One of the highlights of the recent launch of Apple’s latest mobile operating system iteration, iOS 12, has been extensive deployment of augmented and virtual reality (AR and VR) tools. The aim is to make the device more compatible with AR and VR applications, but the real benefit is that, for businesses, it makes the deployment of AR and/or VR much more likely to achieve traction out in the market.
While much of the hype is centred around what retailers and brands can do with these technologies – such as DFS being one of the first to jump on it, with the rollout of an AR-enabled function in its iOS app that allows shoppers to choose furniture and overlay it on their own room – there are some massive benefits for the logistics and operations off the back of AR and VR that are less well documented in the press.
What are AR and VR?
Before we delve into how these new technologies can make an impact on logistics, it is perhaps worth pausing to take a look at what AR and VR actually are. Both technologies leverage visual technology – largely smartphones, but not exclusively – to enhance the real world by mixing it with the digital.
Augmented reality (AR), as the name suggests, augments the real world: adding a digital overlay, via a screen and using the camera to enhance the world. Examples of AR can be found in Pokémon Go, which added monsters to capture over the real world, and Snapchat Lens. It is also what makes the DFS example just mentioned tick, adding the image of an item of furniture (perfectly proportioned) to a room.
Virtual reality (VR), on the other hand, is a completely immersive experience into a wholly digital world, often via some sort of helmet-like headset or futuristic-looking ski goggles. Here, the user is transported to another, virtual, world that they can then interact with, such as HTC Vive or Oculus Rift.
However, there is a third reality: mixed reality (MR), which brings together both of these with the real world to offer a place where real world and virtual world objects interact. Where AR and VR are cutting edge, MR is bleeding edge technology, which is only just being seen in trials of things such as Microsoft’s HoloLens.
That’s what all this tech is, but how is it impacting operations?
Impact on the warehouse
The real impact of AR and VR on a business is that it can help to simplify and speed up processes. In the case of AR and VR it starts in the warehouse.
The simplest deployment of AR is ‘see’ more things. Imagine a warehouse bursting with boxes and pallets, each to be selected and shipped. While a well-documented ‘library’ system can locate the product by looking up its aisle and shelf location then going to find it, AR can simply allow an operative to hold up their device – or even use HoloLens glasses – ‘over’ the warehouse, aisle or shelf and seen what is where.
This visualisation of where things are can save time and money in numerous ways.
Firstly, it can obviate the need for a centralised screen that all operatives have to have access to find the location of what they need. It can also mean that many more people can be hunting for what is on the shelves at any one time. It also can make the planning of pick orders more efficient.
However, it goes beyond that. It allows for much quicker and easier assessment of stock availability, sell-by dates, what may be ear-marked for shipping and to where and more.
All this can make for a much more efficient warehouse and distribution play – with obvious upstream benefits for eCommerce, manufacture and more, as there is always a ‘real’ view o what is where.
There is also the opportunity to use these systems to not only locate what is being looked for, but to also pick and scan it. A few years back, when Google launched its much-derided Google Glass glasses, one of its USPs was that not only would it overlay warehouse data to the wearer, but they could ‘scan and click’ using their eyes: see it, select it, click it – just by looking.
Google was perhaps too early to the market with this – and wearing its glasses was quite disorientating (not to mention people seen with them were quickly dismissed as ‘glassholes’) – but the idea of using AR overlays in warehousing to locate and pick items is a good one and one that will soon be commonplace.
Where VR could play a role is in planning. An immersive ‘virtual’ version of the warehouse can help plan where to put goods based on where things are and where they need to be moved to. While much planning goes into making the warehouse efficient in terms of where goods are put, VR could allow for more dynamic planning and scenario testing to further make efficiency gains. It could even be used to train and test out the deployment of AR to make sure such a programme works optimally.
Out for delivery
While there is much to be gained from using AR and, to some extent, VR in warehousing, where it really comes into its own is in distribution. As we have seen AR and VR can be used to help stock a warehouse and to find the goods when you need them: out on the road this becomes even more cost-effective.
