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Augmented reality could be latest software tool to accelerate warehouse work

By Ben Ames | February 25, 2016 | 11:37 AM

Warehouse managers have looked to software for decades in search of faster ways to handle materials and fulfill orders.

DCs have deployed major platforms like warehouse management systems (WMS) and labor management systems (LMS) as well as complex robotic solutions like automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS) and Amazon.com’s Kiva Systems robots.

Now the latest wave of supply chain software solution takes a different approach. Instead of bringing data analytics and robotics to bear on the flow of goods, this new strategy focuses on the junction between workers and the materials they handle.

Augmented Reality (AR) is a technique of overlaying simple objects with digital images and metadata. Casual viewers wouldn’t see these new layers of information, but workers equipped with smartphones, tablet PCs, or Google Glass-type video-eyeglasses can see extra layers of digital information tailored to every object.

At first glance, the technology sounds similar to virtual reality (VR), the approach of creating fantasy worlds visible only through three-dimensional goggles or headsets, a recent Boston Globe article points out.

But augmented reality stays focused on real-world objects, enhancing them with helpful information that can funnel instructions to a worker in a DC, warehouse, or factory. Viewed through a smartphone or other platform, a case or pallet tagged with AR could be labeled with its unique identity, destination, and schedule.

One of the top early suppliers of AR systems is the product design software firm PTC Inc. of Needham, Mass. The company plans to help its customers build the technology into millions of commonplace items, from factory equipment to cars to home appliances, the newspaper said.

PTC took a large step forward in crafting new AR applications in 2015 when it paid $65 million to acquire the software firm Vuforia from Qualcomm Corp. By combining Vuforia’s technology with its own engineering software, PTC hopes to spread the use of AR far beyond current sectors such as gaming and consumer products, applying the approach to automotive, aerospace, industrial, and retail businesses.

Combined with product analytics and Internet of Things (IOT) software architecture, AR could quickly deliver a way to help design, monitor, and control products, and to instruct technicians in the appropriate methods of use and service, PTC says.

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