An Investigation into Indoor Positioning Systems (Part One): How IPS Can Save Lives

Indoor Positioning Systems (IPS) are gaining traction in many different industries, including supply chains. From airports to emergency response the benefits are becoming more clear. The most important part of this conversation is why it matters to you. For anyone to adapt the technology, it has to have a noticeable impact. In this post we'll cover the safety aspects, navigation within large buildings, the technologies IPS utilizes, and how this translates to helping out your supply chain.

In last month’s article, one of the big advantages we noticed in Augmented Reality was safety features offered. IPS can work within AR to help improve the safety of workers in a warehouse. Due to the ability to track devices, emergency responders will be able to attend to those in danger areas. Triangulating the whereabouts of a mobile device in large buildings (such as airports and warehouses) is what IPS is all about. Large buildings can be difficult places to navigate. When was the last time you went to Ikea and didn’t feel completely lost at least once? Now, imagine trying to explain to someone where in the store you are when faced with an emergency. Luckily Ikea, with the help of Google, is one of the early adopters of IPS within their stores.

The FCC has been working on this technology since 2012, making it a priority because people are abandoning landline telephones for cell phones. Emergency responders have the ability to locate landlines within large office buildings and apartments. Cell phones don't offer this functionality. According to the 2012 report, they were years away from having the technology functional. This is one of the rare cases where the mainstream spread of smartphones has actually pushed back our technology.

Google is currently gathering data for indoor maps (surprise, surprise). Most people are familiar with Google cars driving around cities, but indoor maps naturally use a different method. In 2014, Google unveiled The Cartographer, an indoor mapping backpack. The backpacker will walk around a building with The Cartographer to create a floor plan. Building owners are also able to submit blueprints, adding points of interest such as museum exhibits or room numbers.

For those in metropolitan cities, chances are Google has started to incorporate some local buildings into their maps. Here in Toronto, buildings like the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) have been mapped out. It’s a neat little feature we didn’t know existed until starting to write this article. In Google Maps, you’ll notice compatible buildings contain detailed floor plans. In this case, the ROM has seven different floors and all contain a floor plan and label each section. As a first time visitor, you may find value in walking directions between the exhibits. See below for a couple screenshots.

IPS relies on different technologies: WiFi, Bluetooth, and RFID to name a few. Each of the technologies has its advantages. Wi-Fi is already integrated into a lot of buildings, so often it is the easiest technology to integrate. Regardless of the method chosen, transmitters need to installation throughout the building. Google’s system uses the existing Wi-Fi hotspots to track your location indoors. Bluetooth offers better reception but involves the installation of many Bluetooth beacons. Disney has started integrating RFID in their restaurants. Through the use of a MagicBand, the staff knows of your table without them ever having sat you. Other companies are using magnets or Visible Light Communication for indoor mapping.

Different companies use different technologies but they are all working towards the same goal, locating you.
Now, we originally decided to tackle this topic because of it's ability to optimize supply chains. This is a technology that we are considering implementing in our software, Fusion to help boost picking productivity. Larger warehouses with a quick turnaround on stock that utilizes temporary workers would see the greatest ROI. (Anyone who has worked a retail job knows that it takes a while to learn a stock room.) An IPS can make warehouse operation teams more productive by directing workers to stock on pick lists from their smartphone, smart-glasses or other connected devices. In these scenarios, IPS is much easier to setup since usually only one location needs setup with the required hardware.

Now that we have discussed some of the benefits to an IPS and the technologies that help make it possible, we want to discuss how to implement this into your business. Maybe you find yourself in the position as a business owner or warehouse manager who could benefit from an IPS. In part two of our series, we are going to look at how you can work with an IT team to have one setup, what it takes to implement such a system, and at what point it becomes beneficial to your business.


Is Wearable Tech the Future of Your Supply Chain?

When Google Glass was first released, in 2013, the reviews were less than desirable. Consumers generally rejected the idea. In NYC, some restaurants even banned the device because of secret video recording potential. Since then, wearable technology has seen much technological advancement.

Although wearable technology hasn’t quite taken off yet, it’s starting to get its footing. Fitness trackers are currently the most popular type of wearable technology on the market. Smartwatches and fitness bands account for 44% of the wearable market. Even footwear and apparel companies are starting to get into the wearable technology field. The wearable market itself had grown in 2015, having 232 million units being sold. Gartner, predicts that this number will grow by 39% in 2016.

You may not want a pair of smart glasses yourself, but to keep up with the competition, your workers might need them. The ability to use your mobile device to scan a barcode is convenient, but having the barcode scan when you look at it gives your workers two free hands. The first attempt at Google Glass already has the ability to scan barcodes, but the second version will be able to leverage more useful technologies. We will explore these technologies below.

Why will these devices provide value to your warehouse? Simply, they support Augmented Reality (AR). You may already be familiar with Virtual Reality, which replaces the real world with a simulated one. Similarly, AR is a view of a physical environment where elements are augmented by a computer-generated input. Inputs such as, sound, video, graphics or GPS data. The smart glasses analyze the image(s), pull data that corresponds to the frame, and displays it back to the user. For those still confused, picture Robocop or Iron Man. Wearable technology on its own will not provide significant changes to the workplace. Its success is predicated on how well it connects and presents other technologies.
Some may see wearables as a flashy toy, but it does add value to workforces for a number of reasons. It increases the safety of warehouses, offers interactive training at machines, visualization of process steps of repairing machinery, and warnings while entering danger areas in factories. For example, when workers are using smart glasses they get notified of nearby forklifts or other hazardous equipment. Having this awareness would help to avoid collisions.

Wearables and mobile devices are perquisites to leverage other emerging technologies in the workplace. One example is Indoor Positioning Systems where a mobile device, wearable technology or both can be used. Keeping on the topic of safety, if a worker is injured on the job they have the ability to send a distress signal from their smart device. Supervisors can then quickly locate the injured worker. Indoor positioning systems also increase productivity.  Once pick lists are loaded into smart devices, the devices then direct the workers to the area of the warehouse the stock resides. This reduces errors and the time it takes for new workers to get familiar with the warehouse. SAP Systems & Vuzix do a great job of demonstrating this feature with this video.

When workers aren’t tethered to computers, either in the form of a handheld device or a workstation, productivity can be improved. Access to information is improving and will continue to do so. The introduction of handheld devices for scanning items made warehouses more efficient by collecting the data in real time into a Warehouse Management System. Smart glasses hope to continue the trend. As the technology grows, the user has to manually collect data less and less. The electronic data trail follows a person's movements to provide more real-time data and less room for error. TNT Innight, located in Belgium, is one of the first companies to install such a system in their warehouse. After a six-month testing period, they have reported a 30% increase in productivity.

As technology advances, it will create more and more efficiencies in the workplace. Items such as Smart glasses may not be the standard right now. But there was a time when even computers were obscure. Now you’d be hard-pressed to find any business without as much as a laptop. By 2020 is it estimated that 50 billion devices will access to the Internet and your glasses could be one of them. Wearable tech could revolutionize your warehouse. The benefits of the adding wearables to your supply chain will become clearer as the technology advances.