Seeing is believing

By Ruari McCallion

November 2019

Augmented and virtual reality in the warehouse

Augmented reality and virtual reality technologies are claimed to offer some spectacular advantages to warehouse operations – up to 30% savings, in some cases. Ruari McCallion has been taking a closer look.

Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) are not the same thing. VR is an immersive experience, typically involving an all-enclosing headset, in which the user enters a virtual world; it is most associated with online gaming, rather than industry. AR is designed to assist operations in the real world through the application of mobile and wearable technologies that enable a real-time interactive view of reality, with superimposed virtual content. One of the first examples of AR to appear on the market was Google Glass.

“The consumer market is the most difficult market that anybody can tackle,” says David Lock, Director of Operations EMEA Region, Vuzix Corporation, which makes the hardware for AR enterprise solutions – the glasses and headsets themselves. He maintains that enterprises are more open to and accepting of emerging technology than the consumer market. Having said that, enterprises have to be convinced the technology will work before they will spend hard-earned money on it.

“You are talking at least two years of proof of concepts as necessary to get a company to commit to emerging technology. The questions are always: is this going to get me more business, is it going to improve efficiency and is it going to be accepted by employees?”


The latest version of Microsoft’s HoloLens AR headset is lighter and easier to wear.

Operations in practice

In the world of AR, a number of possibilities are appearing on the marketplace and being offered across a range of activities, from manufacturing and warehouse management to medicine, including surgery. In 2018 I attended a demonstration of Microsoft HoloLens, which included a visit to a skin graft surgery attached to a major teaching hospital. We were shown how AR can improve the effectiveness of major surgery, cutting operating time in half and delivering better outcomes. The same tour took in a demonstration of its use in mechanical and electrical (M&E) functions in construction. I was also taught how to assemble a lithium-ion battery by a teacher guiding me from a remote location. It was impressive, but once you sleep on it and get over the ‘gee whiz’ excitement, the questions raised by David Lock still have to be answered.

Within warehouse management, one of the most important activities is order picking – but it is also often considered a nuisance. A great deal of effort has been expended on trying to automate the process but it always seems to come down, in the end, to human beings. Within logistics and warehousing, order picking accounts for approximately 20% of all logistics costs and up to 55% of the total cost of warehousing. This is according to research published in the European Journal of Operational Research in 2007 and cited in Augmented Reality Research, published by Maastricht University School of Business and Economics, January 2016.

Mistakes made in order picking, the last step in the supply chain before delivery, directly influence customer perception of the quality of an order and of the supplier. Improving its efficiency and reducing errors can make a major difference to profitability, competitiveness and reputation. The issues become even more important in agile and demand-driven supply chain management.


Microsoft’s HoloLens facilitates remote training and teaching; whether a fond father helping his daughter with some basic plumbing, or more complex assembly, or warehouse management.


Augmented reality (AR) technology provides users with more information about the objects in front of them; even the fire performance of domestic furniture.

Clearer vision

Smart glasses allow task-relevant information to be superimposed directly in the order picker’s field of vision, fed directly by the warehouse management system. Pickers are better able to obtain information, stock locations and directions without switching attention from a technical device or being distracted by anything else in the work environment.

Third-party logistics providers have already adopted AR in some of their warehouses: global logistics provider DHL showcased Vuzix’ M-Series Smart Glasses at the grand opening of its 2,600-square-metre Americas Innovation Center in Chicago, Illinois, USA, in September 2019. The facility provides a collaborative space for DHL to work with customers, technology partners and academics, as well as its employees.

Benefits in practice

Adoption of AR in practice has, according to the Maastricht University study, shown some quite significant benefits. Picking time per bin reduced by over 40% – from 27 seconds to just 15 – and error rate was cut by 90%. Out of a range of other workload measures, as developed by NASA in its Task Load Index, improvements were reported by stock pickers in all areas except one; and quite an odd one. They reported that AR order picking was physically more demanding. However, the analysis did not find any increase in heart rate, so the physical demand may have been a perception by the individuals studied, rather than an actuality – something that could be explained by the unfamiliar experience of wearing the AR glasses. Overall, the Maastricht University survey clearly identified a 30% improvement in efficiency by warehouse operators using smart glasses.

AR technology is not free-standing. It has to be integrated with the warehouse management system or with the enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, which is where it gets its information from.

The technology works with RFID, barcodes, specialised tags or bocodes. The wireless technology is not 5G GSM, which requires SIM cards and a lot of power; it is Wi-Fi. Lower power consumption means longer battery life and less weight for the operator to carry around.


Vuzix smart glasses in order picking action.

Upgrading healthcare

In the healthcare sector, Swiss company Scandit (see panel below) has participated in a project at Leeds Teaching Hospital in the UK, named Scan4Safety. The hospital was using an inventory management solution which included a limited ability to scan barcodes on products, patient wristbands and locations. The Scandit scanner solution, which uses mobile phones and other smart devices, demonstrated extremely high barcode scanning speeds and accuracy. The information is updated in real time to the electronic whiteboard at the nurses’ station. The pilot project showed significant cost savings and improvement in standards of patient care.1

Vuzix works with a number of software and systems providers, such as SAP, Evolaris and Ubimax, who offer ‘pick by vision’ order picking and ‘make by vision’ assembly, quality assurance, inspection and training solutions, as well as remote assist and healthcare solutions2. Vuzix hardware has also been trialled with a global logistics provider on a project that will provide higher levels of security and traceability of medical packages.

According to David Lock, smart glasses have already achieved a significant level of penetration with some blue-chip companies, including Mercedes. Over 10,000 units are now in use in warehouses across Europe.

AR is not just about smart glasses, which may be more suitable for larger premises and operations. Scandit, a relatively young company based in Zurich, Switzerland, uses smartphone technology to improve order picking, inventory maintenance and consignment packaging.

“Our technology could be used in a warehouse, in a supermarket, anywhere that is managing stock,” said Paul Davis, Scandit Vice-President Sales for Northern Europe, Middle East and Asia. “You have a row of items on a shelf and each of the items has a barcode underneath. You take the camera on the smartphone and it will capture 10 or 12 items immediately.”


Scandit’s augmented reality app provides at-a-glance information about stock levels and delivery schedules.


“Dude, where’s my parcel?” “Right there.” Scandit’s AR smartphone app quickly locates and identifies specific items in amongst dozens of others.

Each barcode can be colour-coded when viewed through the phone. The employee will be presented with visual information about the health levels of stock, with a green, orange or red indicator. As the operator walks forward, the app drills down and provides more contextual information, including precise stock levels and expected replenishment delivery schedules. The phones are linked to the central planning system, but data is cached onto the device and all processing is done on it.

“Traditional heavy, rugged barcode scanning devices might take 10 or 15 seconds to scan each item. Now, you can simply read and get information with the camera and highlight what you should be looking at, drill down for more details and contextual information, all through the augmented reality app, without having to press buttons on the phone.”


Quickly identifying what is going where.