Voice technology has designs on manufacturing sector

Voice-directed stock picking has transformed warehouse operations. Businesses using the hands-free, wearable technology achieve employee efficiency increases of at least 25 per cent and order accuracy levels reaching 99.9 per cent.

Traditionally, picking operations in distribution centres have been the primary areas where voice has been used, but applications are expanding rapidly into other processes. In inbound goods departments, staff with voice headsets can be seen putting away inventory, carrying out cross-docking manoeuvres and driving forklift trucks.

Voice systems are used in outbound logistics for picking, to help split orders and consolidate them into one shipment, as well as assisting in loading trucks, administration and stock counts.

Voice is increasingly seen in automatic guided vehicle (AGV) implementations where the fork-lift truck automatically follows the stock picker or replenishment worker around the warehouse and returns itself to a drop-off point where the completed pallet can be ‘wrapped’, ready for loading onto carrier transport.

Workers receive instructions via headsets connected to belt-mounted computers. The two-way communication wirelessly connects the worker in real-time to the central warehouse management system, ensuring up-to-the-minute stock-level updates without the need for paper lists or repeated trips to a supervisor and relieving the worker of handheld devices that use a scanner, screen or keyboard.

Researchers have developed microphones that are capable of filtering out background sounds, which makes them better at understanding what workers are saying and results in improved voice-recognition rates.

For best results, systems work to a predetermined vocabulary and are trained to understand the voice and vocabulary of each worker. Sometimes, where double checking and accuracy is paramount — as is the case in engineering or pharmaceuticals — customers combine voice with scanning to push accuracy to the highest possible level.

The availability of many different languages on voice systems means it is possible to have the majority of workers using systems that speak their first language, an important consideration at a time of increasing workforce mobility.

However, the biggest advantage of voice as a means of interacting with devices is its simplicity. Working with a keypad and screen, a user is distracted by needing to read prompts and manually keying in data.

Juggling with these data-entry devices gets in the way of work. The classic scanner, keyboard and display set-up may be familiar, but in warehouses, factories, stores and other workplaces it adds complexity. When using such classic configurations, operators often have to lay down or holster their handheld devices, interrupting their work flow. Using keyboard displays introduces the opportunity for error. By contrast, voice-directed workers know what they are going to do next and are not interrupted by keying in of data or looking at their displays, because voice systems have made these actions unnecessary.

Productivity is an important benefit of voice technology. Hands- and eyes-free working with voice prompts can increase output by between 10 and 35 per cent because workers are able to ‘walk and talk’, and have both hands free to handle goods. Other reported benefits are fewer accidents and greater employee job satisfaction.

Many of the early adopters of voice were in grocery distribution, but voice is increasingly being used for a range of applications across a range of sectors, including engineering, manufacturing and the automotive after-sales market. There are, for example, opportunities for voice systems in manufacturing supply chains where goods need to be tracked on production lines and in transit.

The return on investment (ROI) of Vocollect Voice systems results in a very short payback time due to reduced errors and increased productivity. The average system pays for itself within a year or less, although there have been examples of payback in three months.

Raf Jezierski is marketing director and Anton du Preez is WMS integration programme manager at Vocollect EMEA