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Why augmented reality should be on every warehouse's wish list this holiday season

Once again, retailers and logistics providers across the globe have amplified their warehousing and material handling with seasonal staff to meet the peak of consumer demand. On an annual basis, most warehouse and retail logistics companies double to triple their workforces for the holiday rush. For example, Amazon hired a whopping 120,000 seasonal workers at its distribution and fulfillment centers this year.

Even for seasonal workers who return year after year, training can be costly, time-consuming and must be done as rapidly as possible. In a typical 90-day peak period, time spent training and upskilling temporary employees takes two weeks or more. This involves classroom training, e-learning and some amount of on-the-job experience before workers can optimally complete a complex task or follow standard procedures. Such training methods rarely account for the variability in today’s warehouse environments. Warehouse associates must not only familiarize themselves with specific tasks, but also quickly embrace the flexibility needed to accommodate changes in pace and procedure as orders are placed in real time. That’s where IoT in the form of augmented reality (AR) on smart glasses makes a difference.

When delivered through smart glasses, AR technology provides workers — whether seasonal or long-term — with access to real-time visual information, documents, videos and step-by-step guidance. The result is that people can do their jobs more efficiently and accurately, with less time spent in a classroom and with lower frustration. The key to the value of AR on smart glasses is connecting the various enterprise systems, IoT devices, data repositories and components, and bringing them together through a single AR platform. Thus, the integration between people, data and machines in the warehouse is seamless. As companies get through the final push of 2017 and put together a wish list for the new year, here are three areas where AR can help:

  1. Rapid onboarding and on-the-job training: With AR, printed manuals can be made available digitally, as can recorded videos and other visual materials. Instructions can be broken down into simple, discrete steps and delivered to workers’ smart glasses as they perform tasks. This allows workers to learn as they go, helping them to better understand and execute complex processes. Providing information right within line of sight puts instructions in context and reduces the cognitive load, a much more effective method than radio frequency or voice-driven technologies, much less paper-based processes.
  2. More efficient knowledge transfer: To shorten the learning curve, experienced employees can record videos through their smart glasses, documenting their informal and tribal knowledge. New, seasonal and less-experienced workers can view these videos to better understand best practices and received ad hoc tips and tricks. These videos available in real time as workers complete tasks enables temporary employees to resolve problem faster and reduce errors.
  3. Real-time collaboration: Communication and collaboration systems can also be deployed to smart glasses, allowing workers to instantly connect to colleagues and supervisors with “see what I see” video streaming. For example, a warehouse worker may hold an item up to the glasses’ camera to document errors. The captured information integrates with warehouse operating systems to keep the system up to date and avoid compounding errors. Plus, with the ability to make video calls to supervisors, workers can escalate and resolve issues immediately, while supervisors can check in with staff when needed and even conduct video conferences with teams on the floor.

These capabilities are already supporting warehouse applications for workers of all skill levels and areas — from receiving and shipping to picking, packing and kitting, to cycle counting and quality control. For example, AR can be used to present workers with a visual diagram of a bin location as they are performing the kitting task. This minimizes mistakes and prevents staff from having to constantly look over at an instruction sheet or a more cumbersome handheld device.

Similarly, in the picking process, employees can receive real-time updates through their smart glasses, and are immediately directed to the aisle, section and bin for where to find and pick items. With this information in context right within their line of sight, staff can more quickly locate, recognize and select orders. GE Healthcare has already experienced impressive results using AR on smart glasses in one of its medical manufacturing facilities’ picking processes. In the first-time use of the technology, a worker was able to fulfill a picklist order 46% faster than with the previous system, which involved printed instructions.

With the power to transform hands-on workforces and upskill employees of all levels and tenures, AR is the IoT gift that keeps on giving. As these technologies integrate more information and more data from any number of enterprise systems and present them to workers in the context of their workflow, staff workers are more closely connected to the machines and processes that surround them. This leads to not only higher productivity across a variety of use cases, but also a safer workplace, improved quality assurance, greater uptime and even cost savings. For those looking to drive efficiencies in the coming year, it’s not too soon to put AR on your holiday wish list and get well ahead of the crush.

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