Industry changes tone of voice

By accurately capturing real-time data from a growing range of supply chain functions, voice technology can now play a role in decisions at the item and enterprise level.

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Not long ago, voice technology suppliers and early adopters heralded the end of bar code scanning alternatives. Why use your hands to scan when you could speak the numbers? After operators uttered their first few 18-digit codes into the system, that fantasy rapidly faded. Scanning returned, wearable screens jumped into the mix and multi-modal voice-based solutions started to take hold.

In recent years, as the strengths of each mode and their interactions have been refined, voice platforms have proven adept at improving efficiency and accuracy for certain task profiles. Now that list is growing, presenting new challenges and opportunities for the technology.

“One of the interesting things I see is how customers merge voice with other technology to add incremental benefits,” says Jay Armant, vice president of product management for Vocollect by Honeywell, “People are realizing the move to automation is expensive, the ROI might not be terribly fast, and the solutions might not be terribly flexible. Companies are taking a crawl, walk, run approach before going to a fully automated warehouse, and voice emerges as an intermediate step in that direction.”

But in many cases, customers might be better off pursuing the disruption voice offers to re-engineer processes, since simply “voice-ifying” an existing process yields limited results. A scan-based picker moving at 80 lines per hour will still tend to produce 80 lines per hour using voice in the same process flow. It’s a different story if that person can fill multiple batched orders instead of discrete ones, or be directed from one task to another to ensure consistent workloads and product flow, or use voice commands to control semi-automated equipment.

Voice in concert with other instruments
Before branching out to voice-enabled robotic vehicles, most customers work to combine voice with the right technologies for their basic processes. This might be as simple as voice-directed picking with a scanner, or as elaborate as wearable screens and scanners that communicate with lift truck-mounted terminals. “It’s no longer just about voice,” says Jennifer Lachenman, vice president of product strategy and business alliances at Lucas Systems, which delivered its first multi-modal voice-plus-scanning solution more than 10 years ago. “When we talk about multi-modal, we’re creating workflows that allow the worker to leverage the most appropriate technologies at various points in the work.”

Using voice to free up a worker’s hands and eyes improves ergonomics and the clarity of instruction can improve productivity. But as voice software becomes more intimately connected to warehouse management systems (WMS) or warehouse control systems (WCS), multi-modal solutions provide even more benefits for pickers and managers.

“On the software side, very exciting things are going on,” says Mark Wheeler, director of industry solutions for Motorola Solutions, North America. Wheeler describes one customer who leverages the wrist-mounted screen to show item-ahead information so the associate can glance at his arm to see what the next pick looks like and whether it is on the right or left. “They can stop the pallet jack in just the right location to grab two picks. Plus, the combined visual and voice cues can help them build a better pallet.”

If a facility’s orders tend to be smaller than pallet size, they might pair voice with carts and smart software to pick in batches. Many voice customers find they can dramatically cut labor costs by using zone or batch picking approaches where each picker works 10 to 20 orders at a time. “This is a relatively minor change in an application,” says Marceline Absil, vice president of sales and marketing for topVOX. “To the voice-enabled operator, it’s just as easy to pick one order as it is to pick 20. In addition, in a pick-and-put operation you have immediate confirmation that you picked the right quantity of products, potentially eliminating an additional quality-control step.”

Voice around the warehouse
Within the warehouse, the spread of voice technology beyond the picking area has been slow to catch on. Those who targeted picking for the best ROI might feel the project is complete or are unsure how less repetitive and non-engineered processes might fit under the umbrella of their voice infrastructure.
Lucas’ Lachenman says many customers are opting to deploy voice in as many areas as possible at the outset. Before 2005, she says, less than a third of customers were using voice anywhere other than picking. “Now close to 50% are doing more than picking right out of the gate,” she says. “We even had two recent customers start with replenishment and putaway because that was their pain point.”

According to Motorola’s Wheeler, changes in the industry are also strengthening the case for voice. As receiving operations grow to expect new GS1-compliant bar codes, they will enjoy more certainty on the inbound side, he says. This means voice could produce a good return in these areas with as few as four or five users. “The process becomes much more efficient and accurate than in the past when companies had to struggle to identify what was coming in the door,” Wheeler says. “According to a Motorola survey, the number of bar coded inbound items is expected to increase from 66% to 83% in coming years, and that’s happening across multiple industries.”

TopVOX’s Absil says maintenance is another growing application for voice, since many processes are still largely paper-based. “Voice compared to paper is almost always a win for voice,” she says.

The conversation between DC and storefront
By digitizing previously paper-based information, voice solutions can help build connections between departments, facilities, and even between DCs and retail storefronts. Keith Phillips, CEO of Voxware, says voice recognition, business analytics and cloud-based software can connect a voice-enabled retail associate to the same WMS a picker is using inside the DC. Traditionally, the world of the retail store has been entirely divorced from life inside the four walls, but that is changing.

“Society is creating the most complicated demands on fulfillment and distribution in history, and it’s not going to simplify any time soon,” Phillips says. “Increasing a picker’s productivity and accuracy are great, but what does that do for the consumer? The focus is moving beyond the four walls to wider supply chain activities. In that sense, voice can improve the effectiveness of the picker, manager, facility, storefront and customer experience.”

If a customer sees an item is unavailable on the store shelf, he is unlikely to report that fact. But an in-store, voice-enabled picker will immediately send an order upstream. By connecting fulfillment to in-store service, Phillips says, storefronts could even track orders en route to a customer in real time.

Multi-channel fulfillment is changing the ways consumers order and receive goods, says Vocollect’s Armant. This can turn a retail store or grocery store into a mini-warehouse. “In both the store and the warehouse we also see voice used not just for picking, but for workforce management,” he says. Voice can direct workers to activities like “pick up a pallet,” “clean the meat slicer,” or “set up an end cap or in-aisle display.”

Voice as a virtual coworker
By its nature, voice is also a better conversationalist than paper. Some companies are using this fact to keep workers more productive and engaged. “Between the aging workforce and the new Millennials who are used to gaming and smart phone technology, the expectations are higher,” says Lachenman. “One customer wanted to do something fun with the voice system’s dialog, so if a worker reaches a certain level of productivity, the voice will say ‘woo-hoo!’ They’re trying to make the job a better experience for the worker.”

A hearing impaired employee—or one in a noisy environment—can issue voice commands like “louder” or “softer.” A worker in need of a challenge can say “faster.” A picker unsure of the target item can say “show me” and view it on a screen.

Multilingual employees can set up the system for Spanish inputs and English outputs, for instance. “You can also make an operator’s performance visible to the operator and fellow associates,” says Absil. “This can drive friendly competition that further improves productivity.”

By accepting natural commands and keeping workers focused on the most critical task at any given time, voice can become a virtual coworker. It can also turn equipment into one. Some automatic guided vehicles (AGVs), or robotic versions of lift trucks and pallet jacks, are capable of pairing with voice systems.

The pieces are there for effective AGV/picking solutions, but Armant says the trick is tying all the components together efficiently. “It ties into the Big Data concept and the push toward real-time capabilities,” he says. “How do you take all the data in the WMS, LMS, voice and asset database to work toward predictive analytics? Don’t just report on a past event, but identify trends and how to improve things preemptively. Voice can play a role in that.”

Companies mentioned in this article
Lucas Systems:
Motorola Solutions:
Vocollect by Honeywell:

About the Author

Josh Bond, Senior Editor
Josh Bond is Senior Editor for Modern, and was formerly Modern’s lift truck columnist and associate editor. He has a degree in Journalism from Keene State College and has studied business management at Franklin Pierce University.

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