Paul Reed, Regional Product Manager EMEA, Zebra Technologies: Step back with me a moment to 1997. It’s a significant year for the tech industry, as new social media platforms go online, a DVD rental company takes shape, paving the way for video streaming, and the first iteration of the 802.11 Wi-Fi standard is released.

Paul Reed, Regional Product Manager EMEA, Zebra Technologies

That was also the year Zebra launched its first wearable computer for warehouse workers so they could more easily capture, access, and share, and collaborate with colleagues. Twenty-five years later, the wearable is still used – and gaining in value – as we push for orders to be delivered with ever-greater speed and accuracy.

Made for Business

When we first thought about creating wearables, we were acutely conscious that the business environment puts unique pressures on technology. For example, while you may have the odd concern when your smartphone reports your weekly screen time, I doubt you’re using or holding your device continuously for eight hours or more while picking, packing or loading hundreds of items?

But in places like warehouses and manufacturing plants, that’s typical. What’s more, people usually must continuously scan barcodes, view tasks, and manually handle items. So, we sought to create lightweight devices and accessories that can be worn and used all day long, allowing workers to flow through their tasks while keeping their hands free. Our international design team also focused on addressing the impairments caused by workspaces which tend to be noisy, busy, and often quite dark. They made it a point to visit sites every year in distribution centers, warehouses, and manufacturing plants, to watch how people use technology and to chat with them about what the devices could do better – a practice that continues today as we evolve the design and expand the functionality of these wearable mobile computers and imagers.

The result? Devices consistently built to be tough and rugged and provide reliable long-term performance in round-the-clock operations. Many can even work in sub-zero temperatures. Sophisticated audio technology has been integrated to help ensure every call is heard. We’ve made key buttons bigger, so they’re easier to use without looking. And screens are clear and bright to compensate for low light. Batteries are hot-swappable for non-stop device operation, and fastening systems are ergonomic and easily swappable to help keep devices comfortable and hygienic.

Keeping Pace with Rising Demand

In 2019, 62% of warehouse operators surveyed by Zebra said they planned to provide wearable computers to staff by 2022. By 2024, three-in-10 expected workers to use voice-direction. I suspect adoption has been much higher than expected given how rapidly e-commerce sales exploded during the COVID-19 pandemic and the stronghold the on-demand economy now has on supply chain and distribution systems. We all expect online orders to be delivered the same, or next day, and more people are ordering single items, which increases fulfillment pressure on warehouse operators and shippers. But wearables can relieve a lot of that pressure, as they enable users to move and work instinctively from the moment they put them on. All-in-one wearable mobile computers – as well as wearable accessories such as barcode scanners, headsets and head-mounted displays – can amplify the benefits of augmenting human capabilities with smart technology. Associates picking items in a warehouse can be guided by voice commands (e.g., the best route to take to find items), easily scan what they pick using the built-in or paired wearable scanner, and, with their hands free, place the items in the pick tray, tote or cart, which might then be moved to the next station using an autonomous mobile robot (AMR). This is much faster than pausing to scan each item using a handheld device.

Additionally, head-mounted displays – combined with augmented reality (AR) – enable users to always keep their eyes on the job at hand by placing the right contextual information in their line of sight at the right time. For example, associates can be directed to pick locations and actually see the next product they need to collect highlighted on a shelf through the display. This makes it simple to verify picks, which improves fulfillment accuracy, accelerates tasks, and reduces ramp-up times for new workers.

Indeed, by increasing productivity by as much as 15% and achieving accuracy of 99.8%1, wearable devices and voice-directed picking help support the push for ever-more accurate and faster delivery.

A Wearable Future

As processing power increases and new applications like AR come to the fore, wearable devices have the potential to become more compact without compromising on the volume or speed or rich contextual real-time insight provided. In fact, the emergence of smaller, more powerful wearable mobile computers will empower warehouse operators to work with greater efficiency, effectiveness, and productivity as demands increase.




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