Is Augmented Reality Primed for Warehouse Automation?

by Kathryn Nassberg | 02/27/2015

The trend of augmented reality (AR) has been picking up steam. Much of the recent hype stemmed from the Microsoft announcement of its HoloLens last month, where there was considerable buzz surrounding consumer applications for the device that bordered on the futuristic appeal of 1950’s world of tomorrow. However, the more grounded applications for Augmented Reality that are emerging are firmly planted in the realm of enterprise. Warehousing and logistics have long been a hotbed of activity for portable and wearable technology, where the opportunity to free up a workers hands has immediate productivity benefits and a strong ROI profile. Wearable voice-enabled picking solutions and wrist and finger mounted scanning solutions have been successfully used in these environments for over a decade. These early wearable logistics solutions, however, have also not changed materially opening the door for innovation.

 Much of the recent wearable technology attention has been directed towards heads up displays and smart glasses. What became evident very early was that this technology was not suitable for mass market consumer applications. However, in the enterprise for B2B applications, the barriers regarding aesthetics and implications for social interactions can more easily be overcome. Therefore it is not surprising to witness the level of interest and evaluation these solutions have garnered for workflows in logistics, field service and others where the benefits of hands free operation could be clearly articulated.  The question, however, is whether these next generation wearable solutions are ready for prime time and whether they significantly improve workflows – and/or lower cost of ownership – when compared to existing automation solutions.

There have been several prominent and well designed demos designed to show the potential smart glasses and AR overlays in the warehouse. VDC recently had the opportunity to speak with a prominent Tier-1 logistics company to understand what its early-stage technology incubator was doing with its AR evaluation efforts.

The future isn’t quite here

Although the application of AR and smart glasses could support various workflows across operations, the firm in question focused its initial evaluation on the most approachable opportunities in warehouse operations and, more specifically, picking, packing, and sorting applications. The higher level objective was to test the overall viability of these solutions and also measure the results against traditional RF scanning solutions. At the end of the day the key takeaways suggested that picking productivity improvements and picking accuracy improvements were very real in addition to ancillary benefits from employee satisfaction and paper reduction. However, what was also clear was that the underlying technology was not sufficiently mature.

While smartglasses and AR overlap technology was clearly easy to use and employees took to it fairly quickly, key challenges surrounding scanning functionality (i.e. using a scanner integrated with the glasses), severe battery life limitations, unstable connectivity and price point of some of the options represented real issues.

However, the bigger question for us was WHY? Not so much why the company was testing smart glasses and AR overlays, but rather why was its picking workflow so inefficient and error prone to begin with. The use of (error prone) paper pick lists, handheld RF scanners and other process inefficiencies could (or rather should) all be mitigated with the adoption of other technology best practices widely accepted for these workflows, namely wearable voice-based solutions.

Existing solutions today – either purpose built from vendors like Vocollect (Honeywell) or multi-modal solutions from vendors like Wavelink – have proven themselves as especially effective for applications such as high speed picking. Recent research conducted by VDC reveals that end users of these solutions experienced at least a 10% increase in picking productivity and 10% increase in picking accuracy after deploying these solutions. If cost remains a reason why many warehousing operations have opted to remain with handheld devices over voice-based solutions, AR will do little to alleviate the issue. At the end of the day, technology should serve as a means to an end, rather than serving as the end itself. While the pace of innovation in enterprise mobility is continues to pick up speed and organizations should constantly be pushing themselves to do better, often times the “shiny new toy” does not quite live up to expectations and the “tried and true” represents the better option. 

View the 2017 Enterprise Mobility & Connected Devices Research Outline to learn more.