Picking with Vision

An announcement from DHL a few weeks ago heralding the success of a pilot project in Europe  involving the use of augmented reality for order picking is yet more evidence that when it comes to high technology, the once humble warehouse is not being left behind.

For three weeks, 10 workers at a DHL customer (Ricoh) facility in Bergen op Zoom in the Netherlands were equipped with smart glasses (including Google Glass and VuzixM100) that provided necessary order picking information, such as aisle number, location, and product quantity, through an application developed by Ubimax, the wearable computing solutions company,

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A total 9,000 orders comprising 20,000 picks were fulfilled over that time. And the result? Faster picking leading to an overall 25 percent increase in productivity when compared to the warehouse’s usual pick practice of RF scanning. As well as enjoying their new hands-free world, staff also reported they were not encumbered by the wearables – “You barely feel it once you are wearing it.”

But just what is augmented reality (AR)? Whereas virtual reality (VR), its better known cousin, completely immerses the user in a computer-generated environment, augmented reality, as its name implies, maintains an existing physical reality but adds a digital element to create an environment that becomes a value-added mix of the real and the virtual.

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Augmented reality enhances the physical environment by superimposing pick instructions in the warehouse worker’s field of view

As a relatively nascent technology, commercial applications of augmented reality are still rare. One of the more well-known is the so-called smart fitting room, which is attracting interest from a number of fashion retailers. Here, the shopper stands in front of an interactive screen and “tries on” clothing items i.e. she sees herself (physical reality) wearing a digital image of the selected item (virtual reality).

In the DHL application, the warehouse worker sees the physical reality of the aisles and racks in front of him just as he could if he were not wearing a head-mounted display, but this is augmented by a superimposed AR code in the form of a graphical work instruction, which appears after he scans the bar code at the storage location with his smart glasses. This code tells him where to go, how many items to pick and even where to place in his trolley.

With the pilot project complete, DHL is evaluating the operational suitability and economic feasibility of adopting augmented-reality vision picking. Meanwhile, its Trends Research team has already identified other logistics activities that could be enhanced by a judicious dose of AR technology.

For instance, in transportation, AR could enable rapid, hand-free checking of pickup loads by a driver using a wearables to quickly scan items for collection, followed by instructions on where best to place the loads inside the vehicle, and once on the road, dynamic traffic support based on real-time traffic data to optimize routes (the information shown on smart glasses or a windshield display). Another potential applications is warehouse planning ­­– visualizing new equipment and modifications against the backdrop of the actual facility.

It is likely to be some time before AR based picking comes to a warehouse near you or is adopted extensively for other logistics processes. But with warehouse owners constantly looking to boost productivity and reduce error rates in an environment of high-frequency pick operations and temporary staff, this is definitely a technology worth keeping an eye on (pun intended).

Incidentally, anyone with a smartphone can get a useful appreciation of augmented reality technology through free iOS and Android apps such as Augment and Junaio. So go ahead and get a glimpse of the future.

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