Voice – The Interface Between Supply Chain Tech and Humans

voiceIt’s the era of the new consumer.

We must adapt supply chains rapidly to meet customer expectations. Trends like reverse logistics, same-day-delivery and mobility result in new business models, stressed logistics systems and deconsolidating networks. We’re also in the midst of a shrinking talent pool. Competing with rising wages and attractive employment alternatives for this generation is pivotal in landing the top talent.

How do we handle this? By evolving our operations with the tools and technologies of the automated and connected supply chain of the future. This means meeting the demands of the next-generation consumer and the tech-savvy worker with robotics, augmented reality, and beyond. A bridge to all of this is voice.

Voice is a foundational element of the supply chain of tomorrow. It’s the bridge between technology and people, enabling human interaction with computers, devices, and automation systems necessary to optimize the flow of goods.

Let’s look at when to consider implementing voice to propel supply chain operations forward.

Where to Make Your Voice Heard: Automating Warehouse Operations

Staying competitive requires distributing more goods in less time. This means shrinking delivery windows to a matter of hours and reducing production costs – all with a smaller workforce. Achieving this results in lower prices for customers, increased company profits and higher employee wages. Voice makes this possible. This is in large part because it plays a role in the next-generation supply chain technologies that refine and standardize processes.

Voice is part automation, part human interaction. This combo enables us to properly stitch the technologies of tomorrow into the right warehousing processes of today. Taking a strategic look at our operations assures we know the right automation, at the right time, for the right job with voice. Consider the following:

  • Simplifying job functions: Being “hands free” streamlines movements. As opposed to using pen and paper, looking back and forth from a device screen, or typing on a keyboard, workers can concentrate on the task at hand. Not only does this save time, it drastically reduces errors and product damage from dropping goods or improper stacking. This can span all workflows, inbound and outbound.
  • Handling peak periods: Voice equipped, temporary workers brought on during peak periods hit goal times rapidly as the learning curve is low. This is because voice is the most natural form of communication. It is conversational, empowering workers with simple, step-by-step instructions via headset that follows their pace. As a result, temporary staff learn processes and how to use tools quickly.
  • Accommodating to a multilingual workforce: Most high-performance Text to Speech (TTS) and Voice Recognition (VR) systems support several dozen languages. This is particularly helpful when expanding into new geographies and cultures, seamlessly implementing operations from one facility to the next. Furthermore, systems can be “speaker dependent”, meaning the system can be trained to accommodate the unique verbal attributes of each worker, assuring the technology truly benefits the work of each staff member.
  • Consolidating trainings: Voice technology shortens training time from weeks to hours. Audio/visual training tools empower employees to instruct themselves at their own pace. This also frees up supervisors’ time. Supervisors can monitor multiple sessions remotely, while assuring all staff receives consistent instructions.
  • Driving augmented reality: Voice is and will continue to be the primary means of direction and response with AR systems. Workflows are guided by voice and enhanced with visual support for location, product description and specific instructions. For example, a vision system may support voice-directed workflows by providing a visual target over the slot until the correct number of items is picked, or it may provide customer specific requirements by displaying specific picking or packing instructions without having to look away from the task. Those already embracing voice technology will have a simpler time embracing this next-generation offering.
  • Increasing safety: The hands free, eyes free nature of voice ups safety on various levels. It helps meet the requirements of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Workers unencumbered by the need to hold a computer or other tools can focus on proper lifting techniques saving back, arm and hand injuries. Additionally, voice enables workers driving trucks/forklifts to focus on that, as opposed to looking at or handling screens or devices.
  • Enhancing goods to person: We typically associate voice with person-to-goods delivery. However, the benefits for goods-to-person are immense. For example, robotics, such as automated vehicles, can be directed to follow the pace of a voice directed worker delivering new containers and retrieving full containers in a synchronized fashion. This reduces or eliminates travel time.

Planning for Today and Tomorrow with Voice

There is no need to wait for the supply chain of the future to reap the benefits of voice today. Voice itself as a form of automation drives significant returns on investment (ROI). For many companies, the ROI appears within 9-12 months. In some cases, it is less than three.

What is needed now is the flexibility to usher in new capabilities to align with future goals. This could be expanding voice from picking to replenishment, cycle counting and put away. It could also be as part of the technologies of tomorrow. Key to this is choosing partnerships wisely.

The most significant gains are achieved when end-to-end voice solutions are designed and implemented properly. This requires the right supply chain management solution and implementation partners. Specifically, look for a solution provider with a highly adaptable, automation-aware warehouse management system (WMS). The WMS of tomorrow must seamlessly integrate and manage automation technologies. Be it via voice-directed workflows, tilt tray orders, conveyors, robots, automated storage and retrieval systems (ASRS) or beyond, a WMS must have the adaptability, and a product roadmap, to make ongoing process improvements.

A partner with the experience to properly build out your infrastructure is equally important. Put trust in a partner that isn’t just thinking about today’s needs, but proactively assessing how to enhance operations tomorrow. Choose a company with a proven record of successfully building voice directly into supply chain workflows. This assures the infrastructure is easy to maintain and manage, and helps achieve with current and future goals.

Also, remember humans have a pivotal role in the supply chain of tomorrow. Not every piece, of every process for each company should be automated. The right implementation partner will closely analyze which actions are best handled with voice and related automation technologies. This includes actions that are highly common and repetitive. There will always be a workforce in the warehouse. Voice tools and automation should empower them to enhance their individual performance and simplify the tasks around them.

Talking it Through: Why Now?

We can only expect consumer expectations for faster, accurate delivery of products to heighten. Tapping into the automated supply chain of the future provides a competitive edge by enhancing workflows and creating attractive employment options for the top talent. With voice as an enabler and a bridge, companies can reap the full benefits of the solutions of tomorrow – higher throughput, satisfied customers, lower cost per order, reduced returns, improved employee satisfaction and more.

Gary Oldham is the Vice President of Sales for HighJump Voice. Gary has been in sales leadership positions in the field of Voice-Directed work since 2003 and in various related technology fields since 1989.