From the Last Mile to the Last Meter – VDC’s Vision for Augmented Reality in Logistics

by Richa Gupta | 06/20/2014

At VDC, we are fascinated by the “last mile delivery” conundrum confronting logistics service providers today. A boom in ecommerce sales coupled with the retail omnichannel challenge make for interesting times. In our previous blog, we discussed the issues parcel delivery organizations face during the final stages of the delivery process, the only step in the supply chain where they directly interact with the end consumer. Inefficiencies in packing procedures, less-than-optimized delivery routes, and problems in locating a package’s final destination among others, all contribute to disproportionately high costs and frustration for shippers, which are then passed on to irate customers. While traditional barcode scanners, RFID readers, and connected mobile devices are already used as part of the broader logistics automation solution, VDC believes service providers will continue to seek new technologies that enhance operational efficiencies at every point along the last mile. In particular, augmented reality devices such as Google Glass have the potential to revolutionize this last step in the logistics supply chain.

We recently came across this fascinating new report published by DHL outlining the role that augmented reality will play in logistics, with a focus on the warehouse environment. By using wearable devices such as Google Glass warehouse workers will be able to more efficiently locate products that need to be shipped, while reducing the possibility of errors. These devices will also allow warehouse workers to more efficiently stack goods on pallets and organize pallets in delivery vehicles to help prevent damages and reduce wasted time. Having warehouse “pickers” utilize wearable technologies rather than handheld devices would also allow them to more easily perform tasks using both arms. At the core of these new technologies are camera-based solutions which enable a wide variety of tasks detailed later in this blog. In addition to their high tech capabilities these solutions could also replace traditional handheld barcode scanners, providing a truly all-in-one solution.

This report also explores the possibility of augmented reality enhancing the delivery process and boosting efficiency at the “Last Meter”, after the truck driver has the correct package in hand and is on his way to the recipient’s doorstep. If a driver is unfamiliar with the area, simply finding the correct building or house number could be a challenge and result in wasted time. Wearable augmented reality devices would allow delivery personnel to have access to maps and directions right in front of their eyes, all without the added hassle of handheld/portable GPS devices.

My conversations with the systems integrator community at MODEX earlier this year indicate that one of the more pressing issues for logistics service providers during the last mile of the delivery process is the liability associated with damaged packages. This is relevant today more so than ever because of the explosion in the sheer number of parcels that these organizations ship and transport every single day across the globe (running into the billions). Many times, it becomes hard to determine who to indemnify for damages incurred, especially given the many stages in the order fulfillment process before the item gets to its final destination. VDC believes this can also potentially be addressed with solutions leveraging camera technology, such as these all-in-one wearable devices. Here’s how that would work – the parcel delivery company captures an image of the package at every stage in the shipment route, which can help determine when damages occurred, thereby easing the liability and claims process for the retailer, shipper(s), and consumer. Recent advancements in software application development for Google Glass-type devices could well enable them to support a broad range of functions such as order picking, navigation (both within the warehouse and outside), traceability and identification, and image capture.

It will be some time before augmented reality solutions materially impact data capture technology sales, but VDC believes products such as Google Glass can make traditional last mile processes obsolete. Cameras will be integral to these wearable devices, facilitating both barcode scanning as well as image capture applications. From VDC’s viewpoint, this represents a tremendous opportunity for third party hardware vendors, such as those for barcode imagers and machine vision solutions, looking to supply the logistics industry with the future of efficient last mile technology.

(With significant contribution from Michael Sack, Research Assistant)

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