Wearable Technology Finds a Home in Today’s Warehouse

How Wearables Are Making Supply Chain Labor Safer and More Efficient

Wearable warehouse technologies are developing at an exponential rate. These electronics are not merely watches and fitness trackers but rather powerful tools that help streamline daily activities inside of the workplace. The advancements are essential, especially in the global logistics industry amid a supply chain labor shortage.

Wearables help to retain workers by lessening their material handling workload, making their jobs easier. Businesses benefit because wearables help to expedite picking, packing, and shipping. These duties must be performed proficiently to meet customer expectations and enhance the customer experience. A quick tour of 3PL warehouses or fulfillment centers may find workers in smart glasses and exoskeleton suits. Wearables have become vital to the digital supply chain model and are helping to modernize the logistics industry. Uniting cloud computing technology with practical ways of capturing and logging data advances the use of real time data in the warehouse.

What is Wearable Warehouse Technology?

Warehouse wearable technologies are internet connected devices that help workers better perform crucial tasks. These devises are small and lightweight, and workers can wear them on their heads, faces, or other body parts. These instruments are capable of increasing worker mobility and scaling processes by allowing companies and workers to access and exchange information on the go.

Many wearables are outfitted with sensors that are connected to warehouse management software. Having ease of access to the proper data allows companies to expedite warehouse processes while increasing safety and efficiency. Warehouse wearables are essential because they provide solutions that improve:

  • Speed
  • Safety
  • Accuracy

Wearables like exoskeletons and voice headsets improve worker safety by reducing the stress of repeated motion on the body. By freeing their hands and supporting their bodies, workers can focus on physical processes and receive alerts of imminent dangers as well as suggestions for preventative measures. Finger-trigger gloves are a picking solution that can reduce error rates. By distributing data between the warehouse management system and the warehouse worker when scanning a product, the device can automatically update inventory levels and let workers know if they have picked the correct item.

Common Wearable Devices

Wearable Computers

Smart Glasses

Voice Headsets

Activity-tracking Bracelets

Finger-trigger Gloves

Exoskeletons

How Wearable Technologies Enhance Warehouse Operations

According to Supply Chain Brain, by 2023 close to 70% of 3PL facilities in the US will utilize wearables. The warehouse hardware that is being developed can enrich the management process by tapping into detailed data analytics that can improve supply chains and provide information for better decision making. Adapting to a more digital supply chain model can simplify supply chain processes for a better worker experience. Wearables such as smart scanners and smart glasses are increasing efficiency and output in warehouses by utilizing the Internet of Things (IoT). Because warehouse associates can provide and receive real-time data with ease, warehouse workers can concentrate on high-level business processes.

Supply chains are driven by increased consumer demand and the ability to meet these demands. While warehouses have been optimized for several years, warehouse wearables are helping to augment the worker experience in ways that can have a positive effect on global supply chains. Two key benefits of wearable technology are that they help workers perform their duties faster and more accurately. Since the wearables are connected to the Internet of Things, workers are automatically provided with information and no longer must review paperwork or configure their own task schedule. In addition, wearables can let warehouse associates know exactly where an item is located as well as if it is ready to be picked.  

Although warehouses are usually climate-controlled, the physical workload that is involved with warehouse work can stress the human body. If workers are too fatigued, processes begin to decline which can result in negative impacts on the customer and business. Warehouse wearables enhance warehouse operations by tracking employee health data such as their heart rate, blood pressure, and movement speed. This data can be utilized to recommend workers to take a break to prevent work-related injuries and improve employee morale. If workers are satisfied with their jobs and employer, they will help to control products better, reduce down-time, and save the supply chain money.

These factors help to increase worker efficiency and productivity and gives them more time to focus on their tasks which reduces the opportunity for error. This is beneficial to having success in an e-commerce led market because errors negatively affect customer experience which can be detrimental to business in today’s global market.

Supply Chain Labor

The emergence of COVID-19 brought about disruptions to traditional supply chains that showed the importance of labor in the logistics process. The Great Resignation accelerated this issue. As the population continues to age, the demand for skilled laborers grows. 3PL warehouses and fulfillment centers are hard-pressed to find enough qualified employees to handle the high volume of orders. Worker shortages are impacting logistics and causing supply chain woes such as:

  • Delayed delivery times
  • Higher prices

Global supply chains have had to adapt to e-commerce supply and demand while also battling a labor shortage that greatly impacted global supply networks and continues to do so. Warehouse work can be extremely demanding and many warehouse workers can walk up to 9 miles in one shift. Other times, workers stand for up to 10 hours and are required to work at a high rate of speed regardless of fatigue. By alleviating physical challenges and assisting employees in their duties, companies are strengthening their workforce risk management strategies and meeting customer expectations.

Mental and physical fatigue are factors that affect the efficiency and safety of warehouse workers, at times, hindering business processes. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, mental and physical fatigue cost the U.S. economy over $136 billion per year. In addition, the International Labor Organization states that 151 workers are injured in work-related accidents a year. With 57% of U.S. warehouse workers reporting being fatigued each year, these factors contribute to worker shortage in a logistics industry with nearly 500,000 job openings

Research shows that back pain is a contributing factor to low worker retention in the supply chain labor force. Other significant problems for warehouse associates are the pressures and uncomfortable positions in which they are continually placed.  The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 264 million workdays are lost per year due to back pain. In addition, back pain is the most common work-related health issue, costing companies $1 billion per week.

