Companion site to the book Inventory Accuracy: People, Processes, & Technology     
By David J. Piasecki     

Inventory Accuracy Technology Updates

As technology is constantly changing, I will continue to post technology updates as a supplement to the technology chapter in the book. I currently have updates for the following categories:

Check back periodically to see what's new in technology related to inventory accuracy. 

 

These technology updates are intended to supplement the information in the book, Inventory Accuracy: People, Processes, & Technology

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Smart glasses and Drones?

If you look at cutting-edge technology that's been getting a lot of attention in recent years, both smart glasses and drones would have to be high on that list. And not surprisingly, both these technologies are being used/tested in inventory-related tasks.

Can a drone take inventory? Well, maybe. The idea here is that a drone flies up and down the aisles, scanning the barcodes of the items in locations. While this sounds great, unfortunately it isn't as simple as that in many operations. In a license-plate environment, where there is one license plate with a barcode on each palletized load, and you aren't breaking up palletized loads, a drone can probably do the job. But that's also one of the easiest environments to take inventory in anyway. But if you need to count individual units within a location, where some units will be behind other units, you're going to start encountering the limitations of a drone. I still think it cool that people are working on this and look forward to seeing what else comes of this.

Smart glasses? When Google came out with Google Glasses, it seemed as though smart glasses were going to take over the world. Then Google dropped Google Glasses and it looked like that was a big thumbs down for the technology. The reality of smart glasses probably lies somewhere in between. For personal use, smart glasses were a bit of a novelty. But in the workplace, they show some real potential. As of 2017, there are numerous companies selling the technology for warehouse use (mainly order picking) as well as some other industrial applications. At this point, I just don't know enough about the technology to give any detailed recommendations. I see it as being at the "early adopter" stage right now, and while I appreciate what early adopters do to get the bugs worked out of technology, I have a hard time recommending becoming an early adopter on something like this. I certainly think this technology shows some promise, and will be watching it.

Learning from Consumer Electronics

There has been dramatic growth in consumer electronic devices that use the same technologies we can apply to inventory-related tasks, and most of us now have access to these technologies. I bring this up because there is a lot that can be learned from these consumer devices about user interfaces.

Cell phones and voice dialing. Many if not most new cell phones now provide voice dialing capabilities. The functionality is generally a combination of the phone recognizing numbers spoken into the phone (user speaks actual phone number into the phone), phone trying to figure out what you are saying and match that to a contact,  and voice-based speed dial (where the user defines specific words or phrases that are attached to specific numbers to auto dial). Once you start using this type of functionality, it's easy to grasp the advantages and disadvantages of utilizing speech to communicate commands to a computer (modern phones are actually computers).

More specifically, you'll see how pure speech recognition (where the system tries to figure out what you are saying) is still a bit hit-and-miss. But, if you use the "speed dial" scenario where you train your phone to a specific word or phrase (or sound), that tends to work quite well. In fact, I was a bit disappointed when my new "smart phone" didn't have the older "speed dial" functionality, and instead forced you to attempt to use pure speech recognition. This is a very good example of how more advanced technologies are not necessarily better for some tasks. Fortunately, many speech-based systems designed for warehouse tasks use the simpler and more-effective approach to speech recognition used in the older speed-dial scenario.

Automotive GPS navigation systems. Here we have vehicle-mounted consumer devices that use touch screens, speech recognition, and voice direction. If you've used several different GPS devices over the years, you would also get a good feel for the difference between a good user interface and a poor one.

You can get a good feel for how a good touch-screen device not only eliminates the need for a keypad, but also makes entering information much easier than a keypad because the touch screen adjusts automatically for the specific task you are doing. You can also get a good feel for how properly combining technologies can result in a far superior system than just focusing on a single technology. The voice direction ("turn right in 1.5 miles on Elm Street") is extremely useful, but you still need to use the screen occasionally. Little details like showing a distance countdown to the next turn on the main map screen is incredibly useful and seems like an obvious standard feature once you get use to using it, but it may not have existed on some earlier devices simply because the designers didn't think of it. In fact, if I look at the information that's included on my main navigation screen, I see it has the key information I need and nothing more. Hmm, I wonder if they read my book?

The lessons to learn here relate to the appropriate use of technology. Not only choosing the right technology for the right task, but also setting up the user interface properly for the specific task. Even though I'm very good with computers and am a bit of a technology junkie, I choose to use a rather inexpensive GPS navigation system that doesn't have all the bells and whistles of higher-priced devices. Not because I'm cheap (though I am), but because the less functional device is actually easier to use. It's built for a very specific purpose (navigation) and for non-techie users. As soon as I turned it on, it was obvious how to use the main navigation features. It's very efficient at helping me get from point A to point B.

