Warehouse and DC State of Voice: Voice hits its stride

As e-commerce demands continue to drive up the need for faster pick speeds, voice technology is infiltrating the warehouse and DC, helping operations gain efficiencies, improve order accuracy, and get products into their customers’ hands faster than ever.

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As the need for order speed and accuracy continue to increase within the four walls of the warehouse or distribution center (DC), voice-directed picking is clearly becoming more and more attractive to a wider range of logistics operations.

Originally introduced in the late-1990s, the process combines voice direction and speech recognition software with hardware—wearables such as headsets and glasses. Using the equipment and software, employees use a series of predefined commands, codes, and other pieces of information to pick, pack, ship, and put away goods in the warehouse and DC.

The technology replaces both traditional, paper-based systems and mobile computer-based solutions—both of which require employees to review instructions, enter information into a computer, or scan barcodes.

By freeing up the employees’ eyes and hands, voice systems can help increase accuracy, efficiency, and safety to a degree that manual- or computer-based systems can’t touch. And as interest in voice has grown, the number of innovations being introduced by vendors of voice-related software and hardware has increased exponentially.

Over the next few pages we’ll look at how far voice has come in the warehouse and DC as e-commerce demands continue to drive up the need for faster pick speeds; explore new innovations that are being introduced by the leading vendors; and then look ahead to see what’s next in realm of voice-directed picking.

Gaining momentum
As Norm Saenz, managing director at supply chain consultancy St. Onge, looks around at the typical warehouse and DC these days, he sees voice-related technology being used across a variety of tasks more than ever before—and in a variety of locations.

“At this point, voice is pretty much always a consideration,” says Saenz. “It wasn’t historically that way in the piece-picking environment compared to the full-case environment, where it’s been a key component for years.” Saenz points to the grocery sector as a particularly big user of voice, but notes that the technology as a whole is “being used in every type of distribution center right now.”

Credit the growth of omni-channel fulfillment with driving at least some of the increasing interest in voice. “Omni-channel distribution has changed the profile of how orders are picked in a facility,” says Saenz. “As the situation becomes a bit more confusing and time consuming, any technology that can help improve efficiencies is always welcome. Voice certainly fits into that category and, as a result, is being looked upon as a way to fulfill orders more efficiently within a facility.”

In assessing the different types of technology equipment and software available on the market right now, Saenz says that the combination of a headset, a terminal, or a hands-free technology tends to be the most popular choice. Over the last few years, he says that the technology behind the voice products has “greatly improved” and has also become more accessible and affordable to a wider range of logistics operations.

“In the past, voice picking was thought of as a way to manage full-case picking environments in a freezer,” Saenz points out. Today, he says that voice has made its way into the piece-pick environment, where managing 20 items stacked on racks in an 8-foot linear space has been made easier and faster due to the use of voice.

The fact that voice technology is now financially within the reach of a broader swath of companies is also driving the sector right now, says Saenz, who adds that the technology is a more affordable alternative to pick-to-light options, “where every single location requires a light.”

Voice, on the other hand, is very “people-driven” Saenz points out. “In the past, the cart-and-flow rack environment used pick-to-light as its number one technology, but it was costly,” Saenz explains. “With voice, every person just needs a device.” Because of this, even the manager that’s trying to eke efficiencies out of warehouse operation on a low budget can use the technology to meet that goal.

“If you don’t have a lot of money to spend, voice technology is a great option now because it’s quick enough to handle a cart-and-flow rack environment with a lot of SKUs and within a smaller footprint,” Saenz adds. “Plus, the technology itself is much less costly than other options. Each employee has one device in a picking aisle and he or she can just go to town picking, packing, and putting away.”

According to Jeffrey Slevin, COO at voice technology provider Lucas Systems, the voice movement is also being driven by interest in more flexible, hands-on processes that allow operations to efficiently address new channels and delivery requirements in ways that conventional supply chain software can’t accommodate.

For example, he says that traditional warehouse management systems (WMS) don’t offer the means to optimize process execution on the warehouse floor, whether that’s through automation driven by warehouse control and automation systems, or through mobile work execution solutions.

