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Do you ever watch Undercover Boss? Think back to 2012 when Sam Taylor, CEO of Oriental Trading Company, went undercover in his own company. One of the most surprising parts of the episode showed a warehouse worker using a voice-automated picking system (see video below), and the worker would then scan the product with a scanner on the tip of his finger. Well, this example shows how wearable technology in the supply chain was being used 3 and a half years ago in 2012. However, the applications of wearable technology in the supply chain have grown beyond the computer-generated voice that spoke way too fast, way to monotone, and way too annoying. Today, wearables are becoming increasingly popular, and these devices have the potential to radicalize the typical supply chain in forward and reverse logistics processes.

What’s Happening with Wearable Technology in the Supply Chain?

The supply chain is driven by increased consumer demand and ability to meet these demands. A decade ago, Apple and Microsoft changed how everyday computing power was viewed with the creation of the cloud. The benefits of the cloud in the supply chain are clear. The cloud is enabling small and medium businesses to compete with larger, Big Box retailers for better, faster, more effective enterprise resource planning tools.

Additionally, the rise of third party logistics providers is helping the same organizations attain the same cost and efficiency of their bigger competitors. As explained by Richard Jones of Supply & Demand Chain Executive, 2016 will be the year of wearable technology in the supply chain. Wearable technologies are further driving efficiency and productivity in the supply chain by pairing advanced computing capabilities in the cloud with a small, miniaturized way of automatically capturing data and logging this data. As a result, companies use wearable technology are allowing workers to focus on the high-level processes, not data entry, reducing the opportunities for error, building a better supply chain, and increasing the vitality of the supply chain.

What Are Wearables?

Wearables are very self-explanatory. Wearables refers to devices that are connected to an internet source and allow workers to perform supply chain tasks without the need of taking up space or additional resources, asserts Supply Chain 24/7. Essentially, wearables are the “new type of tablet on the wrist, face, head, or other body part.”

wearable technology in the supply chain statistics
Use of Wearable Technology in the Supply Chain and Manufacturing

How Do Wearables Improve the Supply Chain?

In the past, the use of wearables was impractical. Workers could not logically carry around a tablet strapped to their chest and enter data manually while still performing the critical processes of the supply chain. However, modern wearables, such as the Apple watch, Samsung’s Smart Watch, Fitbit, and Google Glasses, enable workers to perform critical tasks, and at the same time, wearable devices along with the Internet of Things (IoT) are continually providing data to the organization’s ERP, and if integrated to other systems, within the cloud through low-energy Bluetooth devices, Wi-Fi, or radio frequency identification (RFID). However, many in the supply chain fail to recognize how wearables will transform and improve processes. Basically, wearables look like their sole purpose is data capture and accuracy, but wearables actually give rise to several significant benefits for the supply chain.

Speed and Accuracy

The key benefit of wearable technology in the supply chain revolves around speed and accuracy. If the wearable technology automatically provides the worker with information, the worker is no longer required to review paperwork and figure out his or her tasks. For example, wearables may be used to tell a worker exactly where a product is located in a warehouse, according to Supply Management magazine. Since that piece of technology is connected to the Internet, which is currently tracking the inventory levels of the given supply chain entity, workers can automatically know if a product is in its proper location and ready for picking.

Once the product has been picked, the information can then be transmitted back to the ERP through automatic data capture of the wearable piece of technology, eliminating the need for the worker to manually input what products were picked and improving accuracy.

Identification of Inefficiencies

The best predictive analytics systems in the world are only as good as the data the process. Unfortunately, most predictive analytics systems rely on manual and automated data capture. As explained by Nye Longman of Supply Chain Digital, the lowering cost of wearable technologies will help the supply chain become better able to capture more information, which can then be used by the company’s ERP to identify inefficiencies. This could be as simple as rerouting workers when a product bin runs empty or “telling” workers that walking from Point A to Point B by Path C will save 45 minutes due to freight loading issues on Path B.

Improved Safety and Quality

The supply chain is not necessarily one of a worker’s favorite places. Warehouses become hot in the summer and near frigid in the winter. Although plenty of warehouses are in climate controlled settings, the physical workload alone makes an air-conditioned environment seem sweltering. However, the human body can be fickle. Maintaining a fast pace and continued perspiration can lead to dehydration, heat exhaustion, increased heart rate, and high blood pressure, which further increase the risk for having a cardiac event, a stroke, or other major health crisis while at work. So, how does this relate to wearable technology in the supply chain?

The answer is simple: think about what Fitbit does. As a supply chain entity or warehouse manager could automatically recognize when an employee’s heart rate reaches a dangerous threshold and recommend that worker take a break. Although this seems counterproductive, it could actually save the supply chain money by reducing the chance of having a work-related injury or event take place. Furthermore, workers who are in a pleasant environment are more satisfied with their jobs, and these workers will be more likely to pay attention to what they are doing. In other words, products will be placed in a bin appropriately and not tossed aside like yesterday’s garbage. This directly leads to better quality control of the products and environment and reduced down time from unnecessary health events.

Final Thoughts on Wearable Technology in the Supply Chain

Obviously, the use of wearable technology in the supply chain implies supply chain entities will need to take a stronger role in ensuring security. However, the providers of wearable technology are in a continual battle to ensure the privacy and security of these devices is maintained at all costs. If you are still unsure, just look at Apple’s current battle over unlocking an iPhone 5C. Wearables will continue to improve the supply chain, and supply chain entities must be willing to trust wearable manufacturers to help keep their information safe and secure. The supply chain is approaching an era where technology is almost unseen, resting in plain sight, on-the-person of its workers.