By Dr. William Oliver Hedgepeth
Faculty Member, Transportation and Logistics Management, American Public University
Wearable technology is essential in 2020. Wearable technology is not just a result of the pandemic creating changes in technology for the warehouse, supply chain or healthcare operations. If you wear a watch to tell the time, that is a wearable technology.
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Bar codes and radio frequency identification (RFID) tags allow items moving along an assembly line or conveyor belt to be scanned hands-free. When a worker uses a barcode or RFID scanner, that information is automatically transmitted to one or several databases to internally locate that item. Wearables devices are a “new type of tablet on the wrist, face, head or other body part.”
Today, wearable technology involves devices that are connected to the internet. These devices deliver data to listen to or to be seen, so decisions and/or actions can be taken instantly.
70% of Warehouse Facilities Predicted to Adopt Some Form of Wearables by 2023
According to SupplyChainBrain, 70% of warehouse facilities will adopt some form of wearables by 2023. “This trend is happening for good reason. Brands such as UPS use wearables to streamline their supply-chain processes and save time.” Along with robots moving packages and pallets within a warehouse and AI technology directing the flow of labor and packages, wearable technology is becoming commonplace.
These wearables include such products as Apple watches, Samsung’s Smart Watch, Fitbit and Google Glasses. One key factor for the success and growing acceptance of these technologies is that the data they produce is connected to the internet and cloud software. This means that all members of complex supply chains are instantly connected. To prove that point, have you ever ordered some product online only to see an almost instant notice in your email inbox of its current status and expected delivery date?
The Metrics of Wearables
One metric for management is to decrease operational expenses of the employees, robots or AI technology in the warehouse. Another metric maximizes the hourly, daily or weekly rate of output by the warehouse or the employees. Both of these metrics might affect the amount of employee labor.
Many wearables decrease the number of steps or movements that employees make in moving a package from one location to the next in the supply chain. Now, if those employees reduce the number of steps it takes to move one package, maybe they will be able to move the next package faster than if they were not using wearable technology.
For instance, if it takes six seconds to move a box from one location to the next without a wearable and four seconds with a wearable, then it might be expected that the number of boxes moved would increase per hour, per day, per shift. This increased volume proves the value of metrics-driven wearables.
Wearable Techonology Increases the Availability of Data for Product Placement and Movement
Wearable technology increases the availability of data for product placement and movement within a warehouse operation. This metric can also be defined by product, current location and status. This data metric is important and has different meanings for management and for employees. Management will examine the statistical aspects of this continuous flow of data, while the employees may be interested in only one number in that data.
Another metric is that this data is flowing continuously in the computer systems to record, process and update 24/7/365. This continuous flow of data will be analyzed, summarized, and moved to different departments and personnel. The complexity of viewing the flow of products within a warehouse and within the global supply chains will maximize the use of AI and robotics and cut down on another metric, the number of employees needed to use the wearables.
While hands-free wearables are a benefit to managers and increase the efficiency of workers, they also provide data on each employee. That device provides data on employees’ locations in the warehouse, their movements or stationary position. Employee movements are tracked just like those packages they are tracking.
Kinetic Reflex is a wearable device that not only tracks heartbeats and stress levels, but also alerts the wearer if he or she bends over in such a way that could cause an injury. Given the nature of such different wearable technology, even the health of the wearer can be monitored to inform management how employees are coping with heavy loads.
Honeywell Intelligrated, for one, has created wearable headsets that inform employees and management of real time working conditions and results. Workers are told how well they are doing without having to wait for an end-of-shift report from a supervisor.
Wearable technology is not just for forward logistics. Due to the uncertainty in retail and global supply chains during 2020, reverse logistics is trying to embrace such wearables. Reverse logistics is a complex process, which has as its goal the tearing down or disassembling of a product.
Whereas a television set or coffeepot may have a chip inside for tracking its movement through a warehouse or in a retail store, the dozens to hundreds of individual subcomponents, even batteries, are not easily trackable by technology other than what employees see with their eyes and feel with their fingers. So reverse logistics is not yet up to using wearables such as smart glasses or smart clothing.
The Many Ways Wearables Are Being Used
What then are the many ways wearables are used? Adam Robinson, writing for the global transportation firm Globaltranz blog Cerasis, says the list is long and growing:
- Order picking
- Exception handling
- High-value asset handling and monitoring
- Cycle counting
- Sales data collecting
- Sales forecasting
- Field service installation
- Repair maintenance
- Inventory management
- Near-real time replenishment
All this technology seems to revolve around the speed at which workers can do their job and move products through a warehouse. One result of this data-driven speed is that the improved accuracy has resulted in fewer human errors.
The COVID-19 Pandemic Has Increased Consumer Shopping Online and the Market for Wearable Technology
The pandemic of 2020 is a significant factor in increased consumer shopping online. Economic reports indicate that all retail business has been affected, some positively, some negatively. These reports indicate that retail sales have decreased around 6% overall, but online purchases have increased about 77%. But don’t be fooled. Overall sales revenue for that same period is down 55%.
Supermarket News reports that nearly 80% of consumers shopped online for groceries since the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S. in March. These pandemic-related factors are driving the retail industry to use technology such as robots and AI, but especially wearables to help increase the accurate selection and movement of consumer orders as they flow through the supply chain to the end consumer.
Wearable Technology Is in All Aspects of Our Lives
Besides moving products and people in a warehouse, wearables are being used for healthcare digital data. Such wearables can track pain measurement metrics and provide constant updates to doctors and nurses and other healthcare professionals.
Wearables can also improve your daily life. A wearable can remind you to get off the couch and go walking or jogging, ride that bike, or even to take a breath. Such devices can motivate and improve our outlook on life.
About the Author
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth is a full-time professor at American Public University (APU). He was program director of three academic programs: Reverse Logistics Management, Transportation and Logistics Management and Government Contracting. He was Chair of the Logistics Department at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Dr. Hedgepeth was the founding Director of the Army’s Artificial Intelligence Center for Logistics from 1985 to 1990, Fort Lee, Virginia.
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