Will Supply Chain Humans and Machines Become One?
New technologies are always improving our capacity to do work. Machinery help us with physical work and computers help us with problem-solving. While tech capabilities are always improving, the two technologies described here are unique in that the advancement is in the interface between human and technology. This more seamless coordination will improve productivity by reducing the gaps between human, technology, and their relation to the physical environment. These two technologies are Augmented Reality (AR) and Industrial Exoskeleton.
Augmented Reality (AR)
AR integrates the user’s environment with digital information to assist with decision-making. It can be delivered by smartphone, tablet, glasses, or goggles. The most popular application of AR thus far has been face filters on social media apps and games like Pokemon Go. However, AR can be very useful for fieldwork. For example, AR can quickly identify inventory for stock-level management and help order pickers (warehouse personnel responsible for gathering items for fulfilling orders) by providing directions for travelling through a warehouse efficiently. Along with the development of artificial intelligence (AI) technology, AR can identify an item and provide any digitally available information about that product instantaneously.
Information doesn't necessarily have to come from digital data and programmed instructions. AR can also provide remote collaboration by sending field visuals and audio to multiple experts located far away that return actionable feedback to field personnel.
I have had many different roles in my career and training has often been a challenge. You may read materials about the company and role but may not have any context to make sense of what is in the documentation. Alternatively, you shadow an experienced person in the role where training is not their primary focus while taking time away from their other operational duties. AR can be used to assist in training by providing personnel with quality-tested instruction and illustrations that are incorporated into their new work environment and improve the onboarding process.
Robotics and automation to date tend to have narrow operational limits. Industrial exoskeletons merge the intuition and flexibility of the human mind with the physical power of a machine. An exoskeleton mechanically mirrors the human body and the user wears it to amplify their physical capability. By regulation in Canada, the current lifting limit for workers is 23 kg, but with an exoskeleton, this limit could be increased because an exoskeleton will provide additional strength and stability for the worker. Besides power and speed, it will also increase the endurance of the worker as it reduces the repetitive physical stresses exposed to the human body. Some exoskeletons may not be powered; nonetheless, they provide movement stability that will lessen physical stress on the worker.
Overall, this technology will help make gains in productivity per worker that have multiple workforce implications. It will contribute to occupational health and safety by reducing both injury/chronic problems caused by safety incidents and repetitive physical stress. It can prolong aging workers' careers when they do not have the time and/or resources to transition to new careers. The increased productivity potentially reduces staffing requirements and allows for the reallocation of resources to other areas of the organization.