The first place where this tech comes into play is in using VR to load the lorry. With the goods lined up for delivery – especially for multiple eCommerce deliveries – VR can be used to pre-plan the best way to load up the truck so that the goods are in the optimal position for the most efficient delivery round.
For more sensitive one off loads, it can be used to place goods for the ultimate weight distribution, saving incremental amounts of fuel, which over many journeys starts to make economic sense.
Once out for delivery, AR again can save time and money, but helping the driver find what he is looking for. According to research, drivers spend 40-60% of their time away from centre not driving, but looking for packages.
Not only could AR pack things into the van more effectively and in the right order, but it can then help the driver find them and deliver them more quickly.
Speaking of speed, AR is likely to also find its way into the cab, with glasses or windscreen overlays that help delivery drivers find the quickest and best routes dynamically as the traffic changes.
Naturally, this could mess up the carefully planned delivery route that matches how the boxes are stacked in the van, but again AR can help the driver find the right package regardless, as discussed.
There is also perhaps another benefit to AR out in the field for delivery drivers: security of delivery. Combining AR with other new technologies creeping into the smart device arena such as biometrics and facial recognition could also be used to help authenticate the recipient of the goods, or to capture the ‘signee’ to prove delivery.
Training, value-adds and beyond
There are clear pros to using AR and VR – and eventually MR – across the logistics space right here right now, however they are just the start. Immersive VR is going to impact all industries as a training tool, allowing anyone training for any job to do it and learn it in the virtual world, before being let loose on the real thing (and avoiding the costly mistakes that can arise).
As we have seen, warehouses can be planned virtually, lorries packed and loads distributed, but all this can be learned in a virtual world beforehand.
Similarly, many retailers are offering to not only deliver goods, but also to install and set them up – something that falls on the delivery drivers. While VR can help train them before hand, AR in the field will also help them to fulfil on this. It can also be used to monitor their work and help assure quality of service.
A few years ago, augmented and virtual reality were concepts – something that gave us a glimpse of the future and what might be possible. With ever-more powerful smart devices in everyone’s pockets, AR and VR are now very much a reality and something that can have an impact on all facets of life.
Even in the niche of delivery, AR and VR are very much technologies that can be readily commoditised and deployed, with good ROI and some distinct benefits to retailers, logistics operators and consumers.
With retailers and soon shop assistants all starting to use these technologies – not to mention a whole generation of youngsters who take Pokémon Go as a given – soon it will won’t just make business sense to use AR and VR, but will become an imperative: something expected.
And if you are reading this on a smartphone, then right here in your hand you have the tools to make this happen. Let’s see what your vision is.
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Parcelhub is a bespoke and proactive multi-carrier delivery management solution. Flexible and scalable, it integrates seamlessly with marketplaces, eCommerce platforms, OMS, WMS, EMS and ERP systems, providing hundreds of multi-channel retailers, global brands and wholesalers with one access point to 20+ carriers and 300+ services.
Distributing more than 6 million parcels on its own carrier contracts every year, Parcelhub’s free multi-carrier shipping software grants hundreds of national and global businesses access to ‘pooled volume’ discounted rates from its carefully selected range of carrier partners, including Yodel, Hermes, DPD, DHL, UPS, DX, Parcelforce, CollectPlus, SkyNet, ArrowXL, Interpost, Panther Logistics, Direct Link and Palletforce. Dedicated proactive parcel management comes as standard.
Parcelhub is part of the Whistl Group. Whistl is the leading delivery management company enabling customers to get their letters, leaflets or parcels to customers efficiently and cost effectively both in the UK and internationally. It is headquartered in Marlow with 8 depots and 2 fulfilment centres across the UK handling 3.8bn items a year. The company is privately held with over 1,500 employees and a turnover in excess of £600m. It has grown significantly over the years and is now expanding its presence in the eCommerce sector offering fulfilment services to customers through a seamless experience from first click to final delivery.