Report: Managing the Supply Chain With AR

By | May 8, 2021

In manufacturing, the supply chain manager is responsible for the flow of goods and services, including all processes that transform raw materials into final products. An important aspect of this is inventory management.

In the most underdeveloped (but surprisingly still common) scenario, inventory managers are tasked with counting and logging each piece of inventory, comparing these with the required amounts, and determining which ones.

Items need to be refilled, and when. Although on the surface, this appears to be a relatively simple task, a deeper examination suggests that inventory management places a heavy weight on the cognitive system in the brain, and thus there is a risk of error.

Consider the inventory manager standing in front of the first collection of items. From the point of view of cognitive neuroscience, one must first count each item. This involves fixing on the first item and increasing a counter in working memory from 0 to 1.

Then an eye movement and attention switch must be initiated from the first item to the second item and the counter has to be increased by 2. Another eye movement switches attention to the third item, and the process is repeated.

Critically, the inventory manager must follow some systematic approach to the eye movements and counting process to ensure that they do not miss any item or count twice. The process of counting and systematic shifts of eye fixation places a heavy burden on working memory and attentive processes.

Next, the inventory manager has to rehearse the final count in working memory, drawing attention from the real inventory to the inventory log. On the log, they need to find the appropriate location, then write the number they are mentally repeating.

This number should be compared with some threshold number and a decision must be made as to whether to order more of that inventory item, and that decision must be logged in return. The inventory manager proceeds to the next inventory item, again to ensure the count of all inventories in some systematic fashion, and repeats all the process again.

Cognitive neuroscience research is clear that each of these repetitive phases requires a large amount of cognitive capacity (in the form of working memory) as well as cognitive energy (in the form of executive attention).

Anytime a working memory load and executive attentive demands are taxed, an error and misscount, double count, or counting altogether are more likely to be forgotten and initiated. Because this process is error-free, it is impossible to know if the inventory counts are correct and where errors may occur.

To optimize and increase the efficiency of inventory management, cognitive load on working memory and attention has to be reduced. Augmented reality (AR) tools present significant promise for efficient inventory management because they reduce cognitive load, and utilize the manager’s visual field and visualization processes in the brain.

Consider similar tasks, but where the inventory manager is wearing AR glasses. They enter the inventory room and blindly scan it. Using visual assets such as text or colored arrows, the AR display directs them to the first set of objects. They fix each item and either count the item manually, or the AR system automatically counts the item.

This value is then input into an electronic system, either through eye fixation for locations on AR glasses, or via verbal commands.

When inventory is low, a warning is presented and individual tags that inventory for immediate replenishment, again through eye fixation or oral orders. Throughout this process, the manager is looking at inventory with minimal load on working memory and some focus switches.

The glasses then direct the person to the next item and the process is repeated. The path taken through the inventory is adapted to require minimal steps to complete. Remember that switching is almost non-existent because counting and tabular tools are always on the AR screen.

Cognitive load is minimized as the system is doing most of the calculations and tabulation. The number of physical steps taken by the employee is minimal and optimized by the system. In short, it works the way our brains work, creating an optimal environment for inventory management while reducing the likelihood of error.

If your organization is considering AR inventory tools, they fall into many forms and budget categories. Although hand held AR devices are more budget-friendly than hands-free devices, when it comes to inventory management, the advantages of a hands-free, wearable device should not be underestimated, because of the eye The ability to reduce movements and focus switches is much better with a wearable device.

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