“WMS in the past has provided ‘good enough’ execution of radio frequency-driven processes, but good enough is not good enough in today’s environment,” adds Slevin. “Markets are too competitive, margins are too small, and distribution efficiency and effectiveness is becoming a bigger competitive factor. To compete and thrive, companies need ways to transform processes and optimize hands-on work using every available technology.”

Advances in voice
One of the biggest drivers behind the voice movement right now are the vendors themselves—those companies that are continually coming up with newer, faster, and smarter devices, software, and equipment that shippers can use to manage the demanding warehouse environment.

According to Jay Blinderman, director of product marketing for Vocollect Voice Solutions, part of Honeywell Scanning and Mobility, the number of operations that are case picking via pallet and piece-picking to tote are adopting voice at a high rate these days. “In fact, we’ve seen a significant adoption of voice on a global basis,” says Blinderman.

The key drivers of this movement are straightforward, according to Blinderman, who says that the productivity gains, lower incidence of errors, and need for minimal training all come together to make voice attractive for just about any shipper, and “particularly in comparison to just pure radio frequency scanning,” he notes.

“With voice, there’s going to be a significant decrease in the amount of time it takes an operation to train new personnel, which is increasingly important,” says Blinderman, “especially if that DC is operating in a country with high employee turnover rates where they need to be as efficient as possible with training.”

Like Saenz, Blinderman sees omni-channel as one of the key drivers of increased voice usage in the warehouse, where companies like Newegg, an online retailer of computer hardware and software, choose to put Vocollect’s technology to work to meet the demands of their growing e-commerce business.

“Newegg immediately figured out that, by using voice, it would not only reduce its training time from hours to days, but that it could also significantly ramp up its productivity and meet the demands of the new same-day fulfillment challenge,” says Blinderman.

In looking at how far voice has come in the warehouse and DC, and how much farther it can go over the next few years, Blinderman says that while the technology itself is proven, “there’s always room” for additional improvement. “Most people today think voice involves a pretty seamless integration, but if you were to ask someone from IT, he or she would probably ask for a drop-in solution that takes relatively no work whatsoever to install. We’re certainly not there yet, but voice technology is very seamless at this point.”

What will drive growth?
At voice vendor Voxware, president and CEO Keith Phillips says that he’s seeing more logistics managers “get their heads out of the sand” and realize the value of the voice-warehouse intersection over the last few years.

Phillips says that he expects that trend to continue through the rest of 2015 and beyond as logistics operations continue to grapple with omni-channel, innovative distribution models, and increasingly demanding customers.

“Consumer demand is shifting and the distribution channel needs to work to meet those demands,” says Phillips, whose firm conducts annual surveys to better understand customer tolerance regarding on-time deliveries and order accuracy. “They want it when they want it, and it had better be right. If not, they’re not going to shop with you anymore, especially in today’s world, where the next competitor is just a click away.”

Kevin Breutzmann, national account manager at topVOX, says that voice has become a “best practice” for shippers, and that it’s even on the minds of companies that don’t necessarily have the technology in place yet. “Everyone is thinking about it right now,” says Breutzmann. “Adoption of voice hasn’t reached critical mass yet, and is probably only at about 40 percent right now, but that number is expected to grow quite a bit.”

Blinderman agrees, and is also bullish on voice’s potential in the warehouse and DC, noting that he’s seen “wide adoption” across just about every vertical category. “Certainly, we started off with grocery 25 years ago, but today just about everyone you can think of—whether its a manufacturer or a retailer—seems to be adopting voice technology in their distribution centers today,” he says. “We, along with everyone in this market, expects that to continue well into the future.”

About the Author

Bridget McCrea, Editor
Bridget McCrea is a Contributing Editor for Logistics Management based in Clearwater, Fla. She has covered the transportation and supply chain space since 1996 and has covered all aspects of the industry for Logistics Management and Supply Chain Management Review. She can be reached at [email protected], or on Twitter @BridgetMcCrea

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