The use of radio-based wearable computers in UK distribution centres for scanning and voice-directed picking has prompted claims by the main trade union representing warehouse workers that they are being reduced to automatons.
The GMB union has complained at the way the technology, designed to speed the process of picking and putting away items, is being used to track workers and record their movements, including how much time they spend on toilet breaks.
The union balloted members on strike action after the supermarket chain Asda, part of the Wal-Mart group, increased the pick rate for drivers at a distribution centre near Wigan in the north of England from 1100 items per shift to 1400 items following the introduction of a process increasing supply chain velocity.
But worries about wearable computers have been spurred by academics who claim they are being used to spy on workers and that wrist and ringmounted devices might also cause repetitive strain injuries.
‘The use of headsets, voice recognition and armmounted wearable computers in effect makes humans an extension of the information systems that drive the supply chain,’ says Professor Michael Blakemore, professor of geography at Durham University, who has recently published a report for the GMB union.
‘The human is no longer given a list of products to find, then expected to use initiative and knowledge to find them. Instead, the information system plans the best route for the human to take and in effect preoptimises their itinerary.’
Finger-mounted ring scanners are one of the most popular wearable technologies. Already widely used in US warehouses, they are connected via Bluetooth radio system to units attached to workers’ belts. Wrist-mounted units are more complex, with small keyboards and displays for data entry and for communicating the whereabouts of items to be picked. The systems are linked to base stations via wireless links.
Systems that can understand what people say and then reply in a synthetic voice have been used in telephony for a long time. But it is only in the past few years that the software has become sensitive enough to deploy in the noisy, fast-changing environment of a distribution centre. Workers on a warehouse floor can receive voice instructions, ask questions and report shortages without having to carry paper or return to a picking desk. They do not have to unholster and operate a scanning device and can keep their eyes on what they are doing.
Companies that use the systems report fewer accidents and greater job satisfaction. Typical conversations are limited to two or three words and a location number. Some users of voice technology prefer to mix voice with scanning to push accuracy as high as possible.
Wireless systems are also widely used to support drivers. For example, UPS, the parcels company, recently began installing a home-grown drivers’ system called the Delivery Information Acquisition Device IV (DIAD IV). The terminal, which includes a built-in scanner, is capable of communicating delivery data using no fewer than five types of networking technology. UPS expects to have 200,000 wireless devices in vans and depots when its programme is complete.
DIAD IV will also be used to guide drivers to delivery addresses with the help of GPS. An in-built GPS receiver in the device will transmit vehicle locations back to dispatch centres over the GPRS network, allowing dispatchers to quickly determine the vehicle nearest to a call.
Though union chiefs say they are not Luddites, they are unimpressed by efficiency arguments. ‘This technology needs to be redesigned to be an aid to the worker rather than making the worker its slave. Supermarkets that rely on just in time shelf filling rather than holding buffer stocks are incredibly profitable,’ says Paul Kenny, acting general secretary of the GMB. ‘They can well afford to operate a humanised supply chain. They should do so quickly or the GMB will ensure shelves do not get filled.’ Strong talk from a union that only represents afraction of those who do work in distribution centres. Nonetheless, managers would do well to address this issue.