By Tim Lindner

My recent experience demonstrating an AR (augmented reality) workflow at ProMat, the largest material handling tradeshow in the United States, falls under the category of teaching old dogs new tricks. I am the old dog; AR is the new trick. The good news is learning to use AR was not difficult, and the experience was positive and even fun to do.

My company took advantage of the large audience draw of the show to announce its first commercial AR + Voice workflows, specifically for use by workers at packing and order returns stations in eCommerce distribution centers. These workflows are based on higher value use cases. We’ll get to these in a moment.

Voice-directed workflows have been used in distribution centers and warehouses for decades, and they have typically been applied to activities such as order selection (picking), receiving, put away and replenishment, and loading. The industry that was the first adopter of voice was food distribution, where higher levels of efficiency over traditional technologies such as paper and RF (radio frequency) scanning coupled with higher picking accuracy became critical to sustaining operating margins. The food business in general works with low margins and inaccuracy can kill profitability. Voice has brought significant value to food distribution by dramatically reducing picking errors and increasing worker productivity (how many orders a worker can fill in an hour). Two stories underscore the gain: One of the largest North American food distributors took picking errors down from one in 1,400 to one in 14,000. Consider that the cost this company faced to fix an error is about $250. You can do the math.

In the other case, an international supermarket chain measures productivity by how many new stores can be served from a distribution center without adding workers. It was able to add an average of seven new stores per distribution center before having to add more workers.

Traditionally, the lowest returns on a voice investment were associated with packing orders and processing in customer order returns. During the past five years, the explosion of eCommerce orders (orders placed online from a smartphone or laptop), especially for higher value items, has led to the rise of “reverse logistics” as the fastest growing activity in distribution centers by volume. Recent estimates show that more than 20% of online orders are returned by the customers

Think of packing and returns as a loop that is driven by factors outside the retailers’ control. “Impulse” purchases lead to buyer’s remorse. “No issues” returns, part of the original pitch to drive business online, are problematic now because of the exponential increase in order volume. 20% of 2 million online order pales by comparison to 20% of 200 or more million online orders.

While packing stations have acted as the “last audit’ point for order accuracy, errors do happen. The larger emerging problem is documenting that what was shipped out is in fact what was returned. The importance of verification increases with the value of the items being shipped.

Before retailers can consider changing return policies, they have to tackle and solve the verification issue. This is where AR comes in. The technology and its required infrastructure are now, in 2017, ready and there is a real basis to make the case for good ROI (return on investment) with AR + Voice workflows.

The core of the workflow is voice; it is what guides the worker step by step through the process, requiring voice responses to prompts that tell the system that the work is being done correctly. AR adds the visual dimension. A packer can now be shown pictures of the items they are transferring from picking totes to shipping cartons. Image libraries already exist; pictures are what guide our decisions about what to buy when we shop online. Do you know anyone that buys an item online without seeing a picture of it?

Tim Lindner at ProMat in AR mode

AR further adds the ability to snap a picture of the item being packed and then digitally “attach” it to the order record in the retailer’s system. The packer sees the image of the item, compares what is in his or her hands, voices in a command to “take picture” after which she sees in her heads-up display the special instructions on how to properly pack the item in the carton.

There’s no paper to refer to, scanner or keyboard to use, or misstep; the packer can simply ask for the last prompt to be repeated. Image capture is verified. What was ordered is what was shipped. That fact is now documented. Here’s where it gets interesting.

When grandma sends the high value item back because it was not what she really wanted, she is given the address of the DC to which it will go. One of the most vivid images one can see in a distribution center, especially after the yearend holidays, is the literal mountain of cartons covering thousands of square feet, and workers struggling to open and process them. With AR, a higher level of efficiency is possible. The worker opens the box, voices in the RMA (return material authorization) or original customer order number, and because of the snapshot taken at the packing station before the order was shipped, the worker can not only make an instant comparison, but assess damage (and document that with the AR headset. Suddenly, retailers have a way to apply conditions to returns that the verification loop has now provided.

Back to ProMat. I was demonstrating the packing side of the loop. Voice in the tote number, see the items, take a picture of a higher value item (because the system told me to because it knew the value), follow the packing instructions and voice in the weight of the completed shipping carton—I did this repeatedly and accurately. A video screen simulcast was what I was seeing in my heads-up display, as well as the voice prompts I was hearing in my ear. Doing all this for a three items packing assignment took less than two minutes.

People watching this demo, without exception, had positive reactions. The technology’s value was being displayed in a way they had not seen before. They “got it.”

The combination of my company’s voice recognition technology and Vuzix’s headset was powerful as it was comfortable and easy to use.

I did more than 50 demonstrations during the course of the show. I had fun doing them. I think, though, that the highlight for me was when persons of a certain age would ask me if I were The Borg. My answer was immediate: “Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated.”

Given how AR has progressed, I venture to say that its commercial use cases will be compelling enough to assimilate more business leaders as time goes on.

Tim Lindner is senior business consultant with a software company and a regular contributor to Connected World. He can be reached at tlindner@connectedworld.com