Wearable Computers: The New Warehouse-Wear

Call them “fashionably late,” but wearable computers are finally living up to their hype by delivering productivity gains and rapid return on investment. Learn why the market is set to explode.


Labeled the hot new industry a few years ago, wearable computers are finally getting hip. Managing only a modest $70 million in sales in 2001, the wearable computing market is expected to enjoy phenomenal growth in the next few years. In fact, by 2006, worldwide shipments of these devices will increase eight times to $563 million, says Massachusetts-based technology-research firm Venture Development Corp. (VDC).


That translates to a compound annual growth rate of 51%, which might even prove to be a conservative estimate if technological advances keep up their pace and consumers begin to don e-fabrics, or fabrics with electronics sown in.

E-fabrics are still far from being the next fashion craze, however. In fact, they’re still too stiff to be comfortable. For now, wearable computers are more “in vogue” in industry, rather than in apparel.

In industry, wearable computers are delivering productivity gains to companies such as Bell Canada, Federal Express and Nabisco. These devices are proving most useful in distribution/warehousing, transportation, field service and military segments.

In a typical rollout of this technology, warehouse workers are given headsets to wear, which allow them to receive oral instructions from a voice technology system. The voice technology system usually works with an order management or warehouse management system (WMS), taking data from these systems and synthesizing it into the speech that is heard through the headsets. The workers then act on these instructions and verify task completion through the microphone attached to the headset.

Such wearable devices free workers’ hands and increase their productivity and accuracy—improving such operations as parts inspection, putaway and order selection. Companies that have implemented the technology have enjoyed cost savings, bolstered customer service and secured a rapid return on investment.

For example, office equipment supplier Corporate Express Inc. is currently implementing Pittsburgh-based Vocollect’s Talkman system in 22 distribution centers this year, and it’s already seen amazing results from initial pilots. Compared to paper-based picking, the speech-based, wearable data collection system boosted productivity by 50-60%, increased picking accuracy to 99.99%, reduced worker training time and delivered payback in less than a year.

“I’ve installed all sorts of automation (but) this has been the most bullet-proof that we’ve been through,” says Tim Beauchamp, senior vice president of distribution at Corporate Express. “The (systems) are simple to use. We’ve implemented a condensed training and installation schedule so we’re able to enjoy the benefits sooner.”

The wearable computer market can also pin its rapid growth on declining prices for core computing components and substantial improvements in voice technology and head-worn display devices.

Currently, there are two main types of wearable computers—(1) computers you can wear on your head or on your belt and (2) computers you can place on your wrist or finger. The head-worn or belt-worn device usually features a head-mounted display, headset microphone and/or tablet display. Meanwhile, the finger- or wrist-worn product typically has a bar code scanner and a voice or touch-screen interface.

E-fabrics also represent a huge potential market for wearables, but many obstacles have to be overcome. The conductive fibers in these textiles must not only bend and bunch, like that of any cloth, but also withstand the turbulence of a washing machine, the jabbing of a sewing machine needle and the snapping of threads.

If the industry does manage to iron out these issues, then the wearable computer market may become twice as big as VDC’s prediction. “The true potential for wearable computing in 2006 could be well over $1.3 billion if improvements are made in consumer-based products, including commercially viable ‘smart fabric’ technology,” says Tim Shea, senior industry analyst at VDC.

Aside from winning over consumers, the technology also has to convince many wary companies. Those surveyed point to three major reasons for refusing to try wearables on for size—their hefty prices, a mismatch between the company’s application needs and available wearable devices, and their perception that their supply chain application does not need hands-free computing. In addition, some said they saw no cost-justification for the technology.

Even current users had some complaints. Some didn’t like the product’s appearance or how it would make them look. Also, some grumbled that wearing a head-mounted display made it difficult for them to see anything or drive.

Indeed, head-mounted displays, which let users see a holographic screen image through an eyepiece, have had their share of detractors. As a result, most companies choose tablet displays, which can be carried or fastened to the arm.

But don’t count out head-worn devices yet since manufacturers have a few things up their sleeve. For example, Massachusetts-based MicroOptical Corp. has made a display that can be integrated into any ordinary pair of eyeglasses. A tiny LCD, tucked into the temple of the eyewear, produces high-resolution, 24-bit color text, graphics and video images. A large floating image appears before the user, and he or she can adjust its distance to a few feet or more.

And even vendors are helping tie up loose threads. Several mainstream software companies are standing behind wearable/voice technology, adding it to their product offerings to enhance their systems. For example, Dallas-based EXE Technologies Inc. recently unveiled EXceed Voice, which integrates voice-directed order picking into its warehouse management system. EXE customers who have rolled out the technology have been able to reduce picking errors by 7-15%. And with results such as these, the technology looks poised to be much more than just a fad.

Sources: Wearable Computers: the New Fashion-Ware for the Future
Brian Albright
Frontline Solutions, Dec. 1, 2002
http://www.frontlinetoday.com/frontline/article/articleDetail.jsp?id=38947

A Seamless Style for Wearable Computers
Edited by Patricia O’Connell
Business Week, Oct. 16, 2002
http://www.businessweek.com/technology/content/oct2002/tc20021016_5437.htm

Voice Minority
James Aaron Cooke
Logistics Management, Oct. 1, 2002
http://www.manufacturing.net/lm

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