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VR and AR are today’s supply chain reality

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/Halfpoint)

The buzz around virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) is getting louder. In June, the Financial Times was prompted to provide a guide outlining the differences between the two connected technologies, citing the Facebook-owned Oculus Rift headset as an example of VR, whilst AR is more closely associated with applications like Pokemon Go and other smartphone apps.   

Perhaps this is simplifying things a little, particularly since HTC Vive and Microsoft HoloLens seem set to take things to the next level.    

As VR and AR hardware becomes more sophisticated, the applications and content supported by this hardware will determine what impact VR and AR will have in the future. There has already been widespread use of VR and AR technology in gaming. But increasingly, it is being adopted for mainstream use across many different industries.   

Virtual supply chain 

Looking ahead, retail and supply chain enterprises are ripe for the positive impact of VR and AR. Retailers are already launching virtual stores in order to create immersive customer experiences that produce valuable data. 

Ikea, for example, has created an AR catalogue which lets its customers visualise how products would look in their own homes. Meanwhile, much of Amazon’s success can be linked to how the e-commerce giant analyses individual customer page views and buying history to predict future purchase decisions and reposition stock in its supply chain.    

Google Glass was touted as the next big thing to bring AR into warehouses. Although it didn’t succeed, Google Glass did lay the groundwork for applications that are being widely used today. In fact, Google recently worked with Gap on a pilot project designed to allow customers to remotely ‘try on’ clothes once they have entered their measurements.  

Delivery company DHL is realising improved efficiencies in its warehouse by using AR to provide scene recognition during the order picking process. The ‘Vision Picking Program’ has equipped DHL’s warehouse employees with advanced smart glasses that display where each picked item needs to be placed on the trolley. The aim is to allow hands-free order picking at a more rapid pace, and reduce the incidence of errors.  

On assembly lines in other industries, AR glasses or headsets also have great potential. Not only can they assist workers in identifying the condition of items coming off the assembly line, the glasses can also help to direct them when picking items for orders.    

Imagine a scenario in which mobile order fulfilment is supported by utilising barcode scanning on AR glasses or on a headset. A ‘pick-by-vision’ approach enables the warehouse or stock-room worker to retrieve a pick list, move through the warehouse to the proper bin locations – via the most efficient path as indicated on the AR display – and scan each item on the list using the technology to verify the picks before collecting all the products and making them ready for dispatch.   

In fact, AR headsets and eyewear are ideal for hands-free order commissioning in warehouses, decentralised fulfilment centres or retail store rooms. They are also effective for field service applications, where technicians use them to access manuals or machine parts information. 

Once a product or parcel leaves the warehouse, AR still has a part to play. According to DHL, drivers spend between 40% and 60% of their time away from the distribution centre not driving. Instead, drivers are looking for the correct boxes for each delivery, and working through many different items and tasks during the course of their delivery route.     

They are also often working to set times and delivery targets. Before they even leave the distribution centre, drivers could be equipped with an AR device that allows them to see critical information about each of the parcels, and how they need to be handled. On the road, a display that frees up drivers’ hands and enables them to see a list of their drops, addresses and directions, as well as which items go where, can greatly increase their productivity and incorporate proof of delivery as part of the process. 

Managers keep in touch 

In the supply chain, managers and executives have multiple responsibilities and can’t always be in the vicinity of the production line or warehouse. With VR and AR tools, they can be virtually connected in real time to where they are most needed, and keep a hands-free eye on what’s happening, ensuring that processes are moving forward, regardless of whether they are across the street or in an entirely different country.   

Another advantage for supply chain execs is the ability to organise training programmes simply and efficiently. Before a new employee or a new team even touch a new piece of equipment in the warehouse, they can be taught how to use it, thanks to VR/AR technology. This makes it possible for them to take part in immersive experiences so they can go through the motions of operating a new piece of equipment or heavy machinery without needing to worry about the risk of making any mistakes.   

In-aisle innovation 

VR and AR technology is not only applicable to warehouses and back rooms. These solutions can also be highly effective in the store aisle. For example, by enhancing a mobile data capture device with AR capability, a retailer can superimpose inventory status, such as items that are scheduled for delivery or out of stock at the distribution centre, when assistants scan barcodes at the shelf. Retailers can also superimpose sales data, product expiration data, and other valuable information. 

In addition, shop assistants can use AR-enhanced mobile barcode scanning to quickly and efficiently perform tasks such as selecting individual products for reordering, detecting out-of-stocks and low stocks on the shelf and counting multiple items with a single scan. 

Real scenarios 

This is not blue-sky thinking. These scenarios are real and happening in the supply chain industry already. For both front and back office operations and throughout the supply chain, there are multiple cost benefits and efficiencies that this new technology affords. VR and AR are no longer restricted to gaming, and just as we see advanced robotics being used in factories and warehouses, we will be seeing increased use of AR and VR headsets to facilitate and improve retail supply chain productivity and processes.   

Samuel Mueller, CEO and Co-Founder of Scandit (opens in new tab) 

Image Credit: Halfpoint / Shutterstock

Samuel Mueller is the CEO and co-founder of Scandit, the developer of next-generation mobile data capture solutions. He is responsible for strategic direction, marketing, sales and business development.