Wearable technology is helping improve warehouse worker safety and efficiency
Technology is constantly improving, and we continue coming up with new ways to use (and wear) it.
Donning the latest high-tech gadgets is not limited to leisure or personal time, either. Businesses are beginning to explore how wearable technology can help increase production in their warehouses.
One piece of technology starting to catch the eyes of warehouse operators is exosuits, a wearable exoskeleton that can track the movement of warehouse workers and make it easier for them to lift heavy objects during their shifts.
Ease the Strain
Netherlands-based ADUSA Supply Chain has been pilot testing the 4-to-5-pound exosuit devices, manufactured by Mass.-based Verve Motion, in its distribution centers since last year, with a goal of reducing workplace injuries, general fatigue, and helping employee retention.
“Having it be more compelling for people to want to work for us (was) very much on top of our minds,” Chris Lewis, president of ADUSA Supply Chain, told the Wall Street Journal.
The exosuits are worn like a backpack and help ease the strain of heavy lifting by 30 to 40%, according to Verve Motion, a multi-disciplinary team from Harvard University.
ADUSA Supply Chain is planning to test more than 250 battery-powered exosuits, with the program currently focused on assembly workers who work eight to 10 hours a day collecting product for retail stores and e-commerce fulfillment centers.
While the exosuits are a step up from the generic back braces that warehouse workers commonly wear, they are not a substitute for regular stretching and appropriate task enforcement, according to workplace safety experts. The exosuits should also be monitored for their long-term effectiveness and safety.
“They need to be used in an intelligent way,” Dr. Martin Cohen, an industrial hygienist and professor at the University of Washington’s department of environmental and occupational health sciences, told the Wall Street Journal. “You need to be aware of any repercussions or unintended consequences of using (such devices).”
An ADUSA Supply Chain company spokeswoman assured the Wall Street Journal it was keeping a close eye on the pilot program and has a dedicated ergonomic training and support system for all its distribution workers.
In addition to exoskeletons there are several other wearable devices that can help improve warehouse worker efficiency, such as wearable computers, smart glasses, voice headsets, activity-tracking bracelets, and finger-trigger gloves.
All of these devices help improve efficiency and safety for warehouse workers and their supervisors. The sophistication of the technology also helps ensure accuracy and decreases instances of user error.
“One big trend is the AI-centric approach to wearables,” Charu Thomas, founder and CEO of Oculogx, told Food Logistics. “Earlier companies that built their backs on wearable technology were building ‘assistive reality’ technology, but with advances in AI, true augmentation is possible.”
The AI technology is advancing in a variety of areas, but, perhaps most notably for warehouse workers, voice picking technology increases have made a significant difference in the industry.
Voice picking, also referred to as voice-directed warehousing, is a hands-free system that allows warehouse operators to instruct workers where to go and what to do.
The technology was mostly operated by Windows, originally, but now can be found on most Android devices and is beginning to incorporate Internet of Things (IoT) concepts.
“New IoT technologies are now compatible with voice picking solutions and can improve and simplify the process for the picker,” Thierry Mole, logistics practice director at Symphony Retail AI told Food Logistics. “A variety of IoT solutions are currently available, including connected glasses, digital tags and technologies that support automatic positioning such as gravity, WiFi, and beacons.”
Wearable devices that take advantage of speech technology are also being used to help human workers interact with their AI counterparts, often referred to in the field as autonomous mobile robots (AMRs).
A warehouse associate can communicate directly with AMR coworkers through voice-activated systems and barcode scanners.
“The associate simply scans the barcode of the workflow he or she wants triggered, and an AMR will pick up the cart and take it to the location specified in the workflow,” Stefan Nusser, chief product officer at Fetch Robotics, told Food Logistics. “This functionality enables warehouse associates to use the devices that they use every day and also allows them to spend all of their time doing productive work instead of 50% of the time manually moving material all over the warehouse.”
Workers are also able to use voice systems in collaboration with heads-up display devices, which help them pick path optimizations and direct the AMRs.
Using intelligent voice systems, associates can instruct the AMR’s to complete time-sensitive tasks, such as having a cart restocked at the end of an aisle or to automatically pack out.
All of this helps create what is known as an “advanced warehouse,” and increases efficiency and productivity while limiting room for error.
With any new technology there is going to be a learning curve, of course, and finding the right voice picking device is a critical investment decision for any warehouse operator.
“The biggest pitfall is the sheer volume of voice picking solutions on the market,” Mole told Food Logistics. “This creates a more complex environment in comparison to the previous landscape characterized by one unique device and a single software provider.”
Once a warehouse operator chooses a software provider, they must also overcome the challenge of successfully implementing the new technology into their day-to-day operations.
Among the things to consider is how employees will respond to the changes, ensuring privacy, what the long-term vision is for the devices and how to implement them in the most cost-effective way.
“There are a few challenges companies face when deploying wearable technology,” Thomas told Food Logistics. “Wearables can offer significant improvements in efficiency compared to mobile or handheld technologies, but these savings can only be invoked when creating a seamless onboarding process and workflow.”
Being able to successfully incorporate new technology became especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic, when supply chains were simultaneously stressed and shut down, and AI-reinforcements became even more critical.
According to Haytham Elhawary, CEO and co-founder of KINETIC, Inc., employees have become accustomed to using technology that may have not entered the field as quickly as it did if not for the urgency that accompanied the global health crisis.
“The use of wearable tech was increasingly common in the warehouse space prior to COVID-19, and since the onset of the virus, is significantly more prevalent,” Elhawary told Food Logistics. “This real use case has driven demand for units in the field, and we’re seeing companies deploy up to three times as many wearables in the workforce than before COVID.”
Increased demand during the pandemic also coupled with labor shortages, which put additional strain on warehouses already dealing with new health and safety protocols like social distancing.
In general, perception is everything, and while warehouse associates may have looked at wearable devices with apprehension in the past, it would appear they have opened up to all they have to offer in the wake of COVID-19.
“The perception around wearables is changing among warehouse workers. In the past, they viewed the devices with curiosity, but apprehension,” Elhawary told Food Logistics. “Amidst this pandemic, workers are now reporting they’re grateful for a tool that helps keep them safe. And they’re appreciative of their employer’s investment in their health and well-being during a time of such uncertainty.”