Wearable technology has been helping people overcome limitations in the world of fiction for years, but the wearable technologies of our imagination are rapidly becoming reality. Nowhere is this truer than in the logistics industry. The latest generation of wearable tech is helping shippers save money and increase fulfillment accuracy by increasing efficiencies throughout the fulfillment process. Shippers should be interested in the latest logistics technology trends because when fulfillment center operations use wearable technology to reduce mistakes and reduce waste, they can pass those cost savings on to shipping customers.
The Materials Handling Industry Association (MHI), an industry group for supply chain professionals, says that 70% of fulfillment centers will use some form of wearable technology in the next few years. This innovative shift will allow logistics professionals to overcome significant challenges facing the industry, including a shortage of workers fighting to keep up with increasing volume.
Benefits of Wearable Technology for Logistics Operations
Wearable technology provides numerous benefits for logistics operations at all stages of the supply chain, including:
- Improved fulfillment accuracy and fewer picking mistakes
- Faster fulfillment speeds
- Higher productivity
- Less labor required
- Lower shipping costs
- Increased connectivity
- Greater supply chain visibility
Early Adopters Prove Advantages of Wearable Tech for Logistics
One of the early adopters of network-enabled wearables was United Parcel Service. UPS equipped its international supply chain operations with radio frequency-enabled ring scanners in 2011, enabling more efficient package transfer and transport throughout its network.
While Google Glass has ultimately proved unsuccessful so far as Google’s initial concept for mainstream adoption, its application in supply chain and logistics is still growing. DHL is an enterprise adopter of smart glasses. The company utilizes the technology in its fulfillment centers for vision picking. As early as 2017, the company reported a 15% increase in worker productivity after deploying Google Glass.
Enhanced scanning processes for fulfillment center workers is another benefit of wearable technology. Wearable RFID and barcode scanners enable pickers to use both hands, and are available from several manufacturers in wrist, ring, or glove-mounted models. Wearable scanners send information through local or cloud-based servers using the internet or Bluetooth to provide decision-makers with the instant, real-time data they need. Scanners can also tell the fulfillment professional what items to pick, whether they picked the correct item and amount, and where the item needs to go.
Wearable Technology Teams Up with Robots
Yet other fulfillment operations pioneers are combining Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs) with wearable scanner devices to improve productivity. Fulfillment operations managers can assign barcodes to pre-programmed workflows, so that scanning a particular barcode triggers a specific behavior in the AMR. Utilizing multiple barcodes displayed on the racks at the end of each aisle can multiply the productivity of a single fulfillment worker by directing several AMRs at once, instead of manually moving product through the warehouse.
Voice-picking technology is another growing trend in logistics. Wearable headset technologies allow fulfillment center pickers to issue verbal commands to AMR assistants and to receive information from centralized dispatchers or computerized databases. A wearable headset that connects the worker to an administrator improves relay instructions, allowing them to redirect labor flow to respond to changing priorities.
The integration of human and robot labor through voice technology is a further development helping fulfillment center managers improve productivity. A warehouse associate can drop a packed cart at the end of the aisle and use voice commands to direct a robot to move it to another zone, or to have a new cart dropped off ready for packing. This allows pickers to stay in one zone and load multiple pallets as the robots move pallets from zone to zone. Each worker is now more efficient and fewer people can manage more tasks. This is especially convenient while social distancing protocols are in place during COVID-19.
Wearable Technologies Make Logistics Operations Safer
Wearable technologies can also provide useful employee data. Fulfillment center operations managers can see where each associate is and track their movements throughout the warehouse to help direct the flow of labor and materials and to increase efficiency. Wearable technology can even provide information about worker health. Managers can monitor employee stress and fatigue, track repetitive motions, and avoid accidents. Wearable devices like the Kinetic Reflex can identify irregular motions and warn fulfillment center workers if they are bending or flexing in a way that could cause injury.
Wearable Technology Providers Developing Industry Standards
One of the biggest challenges facing logistics professionals looking to implement wearable technology is the large number of solution providers and wearable devices available. There are so many options that logistics managers may find it difficult to determine which wearable solutions are best for their operational goals. Industry leaders are calling for increased collaboration to help standardize wearable technology so that smart devices and systems can work with each other, instead of competing.
Covid-19 Drives Faster Adoption of Wearable Technology
Logistics professionals are recognizing the potential ROI of wearables, despite the challenges of adopting new technologies. Fulfillment center workers and other logistics professionals are increasingly willing to accept new technology that improves their work-life quality and safety. The COVID-19 pandemic has also helped to reduce the apprehension surrounding wearable technology. Not only has the pandemic complicated the essential work requirements and worsened the labor shortage in the logistics industry – requiring the need for technology to offset the shortfall – but it has also led to heightened general safety awareness.
According to Haytham Elhawary, CEO and co-founder of tech company Kinetic, “The case for keeping workers safe during COVID-19 is obvious to, and even embraced by, employees who willingly wear the devices for their protection. And, when the investment for immediate needs is considered alongside the long-term injury-reducing value of wearables, the cost is actually lower than the return on investment.” Although wearable technology has had a place in logistics for several years, COVID-19 has helped accelerate the pace of its development and adoption.
Wearable Technologies Are Shaping the Future of Logistics
Nobody knows for certain what the future holds, but the logistics industry will likely continue advancing and adapting to meet ever-shifting demands amid a constantly changing landscape. Humans and robots will continue learning to work together, striving to achieve greater fulfillment accuracy, increased supply chain efficiencies, and better working conditions. Consumers will continue driving the growth of e-commerce and fulfillment services, and businesses will continue moving products and materials around the globe with more efficiency and transparency.
The world will continue demanding more and better logistics, and technology will continue helping our industry professionals deliver it.