glass and VuzixM100. The displays showed the respective task information during the picking process, including aisle, product location and quantity. Overall, 10 order pickers used the equipment and picked more than 20,000 items, fulfilling 9,000 orders within the given time frame. As a result, staff was able to operate much faster and error free. Currently DHL and Ricoh are jointly evaluating the roll-out of the solution.
“We are always looking to further improve our processes with new technologies and we were happy to have DHL as our innovation partner for the pilot project”, says Pieter-Jelle van Dijk, Director Operations, Ricoh EMEA.
In a DHL Trend Research report called “Augmented Reality in Logistics,” DHL said it envisions several key uses. They are:
• Warehousing Operations
• Transportation Optimization
• Last-mile Delivery
• Enhanced Value-added Services
AR has so far shown most promise for logistics in warehousing operations, DHL found. These operations are estimated to account for about 20 percent of all logistics costs, and the task of picking accounts for 55 percent to 65 percent of the total cost of warehousing operations.
In logistics, the most tangible AR solutions are systems to optimize the picking process. The vast majority of warehouses in the developed world still use the pick-by-paper approach. But any paper-based approach is slow and error prone, according to the report. Furthermore, picking work is often undertaken by temporary workers who usually require cost-intensive training to ensure they pick efficiently and without making errors.
Systems by Knapp, SAP, and Ubimax are currently in the late field-test phase and consist of mobile AR systems such as a head-mounted display (HMD), cameras, a wearable PC, and battery packs that provide enough energy for at least one work shift. The vision picking software offers real-time object recognition, barcode reading, indoor navigation, and seamless integration of information with the Warehouse Management System (WMS). A key benefit of vision picking is its provision of hands-free intuitive digital support to workers during manual picking operations, DHL said.
By using such systems, each worker can see the digital picking list in their field of vision and – thanks to indoor navigation capabilities – see the best route, reducing their travel time by efficient path planning. Using automated barcode scanning capabilities, the system’s image recognition software can check whether the worker has arrived at the right location, and guide the worker to quickly locate the right item on the shelf.
Forecasts predict that by 2017 the augmented reality market will grow to $5.2 billion – an annual increase of almost 100 percent, according to DHL. With substantial funding being poured into AR projects and start-ups especially by large corporations such as Google, Canon, and Qualcomm, a significant wave of consumer-ready AR products will be launched over the next 12 months. And with concrete business benefits coming to light, experts are convinced that AR will be the ‘next big thing’ in the consumer, medical, mobile, automotive, and manufacturing markets, according to DHL.