Our article on Google Glass, published at the beginning of last year, explored the potential of the new technology in business and other areas to increase productivity and efficiency. At that point, Google Glass received a lot of interest and it was not even available to the masses yet. A lot has changed since the article was published. Google Glass sparked a hope that augmented reality will become an essential part of everyday life, however, there is still a long way to go until that happens. Regardless of this fact, businesses might just be the ones who will take the first steps towards a more efficient future. For example, augmented reality (AR) devices have an enormous potential in supply chain management. The latest Microsoft invention, HoloLens, shows that innovation is on the right track.
HoloLens – what is it?
The dream of holograms becoming a reality was probably born in many people’s imagination since R2-D2 projected a message from Princess Leia in Star Wars. It has also been recently used on a number of occasions, for example, to bring 2Pac back to life at the Coachella festival in 2012, as well as to report election results in the U.S. in 2008. Even though it was not exactly a hologram, but rather augmented reality, it comes pretty close to what George Lucas imagined.
The newest Microsoft invention, HoloLens, is a self-sufficient, wireless computer which can be controlled only by gestures and voice commands. Using a keyboard will not be an option anymore. Hence, the level of voice and gesture recognition accuracy has to be extremely high before customers can lay their hands on HoloLens. Currently, Microsoft only has a prototype, which still has to be connected to a power source and only one gesture recognition function is available. The main aim now is to attract developers who can write software compatible with HoloLens and make the device more compelling than traditional computers or mobile devices.
What else is out there?
Microsoft is not alone in the race to create an augmented or virtual reality (VR) headset. Google has invested $542 million in a startup called Magic Leap, which is working on hardware for a new kind of augmented reality. As usual, Microsoft and Google are competing almost head to head. After Google Glass flopped, now it is Microsoft’s turn to show what HoloLens is capable of. Other firms are thought to be working on virtual reality devices as well, such as Apple, Samsung, Oculus and Sony. Samsung already released Gear VR – a virtual reality headset which uses lenses to bend the Galaxy Note 4 screen and create an immense 3D experience. Sony’s Project Morpheus is still purely a R&D initiative aiming to develop a VR system which can be connected to PlayStation 4. Currently, the most advanced VR headset is the Oculus Rift.
How can it help?
A list of ways in which HoloLens, or a similar AR device, could be used in supply chain management is extensive. According to a DHL report, Augmented Reality in Logistics, the areas where AR has the most potential is logistics and warehousing operations. It is estimated that these operations account for about 20% of all logistics costs, while picking makes up from 55% to 65% of the total warehousing operations costs. If these tasks could be optimized using AR devices, companies could experience significant cost reductions.
In a warehouse
An AR device can provide hands-free intuitive digital support for warehouse workers during manual picking operations. An example of this can be seen in this video:
DHL has also recently finished a pilot project testing AR devices in one of their warehouses in the Netherlands. For three weeks, warehouse staff members in Bergen op Zoom were equipped with head-mounted displays such as VuzixM100 and Google Glass. The display guided staff through the warehouse during the picking process by showing respective task information, e.g. product location and quantity needed. The project resulted in a 25% increase in efficiency and reduced the number of errors during the picking process.
Using a headset, for example, HoloLens, may help visualize the floor plan of a new warehouse before building a single shelf. After the AR device scans an empty warehouse, it would provide the manager with an interactive digital representation of the warehouse layout, visualize the workflows and check if any modifications have to be made. Warehouse operations planning would become much more cost efficient and error-free.
While on the move
An AR device has the potential to be used for inventory tracking in real time. For example, tracking shipments can be much easier if all parties involved in the logistics process could see the information about where the packages are, where they come from, what is inside, where it is supposed to go and who owns it. Damaged or missing pallets would be quickly detected using 3D depth sensors and scanners, which can save time usually wasted during manual counting and inspection.
AR technology may also come in handy when dealing with international transportation regulations, different languages and procedures. The technology also has the potential to optimize the routes for truck drivers, track cargo temperature and fuel efficiency or change the means of shipping when needed. It all could be part of a windshield display.
In addition, drivers spend from 40% to 60% of their time not driving while away from the distribution center. The majority of time is used for locating the right parcel at the right time, or finding the delivery address. These tasks can be made effortless by using an AR headset.
Another example could be relationship management: building relationships with suppliers through video conferences which feel as if both suppliers and buyers are standing in front of each other. It would help companies save traveling costs, especially in global enterprises which have suppliers all around the world in the most distant locations.
For now, it is still hard to imagine that all the shareholders involved in supply chain processes would be equipped with compatible AR devices. A number of challenges have to be overcome for this to make a jump from the Iron Man movies to everyday reality. However, success of the DHL pilot project in the Netherlands shows how close the future with AR devices really is.