In the logistics world, efficient order picking has always been top priority. Without the right combination of people, processes, and technology, ensuring that the right goods are in the right place at the right time—every time—is difficult at best.
Over the last few years, both augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) have made their way into the logistics process, promising to make workers more efficient while also shortening the training process, reducing worker fatigue, and minimizing errors.
The process of using technology to superimpose information (e.g., sounds, images, and text) on the world as we see it, AR differs from VR, which includes computer-generated environments that people can interact with and be immersed in. While these are both scientific definitions, AR and VR are often used interchangeably in the business world.
Using AR and VR to Refine the Logistics Process
The logistics sector is ripe for efficiency improvements enabled by AR and VR. Here are a few examples of what these technologies “look like” in warehousing, shipping, and transportation:
- A warehouse worker can put on a pair of AR-enabled glasses and use them to stay updated on delivery lists, inventory counts, and other priorities (versus having to use spreadsheets, mobile devices, or phone calls).
- The same employee can receive directions from the glasses, which can guide him or her through the order picking processes in the fastest, most efficient manner.
- During busy times of the year, distribution centers can use AR-enabled glasses to get their temp workforces up to speed and operating quickly, without the need for intensive on-the-job training.
- Using pick-by-vision technology—where AR devices are used to highlight boxes or shelf locations to pick from—workers always know exactly where to look for specific items in the warehouse.
- Once orders are loaded and on their way to their destinations, VR can be used to encode packages with scannable images, and to give drivers pertinent information like contents, weight, and handling instructions.
This is just a handful of the ways that AR and VR can be applied in the warehouse and used to help human labor work more efficiently, productively, and safety.
AR in Real Life
Right now, BMW is experimenting with the use of “smart glasses” in a pilot project at its Munich plant. The company is testing out glasses like those from ODG, Vuzix, and Google, which—like a monitor worn on the nose—display picking information in the worker’s field of vision, while interaction with the warehouse management system is achieved via barcode scans. According to Automotive Logistics, a two-month study at BMW suggests a 22% savings in time and a 33% reduction in errors over a typical 8-hour shift when using the technology.
“This is just one successful test of the use of AR and VR in logistics, where technological advancements very often result in improved operational efficiencies,” says Niklas Stratmann, Business Innovation Manager at DB Schenker. “When the right technology is implemented properly, the positive impacts can be substantial.”
Meeting High Demand
Pre-COVID, warehouses and DCs nationwide were facing unprecedented labor shortages. While unemployment rates have since risen into the double digits, the logistics sector didn’t see the same “pandemic pause” that many industries did, mainly because the world was relying on it to deliver essential goods during a time of crisis.
To optimize their human labor forces, more logistics facilities are turning to advanced technologies like AR and VR. “AR picking software is already offering real-time object recognition, indoor navigation, and information to support workers and reduce the time needed for manual operations,” software provider Elementum points out.
“This might be the warehouse of the future: Pickers see a ‘digital picking list’ on a heads-up display,” Elementum describes. “When a shopper selects an item, the display calculates the most efficient path through the warehouse, guides that person to the package, scans it as “picked” into the warehouse management system (WMS), and immediately directs the picker to the next closest package.”
There’s More to Come
Over the last decade, barcode technology provider Scandit says vendors have made great strides with AR—a technology that seeks to merge the digital and physical worlds together into one seamless experience. In fact, it says that AR is now on the cusp of revolutionizing the logistics, manufacturing, and retail industries alike.
“By superimposing computer-generated images and other assets into real-world environments, solutions featuring augmented reality can support a wide range of business use cases,” Scandit notes. “In the context of logistics, AR can be used to maximize warehouse efficiency and consistency. In short, AR enables warehouse employees to perform more reliably and quickly than ever before by streamlining navigation and item picking.”