Using IoT technology, warehouse wearables can connect to the worker and provide access to vital data. Many wearable devices monitor and evaluate changes in workers’ bodies. The data analytics help companies focus on the safety of warehouse associates, instead of how hard they are working.  This data allows the warehouse management system to determine current fatigue and predict future fatigue, which employers can use for risk management strategies. When implemented, these strategies can minimize risks to workers and maintain supply chain labor supply.

Using advanced technology can be daunting, especially for new warehouse workers who are not familiar with the devices. A report from Forbes showed that only 29% of warehouses are able to teach new warehouse associates to properly perform their job within a month’s time. By simplifying supply chain processes, warehouse wearables are enabling workers to do more with less. Wearable devices can transform workforce labor for a faster and more focused worker.

3PL warehouses are utilizing:

  • Ergonomic solutions to alleviate the physical stress placed on warehouse workers.
  • The Internet of Things to track worker biometrics to predict and enhance worker safety.

Advantages of Warehouse Wearables: Efficiency and Safety

Material handling processes such as picking, put-away, and order fulfillment account for approximately 70% of 3PL operating costs. The pandemic produced a need to reduce these costs and concerns over worker safety and efficiency amid a supply chain labor shortage have escalated. Wearable devices are important to 3PLs because they offer a solution to these concerns.

Wearables improve supply chain processes by increasing supply chain visibility and flexibility. They also increase employee effectiveness by simplifying procedures so warehouse associates can complete tasks in less time.

Efficiency

Wearable tech allows companies to minimize manual labor by identifying then reducing or removing labor-intensive steps. Barcode scanners that can be worn on warehouse associates’ fingers enable them to easily scan barcodes without having to pick up packages. This allows for efficient movement and enables a more seamless process. Scanners also give employees the ability to automatically send information to warehouse management systems, removing the need to input data. The WMS can then inform workers of errors, such as if they have selected the wrong product.

Warehouses are also enhancing worker accuracy by providing real-time feedback to warehouse associates. Voice solutions allow employers to communicate directions to employees such as what items to locate and where to move them. Voice wearables can also utilize data analytics to inform workers that their tasks have reorganized. This increases worker flexibility in fast-paced and high-volume warehouses and distribution centers.

Safety

Businesses are also able to observe workers’ locations inside of the warehouse as well as their activity and health. This real-time data helps warehouse managers create and implement workforce risk management strategies that alleviate safety concerns. Wearable technology like biometric sensors report data such as worker body temperature and heart rate. Devices also can track irregular physical movement, which is especially beneficial in cold storage. Cold storage warehouses benefit from this type of device because it informs employers how employees react to rugged warehouse environments. Real-time feedback of these indicators can reduce workplace injuries and help to sustain the warehouse workforce.

Warehouse Wearables Utilized in 3PL Warehouses

Exoskeletons

3PL warehouses and distribution centers are using exoskeletons or exosuits to track employee movement and assist them with moving heavy objects. There are two types of exoskeletons workers use. Some are worn like backpacks while others are full-body suits that support the entire body. They work by redistributing weight and can reduce the stresses of heavy lifting by as much as 30% to 40%. In addition, an exosuit calibrated to a warehouse management system can be used for data collection on employee performance. Exoskeletons are useful for performing warehouse work, such as picking, packing, loading, unloading, lifting, lowering, completing, and decomposing

There are two distinct types of exoskeletons. Passive exoskeletons support the employee by way of mechanical means. They are used as ergonomic devices and help to prevent repetitive stress injuries. Active exoskeletons support employees by using engines, batteries, and pneumatic systems. They can aid in heavy lifting and reduce the risk of musculoskeletal injuries.

Barcode Scanners

Advancing technology has simplified warehouse operations.  Warehouse workers can wear barcode scanners on their fingers or wrists. These handheld devices allow workers hands to be free and reduces the time it takes to pick, pack, or scan items. The scanners are connected to warehouse information systems and can tell workers if they have scanned the correct product or selected enough products. Scanners are also able to inform workers of the movement of products which is beneficial in high-volume warehouses. Wearable scanners are a remedy to the repetitive motion of most warehouse work by providing workers with the flexibility to achieve more with less.

Smart Glasses

3PLs utilize smart glasses to enable hands-free communication between warehouse workers and systems which provide direction. These devices have microphones and cameras and can display information for the employee to view. Voice-directed warehousing and vision picking let streamline the management process by instructing warehouse workers on their tasks. Smart glasses can help to build effective supply chain processes because they are able to provide visual and voice cues on one device. They allow warehouse associates to see visual indications, perform voice-directed work, capture images, and scan barcodes. By providing better clarity to workers and simplifying supply chain processes, businesses can ease workloads and retain workers.

Conclusion

Recent supply chain challenges have affected the global market in ways that no company could have anticipated.

Businesses learned that a positive customer experience is crucial to their success and without workers, they could not meet customer expectations. Wearable technologies have provided new methods to provide access to real time data that can increase workforce efficiency and productivity.  As warehouses digitally transform and efforts in supply chain optimization increase, wearables are increasing in popularity and are being used to help resolve supply chain challenges.

Through investment in advancing technology, businesses have modernized supply chain management. Wearable technology is not only advantageous to the company but also to the worker. Using wearable devices helps to support and guide workers, leveraging data information systems that lessen the skills gap.  Companies that utilize wearable devices often report a boost in operational efficiency, cost savings and improvements in safety. Making better use of the workforce improves supply chain conditions and helps to retain workers, which alleviates supply chain disruption.

Zebra manufactures wearable devices designed for use in the warehouse.  Options include a variety of custom solutions that are built for 3PL warehouse use. These wearables have built-in artificial intelligence that makes tasks for warehouse workers more manageable. Zebra warehouse wearables can help enable greater operational flexibility, necessary to reduce complexity and increase productivity.

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