How is Voice Technology used in Warehouse Management?
Voice technology is an efficient interface for communication between a WMS (Warehouse Management System) and a warehouse operator. Voice technology is deployed to direct workers as they perform operations such as picking, put away, replenishment, and shipping.
Operators wear a headset with a microphone. They receive commands from the system, and verbally respond by telling the system what action they have taken. Operators can confirm picks by speaking count-back quantities, or confirm delivery by speaking back location checkdigits.
What is the advantage of Voice?
The most obvious advantage of voice technology in a warehouse management setting is that it allows operators to communicate with their system while their hands remain free to perform tasks. This is especially useful for pickers in warehouses where the SKUs are heavy, as well as in refrigerated warehouses. Imagine trying to enter the count-back quantity into a handheld scanner while wearing mittens.
What can I use it for?
The most common use for voice to date is in order picking. Here it provides the most obvious advantage as operators are constantly working with their hands, and data entry is the most intensive. Demonstrated improvements in both accuracy and productivity provide quick paybacks in this area. You can also use voice systems for put-away, replenishment, and shipping. Of course, simple tasks such as operator-directed inventory movement can also be easily accomplished with voice.
What equipment do I need?
Each operator interacts with the system via a wearable computer. You will also need an 802.11b compliant RF network, in addition to all the regular accoutrements required for a WMS system such as a label printer, desktop PCs, and a server.
Can I use my existing RF network?
Yes, if it is 802.11b compliant.
What accuracy improvements I can expect?
You can expect dramatic improvements in order-picking accuracy. Greater than 99.9% accuracy is normally achieved. Improvements attained are highly dependent on your current operation, but moving from a paper system it is reasonable to expect accuracy improvements of 80-90%.
What productivity gains can I expect?
Productivity normally improves 10-20% because hands-free operation allows operators to pick more quickly, without returning to office for new assignments. Administrative productivity is also improved, because the work associated with preparing and printing pick lists is entirely eliminated. Finally, picking confirmations and countbacks are faster with voice than with handheld scanners because this data can be entered while the operator continues to pick.
What other benefits will I get?
Live communication between operators and your WMS enables real-time inventory, just as it would with barcoding. This in turn triggers live replenishment assignment based on order information. This leads to fewer stock-outs and a greater fulfillment rate.
You will also experience reductions in training time required for new operators. When compared to the learning curve required to interpret paper (or on-screen) documents, voice training is brief.
If you are starting from a paper-based system, in addition to all of the unique voice technology gains, you will also receive all the benefits you would get from moving to barcoding such as live inventory and computerized lot traceability. You should also keep in mind that voice direction and barcoding can mix well, with barcoding remaining superior for some tasks such as inventory counts.
What is the payback?
Is it possible to calculate my expected Return on Investment (ROI)?
Absolutely. The ability to operate in the freezer is a principal advantage of voice technology. Because the devices have no screen, and operators do not need to press buttons during routine tasks, the device can be worn beneath a jacket.
Does it work in a noisy environment?
Yes. Many industry headsets include double-sided microphones so that background noise can be filtered out.
Does each user just have to do the voice training once?
Usually yes. On occasion the system will have trouble understanding a particular word or phrase after training – in such a case, the user can retrain that particular word or phrase in isolation.
Can it handle different dialects and accents?
Yes. The system learns how each user pronounces each command or response.
Does each worker need his own unit?
No. You only need one unit for each active user – in other words, the number of units you need corresponds to the size of your largest shift. At most installations, each user is given their own headset.
How often do the batteries need charging?
The life of a battery depends on a variety of factors, including temperature in the warehouse – cold temperatures reduce battery life (as you know if you live in a northern climate and have ever needed a jumpstart on a cold January morning). It is generally recommended that two batteries be deployed per device to avoid any potential issues.
Are the units robust?
Yes, the units are specifically designed for hard use in a warehouse environment.
How much does the unit weigh?
Approximately one pound.
How easy is it for workers to get used to it?
Most operators can be trained faster on voice systems than a new picker can be trained in a paper-based picking environment.
Most users enjoy the opportunity to improve performance presented by voiced systems, and adapt quickly and easily. Nevertheless, it is important to ensure end user buy-in before installation. For advice on developing and maintaining a successful voice installation with special consideration of operator buy-in, it is recommended that you read whitepaper .
How does a picker confirm what he has picked?
By reading back the last few digits (usually 2 or 3) of the pallet’s license plate. This serves as an adequate verification because the picker is directed to a location, and the system does not tell them which pallet is expected to be there. This also assists in discovering and correcting errors during put-away and replenishment and increase fulfillment rate.
Is the voice transmitted over the RF network?
Speech recognition and synthesis is performed on the portable device itself – only the instructions themselves are transmitted by RF. This greatly reduces the burden on the network, and allows for the possibility of maintaining the servers remotely as well as increasing the number of simultaneous users that can be sustained by a given network.
Voice Systems Overview
Get started with an overview of voice-directed warehousing functionality.