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Even in the biggest companies, warehouse management solutions are often a mishmash of patched together solutions from an array of “Niche” or Best of Breed offerings and legacy systems. You often find inventory control personnel totally consumed in correcting interface errors between their legacy system and the inventory backend.

Yet we can’t afford this muddle. We need to push for efficiencies in how we manage our workers but we also need to care for them as any other asset – and new technologies that are built into today’s Warehouse Management systems are the solution. The feedback from   companies we speak to is that this latest stage of technology makes pickers’ lives easier without increasing their workload – as well as improving efficiency by as much as 25-30%.

You can’t track what you can’t see

The first big step is data-visualization. There’s a lot of data moving fast in a warehouse and problems can snowball fast. To address this there is a need for office personnel access that data and provide predictive analytics on their mobile devices in real time, allowing them to make decisions and correct  warehouse imbalances very quickly.

Yet the pickers on the floor also need this data. Many companies are installing large flat screens throughout their warehouses, which report in real time on the current state of the warehouse using easy-to-understand visualizations like speedometers or traffic lights. A North American manufacturing client of ours installed these ‘Big Boards’ and also integrated them with their assembly processes through automation-control capabilities that allow customers to take central control of conveyors, rack feeders and so on. Immediately, pickers got great feedback on how their teams are doing relative to their targets and where problems might hit next.

Voice recognition is the talk of the warehouse

The next big advancement that we are seeing is voice control. We have a large grocery customer in Sweden who is using automatically-guided vehicles, which follow pickers around. The picker controls the vehicle with voice commands, so that when the pallet’s full, it will automatically go off to the palletizer and a replacement will arrive. Voice controls also allow  the picker to identify cases vocally, when their hands are full, so they don’t have to juggle packets to get out a pocket scanner.

Seeing is believing

Finally, we’re prototyping augmented reality technology and, so far, it really seems to be working. We are experimenting wth a prototype with Augmented Reality Glasses (see video) which has a fully-mapped warehouse in which pickers can be guided easily to cases, which their glasses scan immediately. Similarly, problems – for example, moving vehicles nearby or pallets building up on a conveyer – get visually represented too. Every action is obvious and easy with Augmented Reality (AR).

Workers using our voice tech already report that they feel less rushed, despite achieving a productivity increase. We’re betting augmented reality will take even more stress out of the job. And our next steps on HANA look to be introducing even more advanced search capabilities. We need to take advantage of all these cool technologies that are coming out – for workers and the bottom line.

Today’s warehouse technology is transforming operations, increasing control over warehouse efficiency and increasing competitiveness. To learn more about how we can help you with your business challenges please have a look at SAP’s Solution Explorer for Supply Chain Management.

Follow me on Twitter @howellsrichard.

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