A study by Cowen Research has found that ‘[H]iring trends remain strong despite accelerating deployment of logistics robots broadly1.” In other words: Technology can help boost employment. A recent MIT study2 confirms this projection. And the Covid-19 pandemic with its unprecedented e-commerce spike has certainly also highlighted the need for more manual work.
So, then there is little doubt: Human workers remain indispensable for the foreseeable future. Logistics and supply chain jobs require their skill, their spontaneity, their unparalleled dexterity as well as their capacity to adjust and collaborate instantly with others. These abilities are what distinguishes human workers from robots.
While this assessment certainly is no total rejection of technology, it still raises the question as to how technology can best support frontline workers. How can it help raise productivity, profitability, and efficiency while substantially relieving workers at the same time? This matter is even more pressing because the constant talk about automation and AI has fostered a sense of alienation, leaving many workers with mixed emotions and fear about potential job losses. Yet humans and technology should not be adversaries.
Connect the human worker to the IoT
Alienation and anxiety generated a gap which needs to be bridged. As the digitization of the shop floor evolves and gains traction it is evident that human-machine collaboration becomes instrumental. This requires technology to be built around the human worker and connect them to the internet of things while advocating for a decentralized, bottom-up approach to data capture. Wearable devices such as glove scanners are a perfect example for illustrating the benefits that may come with this approach.
First, they connect effortlessly to the corporate network; that is if they pursue an IT friendly plug and play approach. Apart from that, the fact that they are worn on the back of the hand promotes smooth and seamless processes. Workers can no longer misplace them or accidentally wrap them in the packages they are sending out. Needless to say, this kind of device is naturally less likely to be damaged because of accidental slips. All of the above is a significant factor in high frequency scanning environments and contributes to the expenses.
Promote workplace safety and ergonomics
Above all, wearable barcode scanners promote the idea of hands-free scanning. This provides an opportunity for workers to interact freely with their environment and focus on the operations they need to perform. Oftentimes this includes jobs like operating cranes or working in great heights such as high bay racks. In that sense, additional leeway accounts for more workplace safety because it significantly reduces the risks of accidents and physical damage.
Along those lines, it is worth mentioning that wearable barcode scanners can also have a lasting impact on ergonomics because they tend to be smaller and lighter than conventional scanner guns. This means that workers do not have to lift as much. In fact, the difference can add up to 1.5 metric tons per day and worker. Not only does this reduce the risk of health problems and injuries from strain, but productivity is increased as workers will have higher energy levels.
Furthermore, wearable technology can supply guidance with all senses. Wearable displays, for instance, can provide directions and cut back on unnecessary travel within warehouses. Aside from visual signals, wearable devices can also utilize haptic and audio alerts to provide guidance. This may come in handy as it can reduce common picking errors by a factor of 33 per cent which equals a massive quality enhancement.
But the most striking advantage wearable technology delivers is efficiency. Wearable barcode scanners can reduce the time per scan by up to six seconds. That can amount to as much as 50 per cent of the overall scanning time. In fact, XPO Logistics recently announced that the use of wearable barcode scanners saved six seconds per pick, representing an efficiency gain of approximately ten per cent and led to a 75 per cent reduction in errors per million units picked3.
Delivering the human digital twin
Workplace safety, ergonomics, quality and efficiency gains are key advantages. However, there are more benefits to be collected. This technology can be paired with software to leverage the fact that glove scanners are worn on the back of the hand. This makes it an ideal prerequisite for time-motion studies which may provide valuable insights into travel times within warehouses for instance. As they account for about 30 to 50 per cent of the time spent on picking, they represent an important lever for optimizations that can save unnecessary trips.
Such data also provides precise information about hotspots, identifies obstacles and allows for workstations to be properly compared. More so, since this data can be visualized by means of heat maps. At the end of the day, this kind of solution collects data, contextualizes it and provides actionable insights. For example, if too many workers are deployed at one station while they are missing at another.
Its inherent bottom-up approach is pivotal for this kind of solution, though, because this way it all starts with the frontline worker in mind, and it delivers a human digital twin.
Axel Schmidt is Senior Communications Manager at ProGlove. ProGlove builds the lightest, smallest, and toughest barcode scanners in the world, connecting workers to actionable information. More than 500 renowned organizations in manufacturing, production, logistics, and retail use these smarter workforce solutions. ProGlove employs 200 people from over 40 countries with offices in Munich, Chicago, and Belgrade.