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Taking automation to another level

09 February 2015

DHL has carried out a pilot project testing smart glasses and augmented reality picking in a warehouse in the Netherlands.

In cooperation with DHL customer Ricoh and wearable computing solutions provider Ubimax, the technology was used to implement ‘vision picking’ in warehousing operations. Staff were guided through the warehouse by graphics displayed on the smart glass to speed up the picking process and reduce errors. The pilot resulted in a 25% efficiency increase during the picking process.

"Vision picking enables hands free order picking and greatly increases productivity. The technology significantly supports our staff and brings exciting value to our customers,” says Jan-Willem De Jong, business unit director Technology, DHL Supply Chain, Benelux.

The objective of the pilot project was to gain insights on the technology’s benefits and limitations. For three weeks, warehouse staff in Bergen op Zoom were equipped with head mounted displays such as Google Glass and VuzixM100. The displays showed task information during the picking process, including aisle, product location and quantity.

Overall, 10 order pickers used the equipment and picked more than 20,000 items, fulfilling 9,000 orders within the given time frame. As a result, staff was able to operate much faster and error free. Currently DHL and Ricoh are jointly evaluating the roll-out of the solution.

The pilot ties in with DHL’s Trend Report Augmented Reality in Logistics, which sees a number of applications for AR in logistics. 

DHL singled out picking process improvements as having greatest potential for cost savings. The courier estimates warehousing accounts for about 20% of all logistics costs, with picking making up 55-65% of the total cost in the warehouse.

DHL says most warehouses in the developed world use the pick-by paper method, which is relatively slow and error prone.

It also points out that picking work is often undertaken by temporary workers who usually require cost-intensive training to ensure they pick efficiently

and without making errors. It believes AR can simplify the picking process and make the task more self-evident.

The vision picking software offers real-time object recognition, barcode reading, indoor navigation, and integration of information with the WMS. A key benefit of vision picking is its provision of hands-free intuitive digital

support to workers during manual picking operations.

By using a system like this, each worker can see the digital picking list in their field of vision and – thanks to indoor navigation capabilities – see the best route, reducing their travel time by efficient path planning. Using automated barcode scanning capabilities, the system’s image recognition software can check whether the worker has arrived at the right location, and guide the worker to quickly locate the right item on the shelf. The worker can then scan the item and register this process simultaneously in the WMS, enabling real-time stock updates.

In its report, DHL explains: ‘Field tests of these AR systems have proved they offer significant productivity improvements in warehousing operations. For example, constant picking validation can decrease errors by as much as 40%. Although today’s picking error rate is very low, even using a pick-by-paper approach – experts estimate a rate of 0.35 % – every error prevented saves money because errors typically result in high follow-up costs.’

Fast and accurate loading

Further along the warehouse, in the despatch area, AR could again come into its own. DHL believes the technology could help warehouse operatives more quickly verify if loads are correct.

The report reads says: ‘An AR-equipped collector could quickly glance at the load to check if it is complete. Currently, this requires manual counting or time-consuming barcode scanning with a handheld device.’

In the future, a wearable AR device could use a combination of scanners and 3D depth sensors to determine the number of pallets or single parcels (by scanning specific markers on each parcel) or their volume (using measurement devices). This measurement is compared to predefined values and the result – hopefully a match – will be displayed to the collector. This AR system could also scan items to detect any damage or faults.

In terms of larger scale freight loading, DHL sees AR potentially acting as a kind of Tetris, speeding up the process. 

The report reads: ‘AR devices could replace printed cargo lists and load instructions. At a transfer station, for example, the loader could obtain real-time information on their AR device about which pallet to take next and where exactly to place this pallet in the vehicle.

‘The AR device could display loading instructions, with arrows or highlights identifying suitable target areas inside the vehicle.’