Todd Maddox gives a neuroscience perspective on how Augmented Reality can help optimize industrial processes.
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. One critical aspect of this is inventory management. In the most rudimentary (but surprisingly still common) scenario, inventory managers are tasked with counting and logging each piece of inventory, comparing these with the amounts needed, and determining what items need to be replenished, and when. Although on the surface, this appears to be a relatively straightforward task, a deeper examination suggests that inventory management places a heavy load on the cognitive system in the brain, and thus is prone to error.
Consider the inventory manager standing in front of the first collection of items. From a cognitive neuroscience perspective, one first has to count each item. This involves fixating on the first item and incrementing 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 must be incremented to 2. Another eye movement and attention switch to the third item ensues, and the process is repeated.Any time working memory load and executive attentional demands are taxed, one is more likely to make an error Click To Tweet
Critically, the inventory manager must follow some systematic approach to the eye movements and counting process to ensure that they do not miss any items or count items twice. The process of counting and systematic shifts of eye fixation places a heavy burden on working memory and attentional processes. Next, the inventory manager must rehearse the final count in working memory while shifting attention from the actual inventory to the inventory log. On the log, they must find the appropriate location, then write the number down that they have been mentally repeating. This number must then be compared with some threshold number and a decision must be made whether to order more of that inventory item or not, and that decision must, in turn, be logged. The inventory manager moves on to the next inventory item, again in some systematic fashion to ensure counting all of the inventory, and repeats the process all over again.
The cognitive neuroscience research is clear that each of these repetitive steps requires an enormous amount of cognitive capacity (in the form of working memory) as well as cognitive energy (in the form of executive attention). Any time working memory load and executive attentional demands are taxed, one is more likely to make an error and miscount, double count, or forget the count completely and have to start over. Because this process is error-prone, it is impossible to know if the inventory counts are correct and where errors might be.When it comes to inventory management, the advantages of a hands-free, wearable device should not be underestimated Click To Tweet
To optimize and increase the efficiency of inventory management, the cognitive load on working memory and attention must be reduced. Augmented reality (AR) tools offer significant promise for efficient inventory management because they reduce the cognitive load, and utilize the manager’s visual field and visualization processes in the brain.
Consider the same task, but where the inventory manager is wearing AR glasses. They enter the inventory room and visually scan it. Using visual assets such as text or colored arrows, the AR display directs them to the first set of items. They fixate each item and either manually count the items, or the AR system automatically counts the items. This value is then input into an electronic system either through eye fixations to locations on the AR glasses or through verbal commands.Budgetary constraints can determine the sophistication of the AR algorithms to be used Click To Tweet
When the inventory is low, a warning is presented and the individual tags that inventory for immediate replenishment, again through eye fixations or verbal commands. Throughout this whole process, the manager is looking toward the inventory with minimal load on working memory and few attention switches. The glasses then direct the individual to the next item and the process is repeated. The path taken through the inventory is optimized to require the minimum number of steps to complete. Attention switching is almost nonexistent because the counting and tabulating tool are always on the AR screen. The cognitive load is minimized because the system is doing most of the calculating and tabulating. The number of physical steps taken by the employee is minimized and optimized by the system. In a nutshell, it works the way our brains work, creating an optimal environment for inventory management with a reduced likelihood of error.
If your organization is considering an AR inventory tool, they come in many forms and budget ranges. 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, as the ability to reduce eye movements and attention switches is far superior with a wearable device.If you are considering do-it-yourself AR authoring tools, be mindful of the risk of cognitive overload Click To Tweet
Beyond that, budgetary constraints can determine the sophistication of the AR algorithms to be used. For example, whether counts are manual or automated, and whether the path through the inventory space is determined by the inventory manager or is optimized by the AR system. Consideration must also be taken to the human factors of the system. Augmented information can reduce the cognitive load, but can also overload the user with unnecessary information.
Look for vendors who address these issues specifically and can present data to support the effectiveness of their offering. If you are considering do-it-yourself AR authoring tools, be mindful of the risk of cognitive overload. Good experimental testing and modification to optimize your tool are in order. Your goal is to provide users with “what” they want, “where” they need it, and “when” they need it.
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Todd Maddox is Science, Sports and Training Correspondent at Tech Trends, and the CEO of Cognitive Design and Statistical Consulting. Follow him on Twitter @wtoddmaddox