State of Voice: More than picking

Use of voice picking systems continues to grow to help distribution operations keep up with e-commerce driven “each” picking. Now, besides order picking of items, voice is expanding into other possible use cases, while vendors focus on gleaning workforce optimization insights from all the data being gathered.

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Voice systems have long had a sweet spot—swiftly and accurately picking items into carts or totes, thanks to the hands-free, verbally instructive nature of voice.

This core purpose remains, but the solution landscape is evolving to include applications beyond order picking in distribution centers (DCs), while vendors are offering more management applications that leverage data voice transactions and worker activity.

Voice solutions use headsets to transmit verbal instructions to workers, sometimes including a verification response for enhanced accuracy. The terminals are typically worn on a belt or harness, making worker movements “hands free.” Voice systems integrate with warehouse management systems (WMS), enterprise resource planning (ERP) or warehouse execution software to transmit order requirements so that the voice solution can guide the worker on what to do next.

In recent years, some voice solution vendors have begun using Android devices and other more open hardware as the client terminal. Some vendors are even able to run a voice system from a smart watch. With the device worn or tucked away close to the body, a voice terminal is not as drop prone as a hand-held data collection scanner.

With DCs doing more “each” picking as part of omni-channel fulfillment, the uptake for voice solutions is growing. According to analyst firm VDC, the global voice market stands at sales of approximately $220 million, and will grow at a compound annual growth rate of 5% through 2019.

Voice can be a difficult market to track, says David Krebs, executive vice president for enterprise mobility and connected devices for VDC, because some vendors offer an integrated solution of hardware, software and services, while other just do the voice software and services and leave the hardware choice open. That said, it’s certain that the voice system market is growing, and that higher-level management applications that look at picker activity to gain productivity insights are part of that new direction.

“Over the past year, we’ve seen the development of management applications that focused heavily on the device and application performance,” says Krebs. “We are seeing this philosophy now shift to the mobile worker—and more specifically to workflow analytics.”

Optimize the workforce
With labor costs constituting a large part of DC costs, it’s a natural for voice vendors to begin offering workforce analytics, notes Krebs. “Anything that can be done to optimize worker performance or identify bottlenecks or efforts in how they are performing tasks can translate into significant savings,” he says. “Many of these initiatives are still in their early stage of development and deployment use, but we do see great promise for these solutions.”

Voice vendors may now offer workforce optimization or analysis dashboards that take in data streams on voice transactions—or throughput data from host systems—to provide metrics and insights to managers. Because voice systems collect the location of every pick or action, and workers may do hundreds of picks per hour, the voice data can give detailed insights into the current productivity of the workforce.

Some voice vendors see their optimization solutions as working in conjuntion with labor management systems (LMS) on keeping the labor force on keeping the labor force on track with the LMS standards. If workers begin falling behind, the thinking is that a voice system has the most current data on worker productivity and positioning. However, voice vendors may offer such workforce solutions as distinct from their core voice picking systems.

With more each picking and item handling in logistics today, and more talk or actual action of raising minimum wage regulations, the need to find added labor productivity will increase, according to Chris Castaldi, vice president of sales with DMW&H, an integrator which has deployed voice solutions from multiple vendors. 

“There’s going to be a huge need to make labor as productive as possible,” says Castaldi. “We got comfortable with low-priced labor, and if DCs lose that, they’re going to have find a way to make their people that much more efficient.”

Diverse use cases
While order picking in DCs is the most common use case for voice solutions, they’ve steadily expanded into other warehouse processes over the years.

This might include cycle counting, sometimes mixed in or “inter-leaved” with picking activity; packing/ship labeling processes; put away and replenishment processes; and even maintenance and repair activities. Some vendors have voice solutions geared for specific workflows such as maintenance, where workers can benefit from both verbal instructions and hands free operation.

Outside of DCs, some vendors are testing voice solutions aimed at retail stores to aid in workflows including restocking. As omni-channel fulfill¬ment strategies increasingly see stores as potential “inventory nodes” in getting goods to customers, some believe it’s likely that retailers will begin to use voice solutions in stores to slash labor costs in restock activity.

“Restocking seems like an area with potential for use of voice, for the same productivity reasons you would have in a DC,” says Castaldi. “It makes work hands free, and gives workers simple verbal instructions.”

It’s also possible for lift truck opera¬tors to use voice solutions. Some providers of vehicle mount unit (VMU) terminals offer VMUs that are “voice ready” to support this need, even if lift truck operators might also continue to use hand scans and VMU entry, especially when at an activity location.

The potential payoff for voice in new areas, adds Castaldi, would need to be assessed on a case-by-case basis. “How-ever, if a user organization already has expertise with a voice deployment, and has a working integration between its voice system and its WMS or ERP system, this would lower the cost of extending voice to other workflows that are labor intensive,” he adds.

Krebs notes that while the return for voice-based order picking in DCs has been “very positive,” a challenge for voice solutions has been its ability to scale to justify other workflows that do not involve as much labor activity. But that could be changing, he adds.


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