Skip to content

How to Make Best Use of Augmented Reality in Supply Chain

How to Make Best Use of Augmented Reality in Supply Chain





By Roland Martin, Industry Segment Leader, e-Commerce Asia Pacific, Swisslog


Visual-picking technologies such as Google glass-type wearables appear to be overengineered with a broad range of functionalities from pick instructions, barcode scanning to optimal route planning for picking in the warehouse. Apart from the technical challenges to display various inputs on the glass, batteries may drain quickly from the massive data processing for scene capturing, identification and visualisation.

However, there is much hope for less sophisticated glasses in combination with a mobile phone that could be used as a handheld for additional queries. Developing these wearables from B2C companies that produce devices at lower costs in comparison to B2B firms, could also make visual-picking an attractive investment.

Nonetheless, visual-picking will also have its limitations like any other person-to-goods technology like Radio Frequency-picking (RF/barcode scanning) and voice-picking that meet different requirements (see table at the end of this article). In addition to that, person-to-goods technologies as such can only perform a maximum of 400 order lines per hour. Hence, in higher order volume environment such as in e-commerce, only automated goods-to-person solutions can meet this requirement.

Augmented reality widening its application in various industries

The future application of augmented reality (AR) is much more promising in comparison to virtual reality that isolates the user inside a motorbike helmet. In contrast, AR adds only layers of computergenerated information to the real environment, for instance on a wearable glass. AR as such has already been around for many years, for example BMW projects driving speed on windshields and the military provides AR-content such as night-vision and mapping onto a combat helmet. GM, BMW and Volkswagen are testing Google Glass to enhance factory workers productivity and efficiency for tasks like quality inspection and handsfree barcode scanning. In 2014, IKEA published an augmented reality catalogue that allows customers to virtually view and place selected 3D products in their own rooms.

Although the technology is in search of useful applications, latest forecasts predict that by 2017 the AR market will grow to US$5.2bn – an impressive annual increase of 100 per cent since 2012. Currently, AR technology is not only used in education, retailing, lifestyle and entertainment but is also tested in supply chain. In warehousing for instance, AR-supported glasses may make picking more efficient in the future. Another area of application is remote customer service whereby warehouse installations can be serviced remotely via instructions through the glass.

Outside of warehousing, AR may also find a future use in last mile distribution for load optimisation of trucks, projection of optimal routes on windshields and location of delivery address.


At the moment, there are only a few companies applying visual-picking. In one real life example, German cosmetics retailer Dr. Babor GmbH & Co. KG applies a system called Picavi claiming to save over 18 per cent time for picking in comparison to RF-picking. Additionally, express orders can be displayed onto the glass at any time enabling prioritised fulfilment. To avoid running out of battery, spare accumulators are attached to the belt of the warehouse worker. Another benefit is independence since Picavi does not rely on the wearable glass but on the Android operating system.

DHL is currently testing a pilot project in the Netherlands operating a warehouse for RICOH, a Japanese electronics company. By using a visual-picking system called Ubimax, it claims to increase picking efficiency by 25 per cent in comparison to RF-directed handhelds. Other stated benefits are ease-of wearing, hands-free operations and faster operations. In order to derive more significant results from the test pilot, visual-picking should be benchmarked against voice-picking.

In addition to the above requirements, in Southeast Asia where multiple languages and dialects are spoken in a warehouse, visual picking is more intuitive than voicepicking. Also, voice-picking is less suitable in a noisy environment where production and warehousing are in the same facility.

No one technology fits all requirements

AR will find its way into warehousing sooner than later in any part of the world. As with most technology, human resistance to wear glasses may hinder a quicker adaption. However, the benefits of a more simple and affordable glass may outweigh other person-to-goods picking technologies. As for any customer and warehouse, requirements are different from one another, hence there is no one-technology that fits all requirements. To make storage and fulfilment more efficient, a combination of person-togoods and automated goods-to-person technologies are required whereby visualpicking will be part of such an integrated system.