If you're thinking about using portable computers in your warehouse or on your shop floor, I recommend spending time using these types of consumer devices as part of your research. Not that you can use these actual devices, or that the functionality you implement will be identical, but that just getting a feel for how these technologies work (or can work) can prove to be very useful.

That said, keep in mind that industrial devices tend to lag behind consumer electronics as far as getting the latest features and technology, so be prepared for some level of disapointment.

Bar code scanners.

First off, bar code scanners have gotten really cheap. As of 2016 you can go online and find bar code scanners for $20 or even less. This isn't to say they are as good as a more expensive scanner, but they can be good enough for some applications.

Most scanners are now available with USB connectivity (though some still connect via serial port or keyboard wedge interface). WIFI and bluetooth scanners are readily available.

2D bar code scanners have come down in price. Though I still don't see the need for 2D in most inventory applications, it is good to see new lower cost 2D scanners becoming available.

Omnidirectional scanners are more readibly available and much more affordable.

And, of course, we can all now use the cameras on our smart phones and tablets as bar code scanners. Now before you get excited and think you can use phones as scanners for warehouse tasks, keep in mind there are limitations to just how effective a phone is as a bar-code scanning data collection device. That said, you can actually use a cell phone for some light data collection activities. I paid less than $5 for a little app that allows your phone camera to scan barcode information into an excel spreadsheet.

 

Go to Bar Code Scanner Links

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Portable Hand-held Computers.

Well, I'm still less-than-impressed with the hand-held portable industrial computers being marketed towards warehouse applications. The majority of my comments made on pages 218-222 still hold true, but there have been some changes.

Virtually all of the new models have adopted Windows, Android, or Linux as the operating system though you'll still find DOS in some of the older models still being sold. Touch screens are much more common and the color screens are improved. I need to once again warn that the use of a stylus on a touch screen is not appropriate for warehouse environments. Make sure you make this message very clear to whomever is programming your devices. Don't assume that they know better than to program stylus requirements in their programs.

The most significant--though not particularly useful--change recently with portable hand-held industrial computers is the incorporation of RFID readers. This is discussed in greater detail in the RFID update. Also, (as mentioned again below) most handheld computer vendors now have devices with voice technology capabilities.

A positive sign. I did recently (2016) come across an ad for a new handheld scanner from Zebra Technologies (model TC8000). I wouldn't go so far as to say it's revolutionary, but I've been watching handheld scanners for decades and have been extremely disappointed with a lack of innovation and design changes focusing on productivity, so the fact that zebra has actually designed a new device that focuses on productivity is a big step in the right direction. It is still a handheld device and therefore suffers from some of the issues that are inherent to these types of devices, and I don't yet know enough about it to recommend it, but I do like some of the features. Here is a link to a video of the new device https://youtu.be/ZN2ahg2AArI

 

Go to Portable Computer Links

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Voice Technology and Wearable Systems

I'm seeing more wearable options out there, but nothing I would consider revolutionary. Ring scanners are plentiful and many are now bluetooth enabled.  I think just about every portable industrial computer vendor has voice capable devices now. I am pleased to see that many of the portable computer vendors are thinking hard about not only wearable, but also devices that use combinations of voice, bar code scanning, RFID, and other technologies. I see these technology combinations to be the ultimate solution for many industrial applications.

Voice is still growing, and has been especially successful in case-picking or similar operations. When implementing voice technology, make sure you review the prompt recommendations from pages 226-227 of the book. I have noticed some of the voice system vendors have already changed their demos to reflect a more streamlined voice/response script such as that suggested in my book. Maybe they arrived at these conclusions independently of my book, but I think I'll take credit anyway.

Go to Voice Technology Links

 Integration

Ease of integration has significantly improved since the book was released. Most modern ERP systems, warehouse systems, and even many small business software packages are designed with the option of using portable devices. And what we used to call RF is now WIFI and it's much easier to implement. The result being, in some cases all you need to do is buy the devices and you're ready to go. I do want to note though that even though you may be able to just get the devices and you're up and running, you really need to review the way the programs and devices work with your processes. These off-the-shelf programs have a tendency to be cumbersome, so don't rule out customization.

 

Software for Training Programs.

I had mentioned in the book using website design programs to create training materials. In recent years there has been an explosion of highly functional open source (free software including source code which can be modified) software products designed as web collaboration and content management tools. Wikis are a great example of these. They allow you to quckly set up a highly functional site that is organized, searchable, and provides easy editing of content by users. The most well known example of a Wiki is the Wikipedia Project, a massive community created encyclopedia. In addition to numerous open source wiki products available, there are also content management systems and even tools specific to education. Below are some examples of available "Free" programs.

In recent years I've also become a big fan of Microsoft OneNote.  I use it in my business to organize all the stuff that used to exist in hundreds of separate documents. Though I just use it as a single user, it looks like it has a lot of potential as a "knowledgebase" tool for organizations.

RFID

I have set up a separate page for RFID Updates.

 

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