Home' MHD Supply Chain Solutions : MHD Jan-Feb 2016 Contents A ‘perfect storm’ of change
for warehouse operators
s the internet and online commerce
shakes businesses around the world,
warehouse and distribution centre
operators are faced with growing challenges.
Modes of operation that worked successfully for
decades are no longer able to deliver the efficiency
and productivity levels now required. Faced with
rapidly increasing freight volumes and the need to
fulfil orders within shorter timeframes, warehouse
and DC operators are on the hunt for solutions.
A key point of consideration for many is the
capital investments already made in back-end
IT systems. Underpinning everything from
inventory shipments and storage to picking
lines and deliveries, these systems are critical
for warehouse functioning. Very few operators
are in a position to ‘rip and replace’ them in
any quest for productivity improvements.
The key problem here is that older systems
were not designed with users in mind. Often
sporting complex, character-based interfaces,
they require staff to undergo weeks of training
before they can be productive. While such
training is justified for full-time staff, it becomes
an issue when operators need to scale up their
workforces with casual or part-time employees
to meet seasonal peaks in demand.
The older user interfaces on legacy
systems also tend to slow staff down. Many
find themselves having to constantly refer to
a screen and work through extended menu
structures to complete their daily tasks.
The first storm: wearables
Faced with these challenges, increasing
numbers of DC and warehouse operators are
taking advantage of two big technological
trends sweeping the sector: wearable
technology and voice.
A new breed of wearable devices is allowing
warehouse staff - particularly those on picking
lines - to change the way they approach their
jobs. Rather than having to deal with antiquated
interfaces and confusing commands, they can
interact with these devices using icons and
simple screen touches.
These new devices are often powered by
modern operating systems such as Android,
and can be easily customised to suit particular
operators and methods of working. They also
tend to be light in weight and readily strapped to
an employee’s arm for easy access.
The second storm: voice technology
It’s been available for warehouse and DC
operators for some years, yet voice is only now
becoming a widely used tool. Where previously its
adoption would have required wholesale changes
to back-end applications, it can now be added at
a much lower cost and with minimal fuss.
Voice can be a game changer for warehouse
staff. Rather than needing to constantly
query a computer about pick lists and stock
locations, staff can be guided through their
tasks by audio prompts.
Training of new staff members is also
significantly reduced. Rather than needing
weeks to learn a complex interface, they can
quickly get used to hearing spoken commands
and interacting with the system using their own
voice via a headset microphone.
Significant productivity gains
Equipped with a wearable computer and voice
capabilities, the productivity improvements for
warehouse and DC staff can be seen instantly.
Rather than having to pause to refer to a screen
for a pick list and enter commands, details can
be communicated to them as they move about
Termed ‘motion flow’, such an advance can
have a large impact on staff productivity.
For example, staff at 3M Australia’s warehouse
in Sydney have been using voice capabilities for
more than 12 months. In that time, the staff have
embraced the technology and find it helps them
improve accuracy and efficiency.
Distribution centre manager for 3M Australia
Daniel La Greca said the high pick rate within
his warehouse is extremely complex and
“Our people love the fact that they can now
keep their eyes on the ball by speeding-up the
scanning stage,” he said. “I’m confident that the
ability for us to do all of our picking functions
without setting down and picking up devices will
save a significant amount of time, resulting in
significant savings and new efficiencies.”
Taking a ‘layered’ approach
The most enticing factor for many DC and
warehouse operators is that the benefits of
new-generation wearable devices and voice
technology can be achieved without any need
to change supporting back-end systems. New
capabilities are simply ‘layered’ on top of
Icon-based interfaces on wearables can
provide a more intuitive interface for users
by hiding the complexity of the underlying
application. Interactions can be similar in
nature to those of current-generation smart
phones and tablets rather than the green
screens of the 1980s.
Voice capability can also be added as an
extra layer. Software installed on the wearable
device can take information provided by the
back-end system and convert it into speech in
real time. The same software can also convert
spoken responses from staff into commands
understood by the system.
As a result, the costs associated with
implementing these new technologies are
significantly reduced. No changes are required
to core systems with all functionality happening
on the client device.
Powering the warehouse
of the future
Working together, wearables and voice
technology can radically change the way DC
and warehouse teams perform their tasks. Freed
from the need to consult a back-end system
using complex commands and menus, they can
focus on filling orders as swiftly and accurately
Transactions become non-intrusive as staff
can interact with the system at the same time as
moving around the facility and picking required
items. Indeed, many who use the technology
report an immediate improvement in their ability
to meet KPI.
Just as technology is changing other facets
of modern commerce, so it’s having a profound
impact on the way warehouses operate. If it
hasn’t reached you already, the ‘perfect storm’ of
wearables and voice is heading your way soon.
Simon Storey is the country manager,
Australia and New Zealand, for Wavelink.
MHD SUPPLY CHAIN SOLUTIONS — JANUARY / FEBRUARY 2016
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