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Introducing Technology to Material Handling: Consider the Human Element

Warehouse worker user wearable technology to help pick orders more ergonomically

Technology adoption within our industry is quickening as Big Data, Internet of Things (IoT) solutions and advanced robotics are increasingly accepted in society. In material handling environments we now use handheld scanners, mobile computers and warehouse management systems (WMS) to fulfill orders. It seems every day proposes a new technology to fulfill a wide variety of warehouse needs.

Of course, new technology often brings added complexity. Technology implementations challenge managers to ensure employees can continue to perform in a safe, intuitive and positive fashion. This may not be straightforward given the increased potential interaction points with technology and the relative lack of precedence for some advancements.

Technology can be unsafe or negatively impact ergonomic efforts when improperly used or unsupported by planning. This could lead to less productivity gains than promised by implementation. To be successful, technology implementations must embrace a human and ergonomic attentive approach. The key focus should be employee and technology interaction during everyday tasks.

As you integrate new technologies, there are several factors that will help ensure you maximize investment value. These include:

  1. Integrating the needs of the user into implementation planning

At least one implementation team member should view everything through an operator’s experience to maintain an appreciation for the work context, physiological needs and cognitive requirements of employees. You need to understand how the new technology may impact all aspects of employee work. How could the new technology be used or misused? Will it hinder completion of other tasks or interfere with other technologies? When should operators use the technology? Through what modality should interaction and feedback occur? These are only a handful of questions that should be addressed before technology introduction.

  1. Conducting an audit

A human-centered technology implementation audit helps identify concerns or issues regarding potential human interaction with the new technology. It also helps identify necessary adjustments to ensure a seamless, safe integration into your warehouse. For instance, if automated vehicles are utilized alongside operator-driven trucks, the operators now require special instructions to co-exist with these vehicles. The audit provides information you can use to assess training.

  1. Adjusting training, policies and processes

The questions asked and information gathered during the audit define necessary adjustments needed to your training program, policies and/or processes. For instance, if you introduce wearable technology and automation to low-level order picking, consider the best interaction between operators and the technology to maintain or increase productivity levels. Revise processes to ensure vehicle pathways are clutter free and employees have clear sight to avoid accidents. Training must be developed for operators using, encountering or working alongside the technology.

  1. Understanding usage context and general work environment

You need to understand how operators or employees currently perform their function and how the new technology will impact it. Depending on application and technology, the current functions could completely change. You also need to understand the environment where the technology will be used. When will it be used? Will interaction occur while equipment is static and motionless, or while moving through dynamic areas? You may realize additional training and process alterations may be needed to ensure favorable safety and productivity levels.

To understand work environment changes, have a team member document how employees perform their functions in the warehouse before the technology implementation. After implementation, observe the employees again to determine the impact of the technology. This will uncover possible issues or challenges to the successful technology adoption before they become problematic.

To truly maximize benefits of new technology, managers should view each piece as part of a larger whole within operations. With the human factor included in planning technology implementations, managers will improve operator experience and boost productivity, safety and operator well-being throughout the entire operation.

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