Augmented reality is set to transform the supply chain

By Matthew Flynn, Boss January 2019

Augmented reality is set to transform the supply chain

December 15, 2018 Business

Far more than simply a way to use your phone to hunt the latest Pokémon, augmented reality has become transformative tech that is reshaping industries. The supply chain is no exception, as AR is being employed to increase productivity from the warehouse floor through last-mile delivery.

Types of Augmented Reality

Before delving into the uses of AR in the supply chain, it’s best to understand the different forms the tech can take.
Heads-up displays (HUDs) were originally used in fighter jets to increase a pilot’s situational awareness without having to shift his or her focus too greatly. Transparent displays that incorporate important data into a user’s standard field of vision, HUDs are now being incorporated into the windshields of automobiles. HUDs can also be incorporated into the visor of a helmet.
● Handheld AR is used by looking at one’s surroundings through a mobile device. Although it gained popularity through mobile phone games and the ability to identify plants, animals, and landmarks (through the use of Google Lens), handheld AR has proven useful in business by allowing customers to accurately visualize the placement of products in specific environments.
● Smart glasses are worn like standard glasses or goggles but allow the user to see digital content and holograms with which they can interact. Microsoft’s HoloLens and the Magic Leap One are two of the early entrants into the mixed-reality field.
● Holographic displays are interactive 3D projections that can be shared with customers, collaborators, and friends. The Looking Glass device offers holographic displays of everything from imaginary creatures to architecture plans.
AR in Procurement
Smart glasses and handheld AR can drastically increase efficiency in the procurement process, for both the client and the supplier. On the supply side, there is no longer a need to leave clients reliant on descriptions and two-dimensional representations that require time and planning just to give a less than complete picture of products.
Clients can virtually see the products in their businesses and also have a better way of tracking orders which can be checked using AR and transmitters in the package. The procure-to-pay process is sped up by providing clients with more accurate information and allowing them to make a quicker, more knowledgeable decision. Additionally, data is acquired at every step when AR devices are used, increasing the efficiency of future orders.
AR and Cobots
Collaborative robots (cobots) are becoming increasingly common across the supply chain. Robots are often used to take the place of humans for tasks that are too dangerous or too physically demanding, however in many cases they still need guidance. Humans can use AR to direct cobots in loading trucks to guarantee best placement of products for maximum load and assist in proper placement.
Even as automation hits parts of the supply chain, human employees are still needed to work alongside automatons. Augmented reality combines the strength and precision of a robot with the decision-making and intuition of a human to create a formidable pair.
AR in Training and Collaboration
One of the most significant advantages of augmented reality in the supply chain is its use in training. New hires can often have a hard time finding their way through labyrinthian warehouses and locating products. AR can overlay lined paths to guide new hires exactly where they need to go. Boeing mechanics are known to use Google Glass while assembling airplane wiring so they have diagrams readily available without having to consult papers or mobile devices.
AR can optimize the cumbersome picking process by supplying employees with real-time information of how much of a product is needed as well as its precise location. Another collaborative process that stands to benefit from AR is maintenance. Specialists no longer need to be called in to fix machinery since support can be provided from other locations using holograms to convey 3D images and/or overlays to provide accurate repair instructions.
Last-Mile Delivery
BMW trucks have tested the incorporation of HUDs into their “smart windshields,” that could save time and fuel costs by optimizing routes and assisting in basic navigation. Equally important, information presented on the HUD can keep drivers aware of the temperature of their cargo, some of which must be kept at specific temperatures.
AR devices used at the warehouse and other pickup spots are useful in unloading at the end of the trip as well. Proper loading of trucks is as important a part of efficient delivery as navigation. Trucks that aren’t loaded properly don’t allow easy access to items when they need to be unloaded. AR used in loading and unloading trucks can provide information on delivery sites and the weight of cargo, allowing for quicker load outs.
Looking Ahead
A report from the International Data Corporation (IDC) predicts that the amount of money spent on augmented and virtual reality will double every year until it totals almost $215 billion globally in 2021. Based on the value AR brings to the supply chain, this number is not hard to imagine. As the technology evolves and becomes more widely adopted, there will also most likely be new applications for the technology that increase supply chain efficiency to an even greater degree.