When you think about future and modern technologies, or digitization in supply chain, what comes to mind? Robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), drones, self-driving trucks, and exoskeletons all carry a “futurey” feel—even if many of them are quickly becoming common. But, instead of these incredible new technologies, it might be a technology with over 30 years of history creating the bridge to the future of warehouse operations.
Voice technology is commonly associated with picking. As hands-free, eyes-free technology it’s equally valuable for put-away, replenishing, cycle counting, inspection, and many other applications. None of this changes moving forward. However, voice is in a unique position unlike any other tool or system within the four walls. This is a byproduct of the rising complexity in supply chain. As challenges push operations harder, businesses are considering new tools and strategies to keep up. In response, we’re seeing businesses reinvent voice applications to go beyond its tried-and-true worker efficiency and productivity benefits. Here, voice acts as a bridge, connecting warehouse systems together for more holistic, integrated solutions creating more operational visibility and new opportunities to work smarter.
The Possibilities of New Voice Applications
Voice & Multi-Modal Work
In most warehouses, pickers have only one way to interact with systems. Maybe it’s voice-directed work or RF scanners. Maybe it’s manual data entry. The future of picking, and worker productivity in general, is multi-modal interfaces with systems. To clarify, by multi-modal we are talking about workers using at least two technologies to communicate back and forth with the WMS and other systems.
Supply chain managers want to know which combination of technologies offers the best performance and the best ergonomics for the worker. A risk here is increasing complexity for the worker. Too many input devices, or the wrong combination, can be counterproductive. Imagine a picker tapping a tablet while holding an RF and a box. It’s cumbersome.
Voice is positioned as a keystone of the multi-modal worker. As a hands-free, eyes-free solution, workers can leverage voice seamlessly with other tools. The best part is that voice integrates with these other systems. So instead of two disparate tools, voice brings them together as one solution.
For example, vision and voice are a handy pair. As a heads-up display (HUD) workers wear on the warehouse floor, a vision system directs workers to products; provides diagrams and drawings of products, and other visual aids for jobs. Voice technology in this application allows the picker to confirm tasks with vocal commands. Then, the vision system displays the next instructions on the HUD. Voice will also supplement information to ensure workers arrive at the proper destination. With a voice-vision setup, the worker completes tasks without taking his eyes away from the work to click on screens or log data.
This setup also applies to augmented reality, where visual overlays guide workers through tasks while voice allows workers to update tasks and relay information to other systems. In the end, multi-modal work is about giving workers the right tools for the job. Voice opens opportunities to add multiple systems to a worker without encumbering him.
Voice & Big Data
Big data, business intelligence, and data analytics are three major resources influencing the future of warehouse management. Many companies have a warehouse management system capable of gathering granular data. Managers look to shop floor data to find out how many orders were shipped in a day, for instance. However, the WMS has a blind spot. It won’t account for how employees got to the products. This is a critical component contributing to pick time and overall efficiency.
Deeper insight leads to better decisions. Voice picking solutions help managers drill down on warehouse operations, including the details of every pick; how long it takes workers to complete a task, and where employees go throughout the day. Achieving more granular data on the movements of people and products fills a knowledge gap. Combining this information with the data generated by the WMS combine for a more holistic view of operations.
Voice & Robotics
Are robotics and automation taking jobs away from workers? Generally, no. The gap left by the shrinking labor pool in most markets created a need for technology such as autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) to step in. Instead of a contentious relationship, businesses look for ways to bring their workers and robotics together.
Voice-picking technology shows that there’s more than enough room in the warehouse for associates and supply chain robotics. Let’s compare a goods-to-person robotics application with and without voice as an example:
AMRs will bring a rack to the pick face, reducing travelling for workers. This makes picking faster and streamlined, while conserving worker energy—which brings greater quality of life for workers and potential employee retention benefits to boot. Typically in these applications there’s a large monitor attached to the robot showing the associate what to pick from the rack and where to put items. This process works fine. However, adding voice to the mixture allows workers to keep their eyes on the picking process rather than referring back to a screen. By being fed the pick instructions over the headset, associates squeeze more efficiency out of their tasks.
Co-bots is another example of a robotics-voice application. Here, a robot is assigned to a worker to perform tasks such as transporting picked items. The robot will often be away from the picker to transport items. Controlling the bot through the headset allows the worker to keep his eyes on tasks while using his robot as a rolling assistant throughout the warehouse.
Voice Technology Puts People First
We’ve covered how voice integrates with and benefits modern technologies. But, how does modern technology benefit voice? Voice systems are already known for reducing training time. By embedding AI into voice systems, the time to pair devices to workers is virtually eliminated. These “pick-up-and-go” solutions work without voice training exercises. This greatly reduces training time in general – improving the productivity and value of headcount.
From an employee satisfaction and retention standpoint, voice picking solutions help give employees a comfortable, safe, and ergonomic way to do their work. When you can lift a box safely with all of your fingers instead of trying to lift a box and balance a hand scanner all at once, you reduce risk of injuries.
A multi-lingual voice system provides worker benefits—it removes a language barrier and helps workers do their job however they feel most comfortable. Also, voice systems delivered through the Android operating system give workers valuable familiarity with their devices.
Gamification is another interesting avenue. When voice enables friendly competition, it gives workers a little extra incentive and even enjoyment out of their job. As workers become harder to find and replace, it’s important to add these perks to make your operations stand out from the other warehouses.
Our world is changing quickly. Customer expectations shift by the day. eCommerce has already disrupted how we think about supply chain. And the instability created by COVID-19 shrinks and swells demand, bringing with it uncertainty, complexity, and a lot of questions about the future.
Voice has been around for a long time, but that doesn’t mean it’s the same solution it was in the 1980s. We’ve seen it grow into a solution that increases productivity up to 30 percent and reduce mis-picks by as much as 50 percent. As voice applications grow into this new role as a bridge between multiple warehouse systems, the value of voice will continue to grow.
At Körber, Anton du Preez oversees sales and marketing efforts to help customers reduce their supply chain complexity through voice, vision, and mobility solutions. He also builds strategic partnerships within these spaces to push what’s possible and create a more dynamic, integrated future for supply chain logistics. Anton brings over 10 years of leadership in sales and business development to Körber from Voiteq, a voice-based business which is now a part of Körber.