From Hours To Minutes: Accelerating Your Picking Process With Image Recognition

Donia Ibrahimi

Image recognition (IR) has the ability to transform business processes. The technology provides you with a powerful tool to identify, process, analyze, and understand, for example, images, objects, people, or labels. And it is easy to apply, since the technique only requires a smartphone or tablet with a good camera. You can imagine the vast array of possibilities and advantages it brings. It’s no wonder a lot of organizations already use the power of image recognition to streamline business processes, optimize operations, or add value to solutions for their customers.

Experimenting with the many uses of image recognition

There are numerous cases that exemplify the success and benefits of image recognition. A noteworthy one is the Cognitive Radiology Assistant from IBM. The solution swiftly analyzes thousands of medical images and combines its insights with medical records. With the help of this digital assistant, doctors can diagnose faster and more accurately. Of a totally different order are the robots retail giant MediaMarkt employs. They are equipped with IR-technology to scan shop inventories and register orders. It saves time and subsequently optimizes the retailers’ shops and warehouses.

Design thinking: Developing an efficient solution that everybody loves

Image recognition is also the star of the innovative solution that the Mobile Innovation Lab team created with Gasunie. The Dutch-based gas infrastructure company transports natural gas and green gas in The Netherlands and Northern Germany. The organization’s Special Assignments division takes care of calamities but also works on projects that call for the team’s specialist knowledge. Every day, the team, operating from Deventer, The Netherlands, gears up with the right equipment and materials to work on special assignments across the country. Picking these items for a job in the field takes a lot of time, and the same goes for returning everything to the warehouse. After a hard day’s work in the field, drillers are weary but still have to spend a long time putting various-sized pipes and elbows back in the correct spots and updating the equipment’s status in the system. It’s a pain in their journey, to put it mildly.

Gasunie sought a way to both simplify and speed the process of picking and returning materials and equipment. At the same time, the company wanted to reduce the amount of paperwork. The Mobile Innovation Lab crew invited Gasunie’s management, planners, and drillers to a Design Thinking session. With Design Thinking, a problem or challenge is discussed and considered from different perspectives, such as technological feasibility, business viability, and human desirability. The Design Thinking team listens and responds to its customer’s exact wants and needs. With Gasunie, the crew walked through every stage of the process, using a persona, to see at what points it could be made more efficient.

The result? An application – based on image recognition – that reduced the picking and returning process from hours to minutes. Talk about transforming your operation by saving precious time!

Simplifying work with image recognition 

Opting for image recognition for this specific solution was an easy choice. Gasunie is a frontrunner in digital innovation and had already tested the technology in another project called “the digital fieldworker,” a program in which fieldworkers are equipped with iPads that disclose the required real-time data (manuals, procedures, worklists) of the specific asset (installation, station, or pipeline) they are visiting. Incorporating that technology in different projects can be convenient when they are linked. Plus, the technique is very user-friendly and only requires a cellphone or tablet with a camera to recognize and process objects in the field or warehouse.

The easy usability of image recognition, however, is in stark contrast with the process of “feeding” the solution with images. This is necessary for the machine-learning algorithm that drives the technology to recognize the objects. Each different object in the Gasunie warehouse took three to 500 photos to feed the algorithm, and the crew shot a total of 3,000 images. It was a lot of work, but it resulted in an application that takes away much of the pains in the process of picking and returning items. Drillers that come back after a day in the field don’t have to go through the hassle of looking up where each item belongs. With a quick scan, a driller knows exactly where each pipe or tube is stored.

The gains? First, saving a lot of time. In the application, a driller can add equipment and materials to a project in a heartbeat. Instead of working with a paper picklist in the warehouse, a driller only needs to scan the object and add it to the list. If he doesn’t need an item, it is easily removed from the list. In a traditional setup, if an item is missing, it takes a lot of communication between the driller and planner. The new solution offers real-time insight into where an item is, even if it’s booked and used on a project in the field. The user can also see when it will be available or if it needs maintenance.

In short: the application lets users manage equipment and materials more efficiently, in real time, and you gain a warehouse with accurate stock levels. A future addition will be an option for the optimal pick route. And, did I mention you can get rid of those paper picklists and all the frustration that comes with them?

Demonstrating a model of great teamwork

Gasunie’s Special Assignments manager Marijn Dresden is thrilled with the prototype. “This solution will motivate our planners and drillers to do their work more efficiently. The fact that it saves time will take away a lot of frustration they experience in the current process.”

The manager praises the collaboration with the team of the SAP Mobile Innovation Lab. “At Gasunie we value innovation. Better yet, we invest in it. Making room for disruptive thinking helps us to stay ahead of the game. Some innovative ideas work, others don’t. In the case of this solution, I can tell you it was a great example of teamwork. By involving everyone concerned in the process we delivered a prototype that Gasunie hopes to bring into use later this year.”

Curious about the case? You can watch the Gasunie delivery video to learn more.

Donia Ibrahimi

About Donia Ibrahimi

Donia Ibrahimi is a young professional at SAP and currently part of the Presales innovation team in The Netherlands. She began her career at the presales academy in California, and is very keen to discuss and talk with customers about topics related to User Experience, Customer Experience and Digital Innovation. Bridging the gap between business and IT is one of her daily challenges. Twitter: @donia_ibrahimi