Thoughts on Augmented Reality in the Warehouse

I was recently sent a video of Google Glass being used in an order fulfillment center. The prospect of using Glass (or similar devices) in warehousing was mentioned by a participant at one of the Material Handling & Logistics Roadmap workshops this summer, so the idea wasn’t new to me. But seeing the video for myself got me to thinkin’.

In a word, the video is impressive. Whether the implementation is real or constructed for video I don’t know, but it’s easy to imagine that such functionality will soon be with us, if it isn’t already. Very much like voice picking technology, Google Glass directs the worker to proceed to location such and such and “pick three” items, after the location is illuminated by a green rectangle cast before the worker’s eyes. No mistake: that’s the location.

While driving his lift, the worker sees a green arrow indicating which way to turn to get to the next location, presumably following the shortest route. We have therefore solved the “how to direct the worker’s route” problem.

After illustrating a couple of picks and put-aways, the forklift supposedly suffers a malfunction, which is detected by Glass, and the operator is directed to proceed to a maintenance area. There, a maintenance technician appears in the Glass to help the operator effect a simple repair. Off goes the worker for more Glass-directed picking. What could be better?

If you know me, you’re probably expecting a contrarian view. I’ll get to that in a minute. But first, it turns out that research on applications of “augmented reality” in warehousing have been underway for a decade. The first papers I could find on the subject appeared around 2005. Color me embarrassed! The authors are from Germany, where so many of the latest developments in logistics technology are happening.

There is much to like about these developments. As we wrote in the U.S. Roadmap for Material Handling and Logistics, wearable computing offers the industry a significant opportunity to improve operational control and reduce costs. As the positions and activities of workers become more and more transparent to “the system,” human error and inefficient behavior (e.g., picker routing) will become increasingly rare. All to the good.

But one part of the video gives me pause. When the forklift operator slides back the battery cover to investigate the source of a malfunction, a technician appears instantly in the Glass to provide expert advice on the repair. “What is the voltage? Just plug it in and you should be fine.” I couldn’t help but think, “He’s been robbed! Let the man solve his own problem!” In our drive to make all things as fast and easy as possible, we’ve robbed the operator of the joy of problem solving—diagnosis, critical thinking, problem solving—and more importantly, the sense of accomplishment from having repaired that which was broken. Call me the Industrial Romantic, but this just makes me sad!

I can hear the laughter through my monitor. “Hey Kev, how about you plug into the real world of ROI and quarterly earnings reports like the rest of us!” Having spent most of my academic life thinking about ways to reduce logistics costs, I am not unsympathetic to this objection. But I’m also a worker myself, and much of the satisfaction I derive from work comes from solving problems and accomplishing tasks I feel are important. I couldn’t help wondering what value workers provide in a Glass-directed life—beyond 10 very capable fingers to pick, put, and push.

When I shared all this with my 17 year old son, he said “Dad, did it ever occur to you that not everyone enjoys problem solving as much as you?” Well there you go! This is what makes this subject so interesting to me: what seems to one person “death by robotic instruction,” is to another a faster way to get stuff done (think voice picking). All hail, the diverse workforce. Aren’t we humans wonderful?


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