Unfortunately, I have never had the pleasure of stepping into the virtual commissioning world. However an increasing amount of reports concerning exactly this type of innovation in supply chain processes provides practitioners with a feeling of what it is like to move in a half real- and half virtual environment. The most common example is the use of smart glasses (e.g. google glass), which help warehouse employees quickly find the right item in a warehouse. There are several advantages associated with the so called “pick-by-vision” method, including the fact that it becomes difficult to “lose sight” of all relevant information required to work efficiently. With pick-by-vision, no more confusing excel sheets or bulky plans are required, workers’ hands are free and data is populated automatically.
Today’s new technology is allowing warehouse managers and supply chain professionals to see, hear and “feel” more efficiently. Let’s have a look at some examples:
Two weeks ago, my colleague Kristina Pelzel, specialist in procurement and inventory optimization, had the opportunity to visit a company that develops and distributes new commissioning technology which it also uses in its own warehouse operations. The third-party logistics provider CINRAM, located in Germany, provided Kristina and a small group of other guests with an exclusive look into their commissioning methods. The event was organized by BME (German Association Materials Management Purchasing and Logistics e.V.) and focused on CINRAM’s use of two innovative forms of visualization in the warehouse: “pick-by-vision” and “put-to-light”. According to Kristina, “After the worker put on his google glass, the information of where to find the next item to pick was immediately projected on his screen. Then he was led to the storage bin where he took the ordered item and scanned it either with the glasses or with a scanner fixed on his glove. A light integrated in each bin on his wagon showed him where to place the item. This is helpful in order to optimize further logistics processes after the picking is complete.”
Not only logistics providers are focusing on these digitalized visual methods. In the automotive sector, Volkswagen recently developed MARTA (Mobile Augmented Reality Technical Assistance). This tool is able to display service information for a vehicle in real time. The program uses the integrated camera of a mobile device. The worker can hold his smartphone or tablet camera in front of an automobile and receive a special layout or picture supplemented with additional information directly projected over the live image. At Volkswagen, this innovation helps automotive technicians quickly understand the requirements for the repair processes.
Besides the use of written information and light effects with smart glasses and apps, there is another commissioning method which requires a keen sense of hearing. “Pick-by-voice” tools function in a similar way to navigation systems in cars and direct warehouse workers to the correct item. They are configured interactively, and the user must confirm further steps with his voice. A survey that involved nearly 1,400 logisticians revealed that by 2020, 72% expect the use of pick-by-voice systems as a measure to cope with the rising complexity of warehouse logistics.
The Right Feeling
Aside from the operative work along the supply chain, digitalization has also found its way into supply chain planning processes. Whether inventory planning methods or production planning and scheduling, increased complexity and data have made support from intelligent IT systems essential. Software tools can manage huge amounts of data in the shortest amount of time – but just the storage of data is not enough. The full potential of digitalization can be realized only when software can create optimal decision proposals based on the information it receives. Using inventory planning as an example, intelligent IT systems can consider the historical sales data of a specific item. This information, combined with planned sales promotions and supplier requirements such as minimum order quantities, creates a great basis for the use of mathematical procedures. These procedures provide managers with cost optimized order proposals and help procurement professionals economically plan their purchases.
Nevertheless, supply chain management is always affected by unexpected disruptions, and at this point even feeling is a relevant sense in supply chain management – in a figurative sense. Experienced warehouse managers know their business and rely on their gut feeling when it comes to critical situations. Therefore, human intelligence and the infamous “gut feeling” is never replaceable, but digital support in the form of IT-based optimization tools can help managers react faster and therefore work and plan more efficiently.
Digital expertise as a necessary skill
Digitalization and the use of technological innovations must fit into the company’s culture. Too many sudden changes to traditional processes can have a negative impact on a working atmosphere. A company’s history, development and existing IT infrastructure must be taken into consideration before diving into digitization. In the cases presented in this article, it is important to place emphasis on the enhancement of existing senses, not the replacement of existing processes.
It is also important to keep in mind, that the implementation of new IT tools requires not only the acceptance of affected workers but also a better understanding and enhancement of digital skills at the operative level. The examples of CINRAM and Volkswagen show that the use of wearables, augmented reality tools or intelligent IT systems have an impact not only on the newly established “Chief Digital Officer” roles, but also on the daily routines of the warehouse workers. To this point, the main feedback concerning the introduction of digitalized supply chain methods coming through the media is positive. A report from DHL recently revealed that a pilot program using pick-by-vision at DHL exposed an efficiency increase of 25% and a strong positive feedback from users.
In conclusion, there is no predefined starting point when it comes to making the decision of where to enhance your senses. Different commissioning or supply chain planning processes require different IT support. The use of “pick-by-vision” and “pick-by-voice” can increase efficiency and improve daily operative tasks. Nevertheless, digitalization needs a combination of IT intelligent tools and human senses as well as the experience and gut feeling of experts.
Are you currently using any of these innovative methods in your warehouse in order to enhance your senses?