A Helping "Hand" for Doing More with Less in the Warehouse

Three options for going "hands-free" in the DC


Where the wearable computer will typically operate with an existing warehouse management system without requiring any software changes or retraining of users, that is not the case with a voice implementation. New software or the implementation of new software components along with new technology will be involved when deploying a voice solution. There will also be configuration of the voice software to ensure it operates properly in the target environment, and decisions will need to be made about a number of other factors that relate to the interaction between the user and the software. A voice implementation will be a project of its own. Once implemented, training time to get a new user acclimated and productive is relatively short.

While ergonomics and environment are important factors in selecting a voice solution, as they are with a wearable computer, some additional factors also come into play. These include: clarity and configuration options of the voice user interface in the software; processor speed of the voice-enabled computer; noise canceling/reduction capabilities; speech recognition approach; and wired versus wireless headsets.

Multi-modal Mobile Computers

Multi-modal mobile computers offer a third hands-free option. In addition to being a mouthful, multi-modal mobile computers (MMMCs) combine the capabilities of wearable and voice-enabled mobile computers. Plus they add the flexibility of both handheld and vehicle-mounted computer device options, along with an array of scanner options. Device configurations are similar to those identified in the prior two categories. However, the use of some type of scanner is more prevalent.

As you would expect, the benefits for MMMCs lay on top of those from the other two hands-free options. Additional benefits are recognized from this option in environments where voice-directed activity and response can add value but additional information either needs to be presented to the worker or collected in order to properly complete certain operations. As is the case with the benefits for MMMCs, the selection and evaluation criteria are a blend of the wearable and voice factors. It is safe to say that MMMCs present the best of both worlds when evaluating hands-free options, although they are not required in all cases.

A Bluetooth ring scanner is one option worth mentioning as part of an MMMC implementation. This scanner option offers a hands-free middle ground between traditional mobile devices with either integrated or tethered scanners and a voice-only solution. The Bluetooth ring scanner, which can be paired with most Bluetooth-enabled devices, is strapped to the back of the hand and attached to the finger for scanning. The user hardly recognizes the presence of the scanner as it is light, compact and causes no interference or fatigue. For Bluetooth-enabled devices that are mounted to a lift truck, cart or other equipment, the user can get visual direction from the mounted device and scan barcodes with the ring scanner. As with the wearable mobile computer option, the user never has to pick up, remove or re-holster the device. Additionally, a Bluetooth ring scanner can be implemented along with, or instead of, a voice solution to enable hands-free operation in the warehouse.

Distributors who are able to improve operational efficiency in their warehouse and distribution center operations, by doing more with less today, not only will become a more cost-effective operation but also will be able to efficiently and effectively scale their capabilities upward as the business grows. Technology will certainly play a huge role in the scalability of business operations. Efficiencies gained by freeing a worker’s hands in the warehouse to do more productive activity can be an effective use of the limited technology dollars available in many distributors’ budgets today. For some, the accuracy and productivity gains from leveraging hands-free mobile solutions will yield the savings needed to allow the distributor to operate within budget and continue to meet the service goals and objectives established for their operations.

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