Other Voices: Voice-directed warehousing is showing its age—in a good way

As voice technology matures, it's taking on new roles in warehousing, distribution and order fulfillment

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Editor’s Note: The following column by Ian Hobkirk, managing director, Commonwealth Supply Chain Advisors, is part of Modern’s Other Voices column. The series features ideas, opinions and insights from end users, analysts, systems integraters and OEMs. Click on the link  to learn about submitting a column for consideration.

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I was recently asked to speak at the Material Handling Industry’s spring conference in Charlotte. The audience was a group of supply chain software executives that wanted to better understand the reasons why companies hold back on replacing or upgrading their WMS systems. To prepare for the speech, I interviewed about thirty of our customers who have either undertaken or are considering WMS projects right now.

Our research brought to light an interesting aspect of a trend that has been developing for the last several years: the rise of voice directed warehousing as an alternative to WMS enhancement. The eye-opening finding is that the headline with voice is no longer about hands-free operation, although that certainly continues to be a major benefit to adopting such systems.

To back up a moment – let’s look at what our research uncovered regarding the reasons why companies hold back on WMS enhancements. Companies repeatedly stated that they were searching for improved functionality in their warehousing operations companies with primitive, legacy software are looking for basic functionality like the ability to automatically confirm pick transactions to improve accuracy.

Companies with more advanced WMS systems are looking for the ability to perform more complex picking processes like batch and zone picking. Despite the need for these features, many companies refuse to upgrade or enhance their WMs systems due to fears about risky or “bad” implementations. Commonwealth has written in the past about the potential for problematic go-lives that seem to accompany WMS projects.

Many companies are choosing voice not so much for its hands-free, ergonomic benefits, as for the ability to achieve key functionality items without the risk of a full-blown WMS roll-out. These companies are not evolving along a paper-to-bar-code-to-voice path, but are going straight from paper to voice. These projects tend to be more palatable to the IT group, as they are more about overlaying than ripping-and-replacing.

As a cautionary note, however, it is worth pointing out that many of Commonwealth’s customers who have deployed voice have reported some bumps in the road both during and immediately after the go-live (although these generally have not risen to the level of severity that can be experienced with a broader WMS deployment). Additionally, some of the voice providers seem to be spread very thin at the moment with multiple implementations straining their resources.

Stay tuned as we continue this research, and look at some of the keys to successfully deploying a voice system in the warehouse.

About the Author

Bob Trebilcock
Bob Trebilcock, editorial director, has covered materials handling, technology, logistics and supply chain topics for nearly 30 years. In addition to Supply Chain Management Review, he is also Executive Editor of Modern Materials Handling. A graduate of Bowling Green State University, Trebilcock lives in Keene, NH. He can be reached at 603-357-0484.

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