Voice Recognition Basics

Joe Pajer, COO of Vocollect, and Tom Murray, Vice President of Product Management, recently briefed me on their idea that logistics is entering the “voice-enabled warehouse era.” According to a study they commissioned, voice solutions have only penetrated about 10-15 percent of the warehouses it is well suited for, a percentage that I can’t verify but find very plausible. In light of the low penetration, I realized that providing logistics professionals with some basic information about voice recognition technology might be beneficial.

What is Voice?

Voice Recognition is a form of Automatic Identification (AutoID). Voice can accomplish the same things that a traditional Warehouse Management System (WMS) can using Radio Frequency (RF) scanning. So, for example, a Voice system might tell a worker to go to location “XYZ” in the warehouse. The worker confirms the location by saying “XYZ” instead of scanning a location barcode. The Voice system might then say “Pick “3” and the selector then confirms the pick by saying “Put 3” instead of scanning the product bar codes.

Multi-modal solutions combine different forms of AutoID.  For example, you might use Voice to verify that the correct number of items was picked from the right slot and an RF barcode scan to identify which lots those SKUs came from. In these cases, the warehouse worker would likely wear a gladiator style scanner on their forearm or an RF ring scanner to verify the lot identification number.

Why would you use Voice?

For many warehouse processes, Voice has a very good ROI. In a survey we conducted two and a half years ago, more than 83 percent of the respondents who had implemented Voice reported that their investment met their financial hurdle rate goals. The ROI is almost certainly better today, as the price of the hardware has fallen and the software has improved. This is also reflected by the fact that five years ago when I heard about Voice implementations, it was usually in warehouses where 50 or more order selectors worked per shift. More recently, I have heard of Voice being successfully implemented in warehouses with as few as 10 order selectors per shift.

The primary payback buckets of Voice are improved productivity and accuracy. Both are based on the ability of Voice users to keep their eyes on the task at hand without having to look down at a computer screen or reach for a holstered scanner. Most of the companies we surveyed were grossly underestimating how much mistakes were costing them. There is a much greater ROI associated with accuracy than most companies recognize.    

While the picking accuracy of RF scanning is very high, it is even higher for Voice. When using a RF scanner for each picking, for example, a worker would do a scan to verify they are in the right location and then glance down at the computer screen to check how many items to pick from that slot. When they bring their eyes back up to do the pick, it is possible for them to pick from the adjoining slot. 

Using Voice provides other benefits, as our survey found:

Benefits of Voice Recognition (Source: ARC Advisory Group; click to enlarge)

Which processes use Voice most often?

Voice is best suited for picking. All of the voice-enabled warehouses that I know of are using Voice for picking. Once Voice has been implemented for picking, some companies begin exploring using Voice for put-away, value added services, receiving, cycle counting, and truck building. In general, processes that are highly structured and repeatable are well suited for Voice; processes that cannot be rigidly defined are less well suited. 

Units of measure (e.g., pallets, cases, or each) and the processes associated with them (e.g., receiving, put-away) also come into play. In our survey, we found double-digit productivity gains associated with each picking to a cart, each picking to a tote on a conveyor, or building pallets on a pallet jack or fork lift with mixed SKU cases. We found single-digit productivity gains from non-picking tasks (e.g., receiving, put-away).  Voice did not have a strong value proposition for pallet in, pallet out warehouses. 

When it comes to Voice solutions, there are interesting developments in the core technology, as well as the partner and vendor landscape. These are topics that I’ll discuss in a future posting.

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