Far from destroying jobs, technology is enhancing them. As warehouses are digitized and become 'smart,' they are augmenting the roles of workers and making them 'smarter' too. They work more efficiently and are empowered to take (more) decisions. Greater efficiencies and improved decision making mean lower costs – a win-win in a world where warehouses are cost-centers.
Even though some jobs will be 'de-skilled,' two significant value propositions flow from the emergence of Smart Warehouses:
- Intensification of skills, given that identifying inefficiency with the help of technology, will be a crucial requirement.
- Transformation of workforce management, leading to a world where algorithmic management (made possible due to wearable technologies and on-site sensory software), will regulate workers' well-being and safety.
Image credit: Datexcorp
Smart warehouses are complex systems. Hence a coherent and comprehensive digital strategy is such an essential first step to completing the digitization of your warehouse and to integrating a truly 'connected worker.' A connected-worker 'warehouse' can add tremendous value to operations and output because they enable management to:
- Know everything that is going on and avoid blind spots through a 360-degrees view of operations
- Predict performance levels as well as equipment failures through obtaining data from multiple sources
- Improve safety through monitoring and observing abnormal and irregular behaviors
- Improve quality by acting on data and information on product storage and warehouse conditions
Let's take two most common examples of these in action: worker safety and inventory & asset tracking.
As the usage of IoT devices in warehouses to collect information about workers is beginning to increase exponentially, so too is the usage of wearables. We are likely at the beginning of a 'hockey stick' style trend in the adoption of wearables by warehouse workers. These technologies help prevent exhaustion and warn against impending dangers by monitoring human physical activity as part of connected infrastructure.
We are at the cusp of a generational shift to enhance safety to a level never before thought possible for manual labor. As wearable technologies integrate with existing warehouse applications, it becomes possible to map out the typical workday of a worker to demonstrate the parts in the chain where connected technology can measure and improve safety:
Besides, connected worker technology can aid in the following ways:
- Wireless entry & first work assignments - A smart badge means the worker can walk in, put on a sensor embedded helmet connected to his badge, and seamlessly integrate into the warehouse's digital ecosystem, with work assignments sent to his/her smartphone or watch.
- Task prioritization - Tasks can be dynamically allocated to the workers and wirelessly delivered to their connected devices, enabling a two-way system of communications and real-time instructions.
Performance analytics - These happen through a constant system of rapid feedback loops between workers, supervisors, and managers, as well as at the end of each day, to aid in performance, improved process flows, and efficiency gains.
- Real-time incident reporting - Incident reporting will improve through wearable tech equipped with sensors (IoT), which in turn monitor abnormal activities and dynamic hazards (falls, movements), quickly reporting back and raising the alarm.
Image credit: Oracle
Inventory & Asset Tracking
Wearable technologies such as glasses, gloves, hats, and suits are turning warehouse workers into cyborgs, enhancing their abilities to make decisions that minimize time to locate assets and track inventory.
Some of the connected devices listed below are already in use to optimize inventory and asset operations
- Smart glasses allow workers to see far ahead beyond the regular site of vision, and also provide information on delivery status, stock and inventory levels, and potential choke points. For example, vision picking enables workers to scan a bar-code, see the 'next' task information displayed (i.e., aisle number, bin level, etc. to collate an order) and accurately and efficiently locate the item.
- Smart gloves enable warehouse staff to process documents and goods packages in a 'handsfree' manner. They can scan goods and monitor workflow sequences, all the while feeding data back to the warehouse management systems. These technologies have been taken up in work-environments far beyond traditional warehouses, from e-commerce giants Amazon, to logistics firm DHL and automobile manufacturers (Audi was one of the first to trial wearable gloves).
- Asset tags, in combination with robust indoor positioning technology, are enabling real-time tracking – often critical in warehouses that can be the size of five football pitches.
Given the indomitable value of robotics as a physical branch of AI, connected worker systems are in all but name – the actual fusion of sapiens and technology, hand-in-hand (quite literally).