This article originally appeared in the 2018 September/October issue of PARCEL.

Two emerging technologies, virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), offer exciting possibilities for many industries, including the supply chain. VR is an immersive technology: the end user becomes part of the virtual environment and the user is typically isolated from the outside world.

AR, on the other hand, enhances your actual environment, superimposing a computer-generated environment on top of what you see. You can experience AR by wearing glasses or goggles, although consumer devices like iPhones are exploding with new ways to use AR.

But what’s truly exciting is the wide range of industry-specific solutions being developed that utilize these technologies. Not surprisingly, the applications for VR and AR are quite different. Here’s where we see each finding its way into the supply chain industry.

Virtual Reality Applications

Because of the immersive nature of VR, this technology is best suited for research and training applications.

Equipment Training – The industrial application of VR technology to train workers on the effective use of expensive machinery is already highly developed in the aerospace industry, with Airbus and BAE Systems investing heavily in this and showcasing their work. This is not research; these are applications in use today.

Work Simulations – We are seeing innovative uses for VR in the building of new distribution centers. Specifically, applications like Emulate3D allow you to view and, more importantly, test your material handling environment before signing off on construction. Performing virtual walk-throughs on manufacturing work center layouts, for example, can help you identify greater efficiencies, like product flow, that typically aren’t possible until operations have begun.

Drone Piloting – Though you may have seen drones flying using AR, because of the invasiveness of drones, this is a technology that was immediately legislated in the US. It will take some time to nurture before we see VR drone armies making deliveries around our cities.

Augmented Reality Applications

AR is best suited for productivity applications because it offers easy, real-time, and interactive access to information, which can help employees work more efficiently.

For example, a typical distribution center or manufacturing plant may require the use of what is still called an RF unit to retrieve and confirm work assignments. Devices typically are used with a strap or holster and require users to have a free hand to hold it and to regularly access it to look at work assignments. There are solutions to try and make these devices hands-free, like Bluetooth finger scanners and voice control, but they are still combined with a separate unit for lookups. AR opens new ergonomic and efficient possibilities by eliminating the need to constantly hold a device.

Inbound – In a typical receiving operation, warehouse workers unload trucks and subsequently perform computer receipts at workstations or with mobile units. Whether this is done with a handheld unit or a nearby desktop, time is wasted accessing the device. Using AR, the receipt of material can be performed hands-free at the truck. If there are damaged materials, users can snap a picture to include with their receipt record. Users also can quickly summon support with a tap, and the built-in GPS signals their location.

Picking/Put-away – Warehouse employees are driven by work assignments. This requires the repetitive task of looking at mobile device screens to review assignment data such as source location, destination location, or quantity. In a typical application, users review onscreen assignments, remember the details and destination bins, and then again utilize a device, either at a work station, storage bin, or dock, to confirm completion of tasks.

Utilizing AR equipment, users can be directed to the location of the next assignment, all without looking at a screen. Since work assignments typically show up on a heads-up display, after reaching the task location, users scan a barcode to confirm arrival, initiation, or completion of tasks. When the cycle is complete, a new work assignment immediately is displayed on their screen. This could be enhanced with additional recognition technology. For example, AR can display an image of the unit size, ensuring that users pick the correct size. This is an area that already has commercial applications and new innovative solutions continue to be launched.

In the manufacturing area, there are numerous applications for AR:

Data collection – In work center environments driven by discreet production orders, operators typically start a work assignment by confirming the start of work against a specific order. In existing environments, this could be as simple as scanning or entering a work order number into a computer or mobile device and possibly confirming raw materials to be issued.

Using AR, operators can quickly identify their work center and work order, and confirm work start without moving from the work center or reaching for a device. This is not very different from distribution center functions. The real innovations are the potential ability for operators to display work instructions at any time or access tutorials that are specific to the work order presently being executed, without the need to step away to retrieve documentation.

Working with manufacturing customers, we know that access to updated work instructions is critical to support changeovers and avoid errors in manufacturing. Manufacturers typically make these updates available for operators in paper form at work stations. AR offers the possibility to quickly access the most recent version (maybe updated minutes ago) via an AR display. There are already solutions for field maintenance where repair personnel can access current information on the item they are repairing by simply viewing the model information from their AR display. Caterpillar regularly showcases some of its innovative applications of AR technology in field service operations, from simple parts ordering to applications that superimpose images of the step-by-step instructions for repairs while technicians look at the part.

Over the 25 years that we have worked in supply chain, there have been many changes and innovations. Still, we have yet to work with technologies that have these types of transformational possibilities. AR will continue to offer innovative and practical solutions to distribution centers and manufacturing plants, as well as more applications for everyday use. VR will continue to lend itself to improvements in training applications, research and, of course, gaming.

Phillip Avelar is Managing Director, Advanced Solutions, Inc. Join him at PARCEL Forum, where he will speak about “Blockchain, AR & VR: Benefits (& Drawbacks) to Modern Supply Chains.”