The question of how logistics and supply chain managers may need to prepare for the next crisis on the horizon, or another pandemic, is critical. Today, flexibility is definitely a crucial prerequisite. As we’ve all seen through the Covid19 pandemic, organisations want to be in a position that enables them to set up, relocate or redesign workplaces quickly and respond to market needs with agility. The same goes for the underlying processes. But, as organisations get ready to deal with the future, what should they as they develop their operations?
Prevent old habits from endangering employees
A first key objective is to prevent employees from reverting back to old habits that could endanger them. In a Covid19 world, smart wearables can play an important role and enable social distancing onsite. Technologies, such as wearable scanners, can for instance provide organisations with an app that can connect the workers to their devices. The basic idea is fairly simple: the app detects when workers fall below the minimum social distance for too long. In response, it generates a message that the wearable device can output as a combination of acoustic, haptic and visual warning signals. Particularly in busy or noisy work environments, combined signals are extremely helpful for attracting employees’ attention and warning them. This type of technology is especially well suited to help workers at the assembly line or in logistics by providing this uncomplicated reminder to keep the right distance.
Slips, trips, falls and other injuries can be prevented with wearable technology
In addition to Covid-secure considerations, employers have a duty of care to keep the workforce safe during the working day. But every industry comes with associated risks. Especially within sectors such as manufacturing, materials handling and logistics – for example, with machinery, items at various heights and a noisy environment – there are a number of safety risks that must be considered. For instance, slips, trips and falls, injuries from lifting or being struck by a moving object are some of the hazards that could cause harm.
To illustrate the scale of the problem that organisations face, in 2018/19 in the UK, 28.2 million working days were lost due to work-related illness and injury and in 2017/18, the estimated economic cost to Great Britain totalled £15 billion.
Managing workplace fatigue more effectively to prevent accidents and injuries
Alongside this, worker fatigue is one element that can significantly contribute to increased risks of injury at work. More than 3.5 million people are employed as shift workers in the UK. Badly designed shift-working patterns and long working hours that do not allow for sufficient periods of rest and recovery can result in accidents, injuries and ill health. It generally contributes to slower reaction times among employees, memory lapses, lack of attention and reduced coordination, which can have severe ramifications at the workplace. This is said to cost the UK £115 – £240 million per year in terms of work accidents alone.
This is where the use of hands-free wearable technology and ergonomically designed workplaces can benefit the safety of workers. Wearable technologies and ergonomic workplace design aim to decrease the risk of repetitive strain injury and accidents resulting from fatigue and exhaustion. It can also help employees avoid extraneous tasks and remove unnecessary repetitive actions, such as time-consuming walks across the warehouse. This, essentially, eases strain on the worker and helps employees improve safety.
For instance, the technology could immediately notify a worker of the next pick up location via their wearable device, rather than having to trek back to retrieve this information from a central data point or computer. Not only does this reduce the risk of health problems and injuries from strain, but productivity is also increased as workers will have higher energy levels through the day. By ensuring that the majority of physical movement is directly linked to necessary duties, risks can be avoided by minimising extraneous movement and avoiding additional weight to carry around, which tires employees.
ProGlove’s wearable scanners, for example, weigh 40 grams. They are up to ten times lighter than traditional bulky scanners. Thus, the weight saved can be as much as 1.5 metric tons per employee per day. This provides employees with some much needed relief through the day and helps safeguard employees and their health – which is especially important for helping organisations to manage any musculoskeletal disorders that some staff may have.
Making picking processes better and safer
Considerable potential for wearable technologies, like wearable scanners, may lie where businesses would least expect them. Order picking is a perfect example that shows promise.
There is great potential for savings to be made by looking at the picking process, especially with regard to travel and picking times by workers. Typically, travel time accounts for 30 to 50 percent of picking time, and includes the time that a warehouse worker needs to reach the goods and return to the picking area. Shortening the distance can, therefore, make a significant contribution to improving the entire order processing time. The same applies to the picking time, i.e. the interval from the first contact with the item, including transport to the storage location, and depositing at the storage location. Further, it is particularly important to ensure that the item is picked accurately, so that the entire picking process does not need to be repeated. This is where smart glasses or wearable devices are recommended. Scanning articles with these technologies, as they are picked, and having the access to real-time information about these articles improves both picking accuracy and efficiency.
