New tools for Order Picking 4.0
The era of warehouse workers walking along shelves with printed-out picking lists and removing the required items from the compartments after a long-winded checking process is long gone in modern logistics centers. Mobile scanners and other portable devices have now replaced the long paper lists in most warehouses. Yet even with these tools the potential for errors remains and there is still room for improvement. That is why other more user-friendly devices with greater accuracy are used as standard in innovative centers. And it is little wonder – after all, they increase productivity and simultaneously create more ergonomic conditions for the employees.
In addition to the use of automated storage and retrieval solutions with high order picking frequency and accuracy, there are now a number of different systems, including autonomous transport and delivery robots (Amazon’s Kiva system), or even prototypes that move independently around the warehouse, retrieving items from the shelves (Cube by Magazino).
Support from pick-by-voice methods
Besides these solutions with an already high degree of automation, there are innovative systems that simplify conventional warehouse work – just like the above-mentioned handheld scanners – and assist the order pickers in their tasks. The manufacturers of such products are taking advantage of technical progress and using digital developments such as smartwatches and VR glasses. The starting point here often comes in the form of support for existing methods such as pick-by-voice order picking. In this instance, the employees work with headsets and mobile computers wirelessly connected to the ERP, via which they receive information on the storage location, quantity of items required, etc. The individual tasks are then confirmed by voice entry. An additional control function provides the option to compare the check digits of the items. The advantages of this established picking tool are clear:
- Paperless order picking provides a better overview
- Digital support ensures more secure processes
- Faster and more accurate order picking increases productivity
- Free hands optimize the handling of goods
- Improved ergonomics and comfort when carrying goods
- Shorter training times
Some users, however, feel that they are hindered by a headset. The exposure of the ears to direct sound over a long period of time has led to tiredness and impaired concentration among a number of users, both of which have a negative impact on productivity and ergonomics. Order picking vests can be a good alternative here. The vests weigh just 500 grams and are designed to prevent headaches and other complaints caused by headsets. To this end, two speakers are integrated into the vest at shoulder height, allowing instructions to be clearly heard even when there is loud background noise. The accompanying microphone is also attached to the vest by means of a flexible holder, which can easily be individually adjusted with the aid of quick-release fasteners and elastic belts. As such, this solution affords maximum mobility with no interference around the head area and also frees up the hands.
Order picking with smartwatches
Whether used as a fitness tracker, mobile map, or chat module, smartwatches are attracting a growing number of fans, especially in the world of industry and business, where smartwatches are being used ever more frequently to optimize processes. Thanks to their low weight, the little helpers are easy to wear and can provide a wide range of process-relevant information as and when needed.
This type of order picking is a visual aid to the pick-by-voice method. Here, additional information is sent from the mobile receiver to the warehouse worker’s watch via a Bluetooth connection. This may not necessarily be information already transmitted by voice command about the location of the items to be picked, but rather supplementary data. This could include the check digits displayed in large format on the screen, the number of items to be picked once again, or even pictures. The risk of picking errors and the need to make inquiries using the control panel are thus further reduced. The picker can also be aided by the integration of vibrating notifications. The increase in process reliability associated with the use of the smartwatch results in an even smoother order picking process. As well as helping employees to get their bearings, the smartwatch also makes it easier to train and manage them, and its wow effect is another motivational factor. This is a further reason for the high acceptance of the tool in everyday working life.
Current points of criticism certainly include the limited battery life (which is around four and a half hours at present and thus considerably shorter than the length of a shift) and the limited usability in special storage conditions (e.g. chilled rooms).
Virtual support from smart glasses
Even more direct visual support can be achieved through the use of smart glasses. The data is displayed in a small viewing window within the glasses. In addition, data can be entered by scanning the items, a step which simultaneously sends confirmation to the ERP system that they have been picked. One drawback of this solution is the unfamiliar and frequently tiring view of the small screen on which the information appears.
In the near future at least, augmented reality (AR) or virtual reality (VR) glasses may be one solution. These systems have much larger and thus more user-friendly displays on which a wide range of information can be shown. Users of VR glasses wear an enclosed headset with a screen displaying the content in front of their eyes. With this system the user is unable to see their real surroundings. Each warehouse environment would therefore have to be elaborately replicated – a process that is often beyond the processing power of the VR glasses at present.
For this reason, AR glasses such as the HoloLens are a good alternative. The glasses are transparent on this system and the user continues to see their familiar surroundings. The virtual content is superimposed onto the real content (known as the immersion process). All relevant information is displayed based on the location, time, viewing angle, and situation, making it much easier for the picker to navigate their way around and select the right items.
The employee’s position and perspective can be determined with the aid of a tracking system (such as GPS or a camera with image recognition software) and their surroundings can consequently be incorporated. In addition to static information, this also makes it possible to display virtual objects based on the user’s perspective. Besides navigation arrows, this may take the form of a colored border around the storage location containing the items to be picked. At the same time, clever software ensures that real objects are not obscured by identical virtual objects which would impair the employee’s view.
In most cases, the use of AR technology still remains a long way off, not least due to the high acquisition costs and the processing power required. However, the production of larger quantities combined with rapid technological progress should remove these barriers in the not too distant future.