Logistics - an augmented reality use case

Augmented reality systems are vision related technologies that superpose computer generated images to the physical world in real time using optical headset devices. Today, AR technologies are being used as a driver of innovation in industries such as entertainment, medical procedures, education, vehicle control, and mechanic assistance; and by big players like NASA, Google, Intel, Microsoft, Apple and Volkswagen.

In logistics, AR can assist workers to perform manual tasks across the supply chain. For example, AR glasses can show digital images of the items to order pickers so they know what exactly they are looking for, and show them the optimal routes to minimize picking times. The hardware can also integrate a camera and voice recognition to help in inventory counting and perform quality checks at different stages of the order fulfillment process.

In the last couple of years, Google, Microsoft, HTC, Ubimax, and Vuzix have released augmented reality products that demonstrate that the technology is reliable and ready to be deployed. The challenge now is to provide the supporting infrastructure and the business case for each particular environment where AR systems are to be implemented.

In the last decade, there have been extensive research linking augmented reality and logistics, where the most common application was the pick-by-vision concept. The Sociotechnical Systems Engineering Institute in Latvia developed a low cost model for integrating RFID tags, augmented reality, and the warehouse information to improve the accuracy of order fulfillment using 3D visualization to check items and order compositions. The Forschungsgruppe Augmented Reality in Germany is developing supra-adaptive logistic systems. They are evaluating different visualization technologies to assist order pickers in a founded project by the Bavarian Research Foundation.

Other research initiatives are assessing the use of AR as collaborative tools for warehouse workers, the software deployment, the reliability of the systems, and the human factors involved. These studies show that workers are faster and make fewer errors using AR systems, leading academics to foresee the use of AR in warehouses in the nearest future.

In the last couple of years, providers of logistics services are exploring innovative solutions involving AR systems. SAP® AR Warehouse Picker is the most vivid example, where the ERP developer partnered with the technology company Vizux to provide a cutting edge AR solution for warehousing activities. It integrates visualisation, voice recognition, and a scanning system to allow workers to perform all their activities hands-free.

DHL is also leading the way. They have put in place a pilot project in a warehouse in the Netherlands to test the performance of an AR system developed by Ubimax. It helps pickers to keep track of their tasks progress, allocate products in the picking cart, and scan items. It is an efficient interface to digitize the operation and make it error-free. Knapp logistics automation Inc. has also developed an AR system for logistics. The KiSoft-Vision has its core in its image recognition and processing technology. It also highlights the routes to order pickers.

  • Order picking (Pick-by-vision): Order picking is, in general, the most labor consuming activity in a distribution center. In consequence, it is the first place where researchers and practitioners have look to show the potential of AR in logistics. DHL has tested the technology in this context, as well as researchers at the Technological University of Munich. These studies show lower picking times, higher order fulfillment accuracy, and flatter learning curves. The most relevant benefit is the improvement of the order fulfillment accuracy where the error rate can be as low as 0.03 %, which is considerably lower than that of current technologies: paper-based 0.35%, Pick-by-Light 0.40% and Pick-by-Voice 0.08%.
  • Truck unloading/loading: The WMS can send a loading plan to the AR device and assist workers to optimize vehicle utilization and balance workloads. The optimization algorithms are already extensively used for such purposes, but AR is providing an interface to communicate instructions and coordinate workers in real time.
  • Training and learning curve: AR devices assists operations with visualization aids, therefore they reduce training times facilitating the use of temporary staff in warehouse operations.
  • Truck delivery and pick-up: AR devices can assist drivers providing real time traffic data, highlight obstacles on the road, and navigate to the last meter by highlighting the house where to make the delivery. Studies suggests that, drivers in freight transportation spend more than 40% of their time not driving. Therefore, AR devices make a significant impact in their productivity by assisting this activities.

AR has the potential to assist logistics workers to perform manual tasks faster and better. We cataloged it as an incremental technology and distribution centers are the logistic environment that can benefits the most of its adoption. It will play little role in bulk operation, but the more complex the operations are, the more they can benefit of AR technologies. This is particularly important for e-commerce fulfillment, where orders are becoming smaller and consists of smaller items, resulting in highly complex operations.

Human factors is one the major concerns for AR environments. The superposition of digital images in the user vision can for long periods of time may affect his or her health. Moreover, research tests show the implementation of AR technologies requires a robust software infrastructure from the information system of the distribution centers that is not common in many sector of the industry. Finally, the economic feasibility of the system requires to applications with a strong business case, so when and what industries can make profit of their implementation is still an open question.