If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that the supply chain needs to be more agile. Artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and robotics promise innovation for tomorrow, but manufacturing and supply chain professionals need efficient solutions today. How can organizations who lack the budget and/or capacity to implement these technologies keep up? Here are a few accessible options that can help bridge the gap.

Implement Voice Tasking Technology

Voice-directed warehousing (VDW), also known as “speech-based picking” and “pick by voice,” is a system that leverages Wi-Fi and/or radio frequency identification to communicate verbal directives between your infrastructure and warehouse operators.

Easily integrated with existing warehouse management systems, VDW provides audible direction to operators, pointing them to specific locations and picking tasks. Operators can provide feedback verbally, or with the help of a scanning device, typically a barcode scanner. This streamlined workflow reduces errors, distraction and wasted motion, increasing productivity up to 35% and accuracy up to 85%!

Another advantage VDW offers is a reduction in training time. It can typically take a new hire a few weeks, or even months to master the lay of the land and picking process on their own. They can be up and running efficiently after 1-2 training sessions with VDW.

Cut the Cable with Mobility

Mobile devices are growing rapidly as improvements in battery technology become brighter and more powerful, causing operations to continue cutting the cable and move toward mobile solutions. Now that almost any device and its power source can be put on wheels, connect to wireless networks that extend inside and outside the facility, managers are finding more and more items that can go mobile because of the numerous benefits including:

1. Reduced Labor – The time wasted by walking back and forth to the equipment is a large expense that can be eliminated when print-on-demand capabilities can be implemented either on-person with a small clamshell using an internal battery or on a cart with an independent power source.

2. Fewer Devices - Because they are more accessible in a wider area, one device mounted on a mobile power source can do the work of two or more.

3. Improved Flexibility – Even large devices, like dimensional scanners and scales can be made mobile which allows for flexible configurations of staging areas, docks, and more as the layouts are no longer dictated by the location of power sources, something that is already a valuable tool for fast-moving 3PLs.

4. Employee Safety - Personal work carts, when used over shared workstations, can help mitigate the risk of COVID-19 and other transmittable illnesses. They are also a great way to ensure social distancing.

Optimize Devices with the Internet of Things
Now that you’ve mobilized your devices, connect them! The Internet of Things (IoT) enables commonly used devices such as tablets, printers, and scanners to be monitored and controlled remotely. Connecting devices across your existing network infrastructure promotes collaboration and empowers your team with critical system updates and data exchanges. Access to this information in real-time can identify potential risks in the supply chain before they happen, increasing efficiency while decreasing the likelihood of unforeseen costs and delays. It’s also a great way to manage chain-of-custody compliance, inventory, and asset management.

Many warehouses have even added wearables such as smart glasses (aka vision picking), to their IoT. This technology works similarly to VDW, providing operators with visual picking instructions and location information to reduce wasted steps and motion.

The majority of the tools in your warehouse are probably already equipped for IoT. To be compatible, a device needs to have three basic components:

1. Internet connectivity

2. Sensors to track activity

3. Computer processing capabilities

While IoT isn’t a new technology for warehouses, it’s becoming increasingly accessible thanks to more reasonable pricing for broadband internet and compatible devices. Security concerns have also been a challenge in the past, but several emerging technologies, including microchips that allow more efficient encryption, are being developed to ease these concerns.

AI, machine learning and robots - and their current price tags - can sometimes feel as far away as telescreens did when we read Orwell’s 1984 in high school. While their potential is promising, these technologies are still far reaching for many. The good news is that in today’s ever-evolving technology landscape, there’s no shortage of solutions to help us bridge the gap.

John O'Kelly is the Founder and president of Newcastle Systems, an innovator of ergonomic, powered industrial carts. For more information, visit www.newcastlesys.com.

This article originally appeared in the May/June, 2021 issue of PARCEL.