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Mixed Reality in the Warehouse

Written by Special Guest Blogger Trever Ehrlich, Creative Solutions Manager, Kenco Innovation Labs

This morning I experienced several scary safety incidents in a warehouse. A container of strong chemicals leaked, burning the hands of one of the employees. Nearby, I also found an overloaded power strip had started smoldering. To top it off, one of the welding tanks was left carelessly uncapped, resulting in a small fire that was fortunately extinguished quickly.

I removed my HoloLens headset, thankful it was only a simulation.

In my experience, most discussions about mixed reality start with a discussion of definitions. If you’re not quite sure about the differences between augmented, mixed and virtual reality, check out BrainXchange’s informative blog on the subject. Mixed reality, to quote the article, can be defined as “interactive holograms integrated into the user’s real world.”

Our journey with mixed reality began a year ago when we acquired the Microsoft HoloLens during their first wave of developer releases. My experience with mixed reality is mostly limited to the HoloLens, so at the risk of sounding like a Microsoft rep, I will refer to it heavily, though I’m excited to see other vendors like ODG and Vuzix wading into the technology.

Mixed reality is such a new research space that a device like the HoloLens is like an expensive lump of clay – the demo apps are amazing, but the possibilities are still mostly unexplored, limited by the imagination. We’ve had some failures along the way, found what worked and what didn’t, and are excited about the possibilities!

We’ve studied using the HoloLens for several applications, including remote assistance, warehouse layout and traffic flow, marketing, and safety training.

  1. Remote Expert Assistance

For workforces that are widely distributed, corporations often spend huge sums to fly their SME’s (subject matter experts) to various locations to conduct training or to troubleshoot issues. GoToMeeting is great in the office, but what about a broken piece of equipment out in a warehouse 50 miles outside of a major metropolitan area?

Augmented reality devices – think Google Glass – have long had built-in cameras which allow an expert to remotely assist and diagnose issues. Mixed reality, however, adds an entirely new dimension of interaction, allowing the remote assistant to reach into your space.

We recently had a mechanical failure on a complex robot we have used in our fulfillment lines. Instead of flying in an engineer, we slipped on the HoloLens at headquarters and started a conversation with the supervising manager on the warehouse floor using Skype. Not only could he look at the robot in real-time, but he could mark up our 3D space, circling problems or placing floating arrows next to specific hardware parts. He could also “push” wiring diagrams or directions, placing them virtually on our walls to reference while we worked!

  1. Layout and Traffic Flow

One of the great things about the HoloLens is the tight partnership Microsoft has with Unity, a game development platform. Even though we don’t develop games, the software is fantastic for easily setting up virtual environments that follow the laws of physics, with realistic object movement and interaction.

As a test, I was able to quickly build a miniature-sized warehouse. We could see how this would be useful to prospective clients; seeing a top-down view of a 3D warehouse, scaled down to virtually sitting on a boardroom table, is very impressive! At a click of a button, a swarm of workers and forklifts could be released, all traveling through the maze of the warehouse like so many ants. Traffic flow was interesting to watch, and bottlenecks quickly became apparent.

  1. Sales Presentations

Picture a salesperson showing a prospective client the latest office furniture designs. Unless the client has access to a showroom, the furniture is probably purchased based on some images in a catalog or website. With mixed reality, the client could select the pieces of furniture from a virtual catalog, then drag and drop the item into real space, allowing them to walk around and see the product from all sides.

Some of our operations extend outside the four walls of the warehouse, delivering product to customers on a trial basis. How much work would it save if the customer could experience the product virtually without the labor and expense of physically delivering a demo?

Lowes is already doing something similar to this with their Hologram Experience. In special showrooms, while wearing the HoloLens, the customer can see and explore virtual kitchens, switching out different appliances, counter tops, cabinets, and colors on demand.

  1. Training

Remember my “dangerous” experiences in a virtual warehouse? For our company, we’ve found the best fit for mixed reality seems to be in the realm of employee training. Warehouses are required to provide their employees with regular training on many topics, mostly related to safety. This training is typically a classroom-style session using PowerPoints – and we all know how exciting slide shows are!

The use of mixed reality allows multiple employees to enter virtual warehouses together where they can physically walk around and explore various safety hazards, learn about OSHA requirements, and experience the consequences of unsafe warehouse practices – accidents, spills, fires, and explosions, to name a few – all in a safe environment. Education research has shown the more human senses are engaged in learning, the greater will be the impact and retention of that information.

I am sold on the mixed reality format. It is so much more immersive and impactful than simple “flat” augmented reality displays, especially since it is aware of the user’s surroundings and can provide a spatially accurate experience. Virtual reality is great for gaming and simulations, but in our warehouse environments, we do not wish to block out the wearer’s view of the real world around them. Virtual reality users often experience disorientation and headaches. Mixed reality brings the virtual world to the user, immersing them in amazing experiences, without having to leave the familiarity of the real world.

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Kenco provides integrated logistics solutions that include distribution and fulfillment, comprehensive transportation management, material handling services, real estate management, and information technology—all engineered for Operational Excellence. Woman-owned and financially strong, Kenco has built lasting customer relationships for more than 60 years. Kenco’s focus is on common sense solutions that drive uncommon value. Also, connect with Kenco on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and the Kenco blog.

 

* Trever will be participating in a hands-on VR workshop this May at EWTS 2017, along with other leading innovators from Pearson, John Deere, and Martin Brothers, as well as Thomas Furness, the Grandfather of VR/AR. Don’t miss “Beyond Gaming and Entertainment: Leveraging Virtual Reality in the Enterprise.”

 

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