New Technology Introduction from the Bottom Up

Sept. 1, 2006
Focusing on the financial benefits, managers usually welcome the introduction of new technology. Down on the shop floor, however, new technology can be viewed as job threatening, something new to get used to, or change for the sake of change.

The good news for material handling managers is that such shop-floor attitudes are changing as younger workers willingly embrace new technologies. Reason for this more accepting attitude is that technology has invaded our personal lives, thus making it easier to introduce new equipment and processes in the workplace. Getting employees involved with the selectionof new technology is the best way to get user buy-in faster.

When introducing new technology, says Matt Ranly, senior products manager for Crown Equipment (New Bremen, Ohio,, it's best not to rush things. He likens it to the new product development process itself.

"You have to resist [fast introduction] and determine what will be of real value." This was the approach behind the introduction of Crown's TSP 6000 vehicle, recently recognized for it's innovative design by the Industrial Designers Society of America. In developing the new model, Crown ran a standard battery of questions past customers at 65 locations. The survey asked, in so many ways: What does the customer want?

Seat design was of particular interest to many users. Some operators preferred to work facing forward, others sat facing to the side. Designers quickly learned that changing individual attitudes in a distribution center is not easy. Compromise sometimes works best. The seat on the new truck actually swivels to four different positions.

"An individual's seat position changes based on preferences and situations," says Ranly. "So we've used technology to design a seat that can be used facing either direction."

Safety is another important area for Crown's customers. Productivity has to be balanced by safety features, such as sensors that control and brake the vehicle .

"You can put all the sensors in the world on a lift truck, but nothing can replace an alert and attentive operator," cautions Ranly.

The reason these issues are so important, especially with lift trucks, is because operator confidence is a big factor in the introduction of new technology. "When people are comfortable with the operation of a truck, and trust the truck, they are more productive workers," he adds.

Speaking of productivity
Voice-activated order selection is replacing paper-based picking. It is also beginning to replace wireless terminals with its hands-free, heads-up aptechnologyproach to order selection. Employees are no longer walking—or driving— while looking at a piece of paper or a terminal.

But does this technology—a robot voice constantly giving orders in his or her ear—dehumanize the employee? Not so, says Jef Morrow, v.p. of marketing at Voxware, (Lawrenceville, N.J., "Our systems work with natural voice prompts, not synthesized voices," he says. "The language is based on the user's language, even the dialect of the person doing the job."

Voice-directed picking has come a long way in a short time. It has proven itself in the warehouse and is considered reliable in virtually all environments. Even though it's not new, younger workers think of it as cool technology. Morrow says a customer told him that employees were asking to be moved to the departments using voice because they liked the technology.

"The productivity gains through voice are what sells the product," says Morrow. "The person logs on, via voice. The system recognizes him and what language he wants to work in. And he begins the task at hand."

Rather than alienating, voice-driven technology has improved the lot of many warehouse workers. The technology puts them in the middle of decisionmaking. As part of a realtime process, they can offer ways to improve workflow.

New toys for girls and boys
Agility, portability and mobility are the magic words today in the hand-held data collection-device world.

"For people who have used handhelds in the past, they can't wait for the newer toys to hit the market," says Alistair Hamilton, v.p. innovation and design, Symbol Technologies (Holtsville, N.Y., "There is still some concern with new users about breaking an expensive device, so we factor in as much ruggedness as possible [into the design]."

The human aspects of technology is the starting point for any new product design. "We look at the various ways equipment design can enhance efficiency," he says. "Most of the time customers come to us with issues they're trying to solve."

When working on a new generation of data capture devices, they begin with whatever the state-of-the-art might be, and do an in-depth ergonomic analysis of the equipment.

Chandra Nair, a human factors engineer in the industrial design department at Symbol, says, "We look at ways to reduce user fatigue which can lead to picking accuracy problems."

One thing the company has learned is that the form set of the battery no longer has to be as large as was first thought. "We used to think we needed the large batteries to guarantee capacity," Nair says. "But as battery efficiency has improved we've discovered we can make the units more ergonomic because the issue was really efficiency, not capacity." Features to improve battery efficiency include motion sensors in the unit that shut off the display when the unit is turned in such a manner that the operator cannot see the screen. For example, when workers can carry a unit by their side, or lay a unit face down on a table, it saves battery power.

According to Nair, wearable data collection devices are making a comeback, because they are less clumsy to wear. "The form factor is smaller and software has improved. Interesting, and [this] may be a reflection of how technology impacts our daily lives, user expectation of how the device will function has increased as the device's size decreased."

He adds that usability seems to be overtaking the technology in the user's mind. "As the wearable devices have gotten more comfortable, users think the technology is more responsive," says Nair.

Another lesson Symbol has learned when introducing new technology is to keep it simple as well as comfortable. In the future watch for more color-coding of keys and shape-coding similar to many consumer electronic goods, which should lead to even faster user acceptance.

The fear factor
How does a company get past the perception of employees that new technology eventually equals reduced head count? "My experience has been," says Bob Eckles, industry marketing director for Intermec Technologies (Everett, Wash., "that the 'sell' of new technology comes from the bottom up. And the 'buy' comes from the top down."

The way to approach the users of new devices is to get them involved from the beginning, or as close to the beginning of the decision-making process as possible. When approached with a new tool to do a job they already know, users want the right tool. When the employee has the opportunity to help design the new process and any change, they are quicker to adopt those changes, and enhanced productivity is the result.

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