Does Wearable Technology Fit in Field Service or Warehouse Management?

Robert Brice
Fri, Nov 21, 2014

wearable techWearable technology has come a long way. Live video feeds from your glasses; email on your watch; once considered science fiction, these capabilities are now available from devices you can buy on Amazon. A lot of the attention surrounding the use and benefit of these digital tools has been in the consumer market. For example, Google has garnered significant publicity as technology lovers and adventurers alike post videos of their experiences using Google Glass. They’ve also attracted a lot of scrutiny around safety, security and privacy.

In a recent opinion piece by RFgen Software, their product marketing manager observed that much of the adoption of wearable tech in the workplace has focused on enhancing customer experiences with resources like digital tour guides and smart cards used at amusement parks. Despite the success of these enhanced customer experiences, many businesses are still firming up their overall enterprise mobility strategy and just beginning to explore the idea of wearable tech for their more complex back-office workflows. 

Today’s Wearable Tech 

That doesn't mean there aren't wearable tech pioneers in the enterprise. For example, Vocollect enables voice picking to improve warehouse management operations. It's a hands-free, eyes-free solution that delivers instructions through a headset. Workers can use a microphone or add barcode scanning functionality to automate a number of processes, including: 

  • Order selection
  • Receiving
  • Replenishment
  • Transfers
  • Picking and selection
  • Outbound loading
  • Cycle counting and inventory
  • Auditing
  • Back stocking
  • Put-away

The Vocollect device integrates with RFgen software to improve accuracy and efficiency in a warehouse or manufacturing environment. (Check out how Caito Foods utilizes voice picking.) 

Smart Glasses

Smart glasses show the most promise for mobilizing workers in new, productive ways. Google Glass is similar to Vocollect in that it can provide a hands-free experience, responds to voice commands, and can run apps to scan barcodes. But the technology is still for early adopters and hasn’t been widely used in warehouse or industrial environments yet. What's more, compatibility with hard hats, safety goggles and personal eyeware prescriptions might limit their viability for some businesses.

Google gets a lot of credit for introducing smart glasses to the consumer world, but they’re not alone. An alternative are the M100 smart glasses from Vuzix, which are also Android-based. The M100 smart glasses are commercially available and originally designed for industrial environments. The heads-up display can be mounted on safety glasses or on a headset, and it comes with an external battery to extend use to 6-8 hours. They're also more affordable. 

What Problems Can Wearable Technology Solve?

One of the most promising applications for smart glasses is in field service. Roaming workers wearing smart glasses can keep their hands free to collect data, interact with checklists, manage inventory used on a job, or even stream video back to a remote worker for real-time troubleshooting. 

An article for Manufacturing Business Technology discusses how wearables connect people to information quickly and easily. For instance, if a machine breaks down, a connected manufacturing facility can immediately send a message to dispatch someone to the location. Armed with smart glasses, the technician can perform the maintenance while viewing step-by-step instructions on how to solve the issue, minimizing production downtime. 

There are also a number of companies trying out smart glasses for warehouse automation; they’re utilizing navigation features as well as automating some inventory management functions like sales order picking. SAP has an interesting concept video utilizing Vuzix smart glasses. 

What Are Some Concerns with Wearable Tech?

Some consumers have expressed concerns about the safety of using wearable technology like smart glasses. The most frequently asked question is does it harm your eyesight? When used as intended, smart glasses are not considered harmful. They are for “micro interactions,” not extended viewing which can result in fatigue and headaches. And just like new prescription glasses, they may take some getting used to.

Another worry is that they'll be a distraction for workers performing tasks like driving a forklift. When evaluating smart glasses, consider that the military has been driving tanks and flying planes using heads-up and augmented reality devices for years. As with any new approach to operating machinery, training will be critical as well as evaluating the user’s skill set and ability to adapt. 

Industry Week cited a study performed by Juniper Research, which predicted the wearable technology market would likely reach $1.5 billion. Over the next four years, there could be upwards of 130 million shipments of these types of devices. This wave of technology adoption will most certainly impact industries like ours looking to streamline field service, plant maintenance and warehouse operations.

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