Consumer demand is driving a fast pace of new technology adoption in the supply chain industry. In the pursuit of increased accuracy, speed and safety on the warehouse floor, supply chain companies are increasingly adding wearables and robotics to tasks such as loading, unloading, picking, packing, shipping and receiving. Within warehouse and distribution center management, companies are using wearable and robotic hardware and software systems to move the needle on productivity and efficiency.
Tech companies are scaling up what their devices and software programs can offer and have identified several industry trends that will likely unfold in coming years.
“We’re already seeing a huge shift at the EHS (environment, health, safety) level, in large part enabled by biometric wearables, from accidents to near misses and prediction and prevention based on the individual,” says Heidi Lehmann, co-founder of Kenzen. “Trend data that can be truly used to optimize health, safety and productivity, at both the human and machine/operational levels are truly transforming the worksite at a rapid pace. Some analysts are calling this the fourth industrial revolution. It’s quite exciting.”
Growing market for robotics, wearables
Devices and software designed to increase efficiency and improve safety on the warehouse floor are growing in popularity in the supply chain.
Industrial wearables track activities and tasks, help workers complete tasks faster and measure health and safety parameters, resulting in fewer injury reports. Most industrial wearables provide real-time data and analytics, allowing employers and managers to tweak workflows on the fly, leading to improved numbers in profitability and productivity.
A report published by Research and Markets in June 2019 predicts the industrial wearable devices market to exceed $2.78 billion by 2024, increasing annually at a rate of 9.2%, with smart watches holding the largest share of growth.
In January, Gartner, Inc. published a report forecasting an $81.5 billion global spend on wearable devices in 2021. This includes spending on smartwatches, wristbands, ear-worn devices, head-mounted displays, smart clothing and smart patches used for health monitoring. In 2020, the greatest increase in spending was on headphones for video calling and use with smartphones, largely due to pandemic-related workflow changes. The report partly credits improvements in sensor accuracy as why the devices are growing in popularity. Advancements in miniaturization have also played a role in the growth.
Similar market growth is expected with industrial robots, commonly used for mundane tasks, picking, loading orders and transportation, among other order fulfillment jobs. A McKinsey & Company report noted that $2.4 billion is spent annually on industrial robotic arms and automation machines. Since 2010, the spend has increased 10% annually, and as of a few years ago, there were at least 2 million robots in use on factory floors, warehouse and similar locations. The report predicted that number to increase to 4.4 million by 2023.
Through the increased use of autonomous robots, which use machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) to complete tasks, and collaborative robots, or cobots, designed to work alongside humans, the market segment for industrial robots is forecasted to grow to $14.9 billion globally in logistics, according to a report by Fortune Business Insights.
Greater adoption of safety wearables
Wearables, devices that use sensors to monitor worker health, environmental hazards and other issues, received a nod of approval from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in a 2019 report that noted that the tools can be a valuable in maintaining the safety of workers in industrial settings.
Kenzen produces wearable devices and a monitoring platform designed to predict and prevent injuries on the warehouse floor. The device is worn on the upper arm and samples a worker’s physiology every five seconds.
“The system sends alerts in real time to workers and safety managers, alerting them when a worker is reaching an unsafe level physiologically,” Lehmann says. “The solution provides protection and intervention in the moment at the worksite, as well as informs changes and planning at one or multiple worksites to enable a safer and more productive workforce.”
Monitoring a worker’s health is important when working in high temperatures, with tasks requiring physical exertion, when employees have pre-existing medical conditions or are dehydrated, she says.
“As individuals, we are all different physiologically depending on gender, age, cardiovascular health, preexisting medical conditions and medications,” Lehmann says. “This is why monitoring workers on sites at the individual level is so important. Customized work/rest schedules, hydration plans, as well as shift changes at the site level, all contribute greatly to total worker health.”
More workers will realize wearables can maintain privacy
Workers need to know their privacy is maintained while wearing the devices, she adds.
“We need to make sure the worker is very comfortable with our solution,” Lehmann says. “This begins with the actual comfort of the device when worn by a worker, to worker privacy and making sure the worker understands that the platform has been designed with their privacy in mind.”
According to Lehmann, the worker is the only one who can see their own biometric information in detail and in real time.
“Other user groups only see the information they need to keep the worker safe,” she says. “For example, a safety manager would understand, through the team dashboard, when a worker is calibrating in a dangerous direction and needs assistance or needs to rest, yet they don’t see any specific personal health details, only that an intervention may be needed.”
Managers who are monitoring data across worksites receive insights into worker safety and health, but at that level, workers’ names and identities are kept private.
“Leaders see all data across a worksite, or many worksites, but data is deidentified and retrospective, providing insightful, yet non-individualized site insights such as core body temperature risk levels, productivity levels, microclimates, and heat alert frequencies,” Lehmann says.
Using connected wearables on the jobsite is still new, she says, and some companies need to augment their connectivity capabilities if they want to outfit dozens of workers.
“There can be challenges at the IT level to ensure scale across hundreds or even thousands of workers,” she says. “However, worksites are changing very rapidly as the industrial internet of things becomes more and more prolific across commercial sites of all types.”