In terms of the consumer market, wearable technology has already taken the world by storm. Fitness trackers like FitBit and Jawbone have had extraordinary success, while the Apple Watch really brought the technology into the public consciousness when it was released in 2015, with sales far exceeding expectations. And growth is expected to continue. According to CCS Insight’s Wearables Forecast, Worldwide, 2015-2019, the wearable tech industry will treble inside the next five years, with 245 million devices expected to ship in 2019.
While media attention has predominantly focused on the consumer applications for devices, it is also increasingly beginning to be thought of as something that could have a positive impact on business - particularly in increasing efficiency and transparency in the supply chain.
There are a number of ways that wearables could prove beneficial to supply chain leaders, especially as an aid for the workforce. Wearable devices are best used for picking and packing processes, where it is helpful for workers to have both hands free. They take up the slack for more menial tasks like data entry, giving workers the opportunity to involve themselves with more high level tasks. They can detect errors or anomalies far quicker than humans can, and tend to be more accurate. Workers can also access information - such as product details and inventory counts - in real time. With some machinery, this means that can get the information necessary to pinpoint potential malfunction and fix it before it occurs. It also means saving the time it takes going back and forward to a computer to gather information they need. In warehouses and distribution centers, which are often extremely large, this convenience can add up to significant man hours saved.
DHL is one example of where it has recently trialled wearables successfully. They used smart glasses in their warehousing operations for something called ’vision picking’, in which staff are graphically guided through the warehouse. This allows ‘hands free’ ‘heads up’ picking activity. At the end of the trial, DHL reported a 25% increase in picking efficiency, as well as a substantial reduction in errors.
Wearables can also substantially improve safety. Tiredness is a major issue for long haul drivers, and devices can track metrics like their body temperature, heart rate and blood pressure to gauge their fatigue levels so as to prevent accidents. The data this produces can then be used to help develop better and safer shift schedules for drivers.
The data from wearable devices has the potential to greatly improve operational processes throughout the chain. Worker productivity, efficiency of procedures, and safety can all be monitored, and the data from this analyzed to leverage insights. There are concerns about how secure wearable tech actually is, with the mass of private information that devices end up storing, but security is likely to tighten further as they begin to be used more for business applications.
There are other things to consider. Wearable devices in the supply chain will likely experience more wear and tear than their consumer market counterparts, and they will need to be more robust and durable. These should be problems that companies resolve in the immediate future, and we’ll likely see tremendous leaps forward in the technologies being developed.