Analysts expect automation and robots to replace human workers in the near future, but it is not quite as simple as that.
For decades, predictions about the future of manufacturing and logistics have focused on automation. The current trend is to consider robots as the new worker, a threat to human labor. According to McKinsey, up to 45 percent of the tasks employees are paid to perform could be automated with existing technology. All these forecasts seem to ignore the fact that the capabilities of robots are still rather limited in many areas. Think of warehouses, for example, endless rows of shelves storing items that come in countless different shapes and sizes. Where a large number of identical or standardized packages are concerned, robots perform quite well. But when it comes to packages varying in shape, size and weight, robots currently lack the flexibility to pick and place all these items as fast as a human can. Today’s recognition technology has also been found to lack the accuracy of human workers, with higher error rates.
This means that instead of focusing on robots, businesses should consider how to support the human workforce in managing their tasks more productively and efficiently. A technology that aims at precisely this area is augmented reality (AR) - a relatively new innovation which uses data streams and projects them onto live-images. At the moment, this technology is being used in mobile computers, smartphones, and head-mounted displays (HMDs). This includes digital glasses or similar devices that include a semi-transparent display and image-capturing technologies such as a camera or an imager.
According to a Bitkom-survey, augmented, mixed and virtual reality hardware will create B2B revenues of 88 million euros by 2020. For associated solutions, including implementation, updates and new releases, this figure could even exceed 750 million euros. This may appear surprising as these technologies have not yet had their breakthrough, neither in consumer settings nor in industry environments. However, early adoption of AR-capabilities in enterprise-class mobile computers has shown to be promising.
Returning to the warehouse environment, consider this typical scenario: picker have to navigate their way through a maze of shelves where items are sorted by algorithms, and, when they have found what they are looking for, check the articles on paper lists. Finding the shortest route is a very challenging and slow process at first, with repeated glances at mobile computers to check for the location of products. Imagine how much easier it would be if the pickers have an optical navigation system right in front of their eyes, HMDs that guide them from one station to the next, showing them what to do and where to go.
Experienced pickers perform their tasks faster if they receive textual instead of visual information on their HMDs, as the latter format was perceived as a distraction. The possibility of switching between text and images offers warehouse workers the flexibility to choose whichever option they feel is most comfortable.
Since HMDs free up workers’ hands, they increase picking speed significantly and, therefore, productivity. In addition, new workers need less training for optical-based wearable devices because the AR-capabilities serve as a virtual guide. Every step can be visualized or combined with audio-capability via microphone headsets.
How can AR support businesses?
The scope of AR applications that are theoretically possible across industries is considerable as the following examples show:
1. Logistics: HMDs, in combination with a system of sensors and cameras, enable logistics companies to optimize trailer loading by showing workers where to best place a package in order to load the trailer most efficiently and increase productivity.
2. Customer service/Field service: for service engineers in field service, manufacturing or in a garage, HMDs can display accurate blueprints and descriptions of the machines they are working on. This reduces training times for new employees and error rates while increasing the pace of work. Also, when a service engineer is facing an issue with a machine, the HMD camera-feed can be livestreamed to an experienced senior engineer who can use the visual input to advise the colleague remotely or supply digital tutorials.
3. Events: Security staff at festivals or other big events can use HMDs to monitor visitor streams and identify critical hot spots. By using a locationing system and feeding it into their backend system, every member of the security crew can see where their colleagues are located and react quickly to potential threats. This helps security companies to move staff to where they are needed at any time.
4. Healthcare: in healthcare, HMDs can assist surgeons during high-risk operations that require accurate execution on a small scale. A surgeon can follow a patient’s vital data on a display and see the live images of an intestinal camera without a head turn to look at a screen. In 2014, surgeons at Indiana University Health Methodist Hospital first used data glasses during the removal of a tumor in the abdominal cavity. Thanks to the speech-directed device, they had their hands free during the entire operation and were able to access critical patient data such as MRI-scans and X-ray images without having to take their eyes off the patient.
WIP – wearables in progress
Despite all the opportunities for businesses, many AR-projects are still in development. AR is a technology in its infancy, so it is naturally facing a number of challenges. In order to be practical and easy to use, digital glasses and other HMDs need an ergonomic design and a high level of comfort to wear. At the same time, they must be equipped with a lightweight, yet powerful battery that lasts for several hours, exceeding the needs of a full shift. Furthermore, when devices are shared among colleagues, hygiene is very important especially in a healthcare environment so HMDs need to be made with hygienic material so they are easier to keep clean. Finally, HMDs should allow for seamless integration with businesses’ back-end systems.
Once AR technologies have addressed all these challenges, it is easy to imagine how AR-applications can boost productivity and efficiency, improve security, deliver a higher return on investment and increase customer satisfaction in many business cases – not only in the warehouse.
Don’t be afraid of the big bad bot
So where does this leave robots? As with AR technology, robots are increasingly becoming an essential component of productive operations in a wide range of fields. However, these robots are not an alternative to an AR-empowered human workforce. In the immediate future, robots will play a far more collaborative, supporting role to their human counterparts. I
In the warehouse, robots already serve as automated picking assistance moving autonomously alongside the picker until fully loaded. Then, they move on to dispatch their cargo while the picker can continue with another robotic assistant. Robots are also very effective when it comes to counting stock: they are fast, their error rate is low and they work nightshifts without demanding extra pay. Even in delivery, companies are taking the first careful steps in getting robots on the street. However, in these cases, a human worker is still required to accompany it.
The same is true in operating theatres, where robots play a supporting role to human surgeons. In “robotic-assisted surgery”, a machine translates the surgeon’s movements onto miniature scale on the patient, thus enabling accurate incisions and stitches, minimizing blood loss and accelerating the healing process. However, all decisions and actions still depend on the human surgeon behind the joystick.
There is still a long road to travel until robots can autonomously perform the versatile, complex and intricate tasks necessary to replace actual human labor. For the near future, increasing the productivity, efficiency and accuracy of the human workforce through AR-technologies is the reasonable next step.
For more information please visit: Zebra Technologies warehouse solutions
Daniel Dombach, Industry Solutions Director EMEA, Zebra Technologies
Image Credit: Ahmet Misirligul / Shutterstock