Removing process bottlenecks improves safety and productivity
Bottlenecks arise within companies’ processes due to external as well as internal conditions. For example, fluctuations in demand and dynamic markets represent major challenges for production. In addition, complex structures within technical processes, process organisation and logistics are also susceptible to errors and inefficiency. The more complex the internal structures, the more difficult it is to understand where and why bottlenecks occur. Long throughput times, underestimated forecast qualities regarding demand, or overfilled warehouses with semi-finished goods, are typical examples of the negative consequences that arise from a bottleneck – but they are often not the hurdle itself. Therefore, it is crucial to analyse what the original problem is that is impacting on other areas within production and logistics.
A typical example is the number of parts and process steps used together. Too many production parts increase complexity and cause costs to skyrocket – resulting in efficiency losses. Furthermore, partners in the value chain often play a role. If, for example, the delivery of goods and production parts is delayed due to problems on the part of the supplier, this can have an impact on the entire production and, in the worst case, lead to the production line stalling.
Treat tools as communicable objects makes them easier to find and mange
A frequently recurring problem is also that semi-finished goods, or even tools, are stored; but the storage location is not recorded properly and therefore cannot be found. This can make the time required to search for objects unreasonably long; and in the worst case, results in existing parts potentially being written off because they are considered to be lost, when in fact they are misplaced. The solution to this is to turn all tools, materials, machines, etc. into communicable objects by providing them with trackable stickers or similar. The objects can then be located and the search time minimised. This is particularly important when it comes to tasks within an organisation where a specific tool is required to prove that health and safety is adhered to – can these tools be found, if not why not?
Optimising throughput time benefits the organisation
Throughput is crucial in both production and logistics. The calculation of throughput time starts at goods receipt and ends when the item is ready for delivery or leaves the goods issue area. A smooth material flow can optimise the throughput time and ensure a short delivery time. Throughput optimisation begins in the warehouse. The longer the material takes to pass through the processes, the higher the storage costs become. This also has a knock-on effect on the capital commitment.
The aim is to optimise the material flow and therefore increase throughput times as a result. It is clear that the time factor is often associated with faster processing. However, just looking to accelerate existing processes on a broad scale will not always deliver the desired increases in efficiency. Rather, they must be reviewed and optimised on an individual basis.
To achieve this, unnecessary processes within the value chain should be eliminated. By connecting the various departments and machines, waiting times can be reduced. Furthermore, transit times to terminals or similar workstations with industrial wearables can be avoided. The employee should receive all important information directly at the workplace and be able to share it from there.
It is not only the reduction of throughput times that offers companies added value. Quality also plays a decisive role in corporate success. In logistics, organisation via barcodes is a common method of identifying products and their position in the warehouse quickly and easily. One of the advantages of barcodes is that any information can be stored and transferred to the warehouse management system by means of scanning.
Yet, even this method itself offers considerable potential for optimisation. This is because the information is often sent to a computer terminal that the employees first have to walk to. This costs time and interrupts the workflow. In addition, scanning with conventional barcode scanners is error-prone.
The barcode scanner itself is a major cost factor for many companies. They are usually not very robust and susceptible to damage. There is also the risk of the scanners being inadvertently packed and sent with deliveries.
An alternative to the classic barcode scanner gun is to use a glove scanner, which is also available with an integrated display on the back of the hand. Employees wear the scanner directly on their work gloves and do not have to keep picking it up again and again. This is more ergonomic and reduces repetitive strain injuries too. In addition, it means, processing at terminals is no longer necessary, as the information can be sent and received directly to back office systems, enabling greater flexibility and less travel time for the worker.
As logistics teams and supply chain managers prepare for the future, in a world dominated by uncertainty and Covid, workplace health and safety has become increasingly important.
To improve safety, there are several factors that organisations should review. This includes, assessing old workplace habits and routines and updating them; using wearable technologies to help manage social distancing and other health and safety scenarios at work; considering how ergonomics and wearable technologies can reduce workforce fatigue; and how it can make picking processes better, and remove operational bottlenecks.
Technology, especially wearables, has an immense role to play in connecting the workforce and keeping it safe, productive and efficient; raising a question about whether ‘wearables’ is part of your future strategy as you seek to connect the workforce and digitise it?