Wearable Tech: The Latest in Warehouse Changes

View of a man wearing a plaid shirt, overalls, and work gloves uses his black Apple Watch while working in a warehouse.

In recent years, the use of wearable tech in warehouses is often found among the top ten future trends for the supply chain industry. In fact, the 2019 report from MHI and Deloitte Consulting finds that technology is making headway, achieving a 26 percent adoption rate, with a similar pace of adoption expected over the next five years. It looks like the future is now, and it’s already fulfilling orders in many warehouses.

What Well-Dressed Warehouse Workers are Wearing

At a time when augmented reality (AR) eyewear has generally faded from the general public’s memory, AR glasses are increasingly being sported by warehouse staffers. “Vision picking,” something firms have experimented with, has achieved promising results by reducing errors and improving picker efficiency. UBiMAX, a supplier of wearable computing and AR solutions, attributes its wearable computing solutions with achieving efficiency increases of up to 50 percent at its clients’ facilities.

Not only can AR eyewear improve productivity, it can also be used to show employees how to lift heavier items safely, improve assembly tasks and train new employees while on the job. In addition to technology-enabled eyewear, haptic gloves, wrist-mounted bar scanners, and high-tech lanyards contribute to the futuristic look at a growing number of industrial parks across the country. These wearable devices further help users find what they are searching for more easily and can verify that the right item and quantity are chosen, all while eliminating the need for manual entries to forms or checklists. The immediate verification of each selection can also be synched up to achieve real-time inventory tracking, which can make restocking and reordering more efficient.

Just as voice-enabled search ends debates at home over which artist recorded a song first, voice-activated technology is also expanding its presence in warehouses where it can help workers adjust lighting and temperatures to accommodate their location within the facility. Voice-enabled technology also allows employees to retrieve needed instructions without interrupting their focus or retracing steps. Its adoption is expected to grow as tasks, like printing shipping labels as items are picked and verified, continue to be added to services like Amazon’s Alexa.

Where sensors are also used to track employee movements, it creates opportunities to optimize the layout of the floor, reducing unnecessary steps and saving even more time. Similarly, shelving configurations can be adjusted to put more commonly sought items within reach. From punching in and out of a shift to stocking and sorting, and right through to shipping, wearable tech enables staff members to accomplish more without ever taking their eyes off what they are doing.

Determining Whether Wearable Technology Makes Sense for Your Company

However, despite the “pros” there remain some “cons” that require consideration before implementing or expanding use of these gadgets.

Six Things to Consider Before Investing in Wearable Tech

  1. Device cost remains a barrier for many companies. While the cost of Google glasses has barely broken below the $1,000 barrier, at $999, competitors, with products specifically designed for supply chain use, offer their products somewhat closer to the $1,400 mark. Given these devices have applications beyond the warehouse floor, systems may also be needed to monitor their use and secure the devices when not being used.
  2. Infrastructure expense can vary. Many facilities currently do not have full Wi-Fi coverage within their building. Incorporating wearables may require network upgrades and adopting stronger cybersecurity protocols to ensure all the data collected—from inventory to client information—is secure.
  3. IT support will be required to maintain connections and help companies have the literal and figurative bandwidth to support the addition of all these devices. Additional effort on the part of IT staff may be needed, along with additional members.
  4. Battery life has been an issue in adoption. However, like all tech devices, the issue is slowly diminishing with each new iteration and advancement in power storage. However, since wearables are used without interruption throughout a shift, finding equipment that lasts a full eight-hour shift and into the next one remains a near-term challenge for some businesses.
  5. Durability can be an issue given the conditions of a warehouse. From the need for refrigeration or the reality of extreme heat and dust particles, device performance and lifespan can be affected by the environment. Where such extremes are present, warranties and repair plans should be considered before purchase.
  6. Privacy may also be an issue depending on the device and the nature of the information it collects. A strategy would also be needed to ensure personal information—including locations during breaks, for instance—are not inadvertently being captured. Also, if any of the devices are also used personally, new policies may be required to accommodate devices coming into the facility. These would likely be similar to those currently in place with regards to mobile phones, tablets and computers.

Better Management Through Wearables

Whether they augment your staff’s vision or sense of touch, or track their movements, wearable tech devices could lead to streamlined processes and more consistent actions, all while helping to make your facility safer. With the real-time feedback they generate, it also means that managers can receive better information, which may lead to more accurate decision-making and ultimately an improved client experience.

Given the advantages, forgoing wearable technology until the disadvantages are fully addressed creates its own risk. In a recent report, Forrester predicts that more than 14 million U.S. workers alone will be using smart glasses by 2025. Adopting wearables for use earlier may offer your business a competitive advantage.

The views expressed by the author are not necessarily those of Fifth Third Bank and are solely the opinions of the author. This article is for informational purposes only. It does not constitute the rendering of legal, accounting, or other professional services by Fifth Third Bank or any of their subsidiaries or affiliates, and are provided without any warranty whatsoever.