At the turn of the millennium, a cell phone could make a call, send a text, fold in half, and that was about it. We’re now accustomed to carrying multimedia portals to the entirety of human knowledge—but we still call them cell phones. Voice-directed picking is also about 20 years old, but the popular concept of “voice” in warehousing and distribution has aged differently. Imagine showing a friend your 2019 cell phone and his response is: “That’s the thing that just makes calls and sends texts, right? It doesn’t even fold in half.”
Keith Phillips, president and chief executive officer of Voxware, says many in the industry assume all voice solutions—past and present—are essentially the same.
“There is a gross misunderstanding in the marketplace about what voice is. For us and a lot of our competitors, the technology is dramatically different than it was even a few years ago,” Phillips says. “Talking to existing customers—let alone prospective ones—their understanding of the solution is vastly different from what it is.”
Phillips says that although voice is a part of Voxware’s solution, it becomes a smaller part on almost a daily basis. He struggles to recall the last customer who implemented solely voice technology. Most at least use voice and scanning, if not image capture, augmented reality and more. They’re also using voice for more than picking. Voice supports everything that happens in a warehouse with the exception of containerization, Phillips says, but that’s slated to release by the publication of this article.
“At that point, we will cover every function in the warehouse,” Phillips says. “It’s a totally different solution than what people thought of five years ago.”
Early voice adopters focused on picking, but voice quickly spread to other functional areas. Mark Wheeler, director of supply chain solutions for Zebra Technologies, says some providers have expanded far beyond voice picking and are now closer to full warehouse execution or warehouse management system (WMS)-lite capability. At every step, flexibility has guided voice’s progress.
“For a long time, if you wanted to get the benefits of voice, it involved a major commitment to voice as a technology,” Wheeler says. “It informed devices and software and the whole technology stack was dedicated to that decision. As the technology matures, you have more capability to choose the right augmentations for the worker’s task.”
Collecting incredibly detailed data from multiple sources, analytics systems harness voice and mobile hardware to continuously optimize operations.
Bob Bova, president and CEO of AccuSpeech Mobile, agrees, emphasizing that voice can also help leverage the strengths of other mobile hardware capabilities. Just voice-enabling a device—and therefore any application it runs—can optimize processes and technologies without touching the back end at all, he says.
“You can exploit anything the hardware can do,” Bova says. “If you’re picking, receiving or what have you, say ‘exception,’ and the device will access an application’s submenu and load the appropriate form. This can take a task from 80 seconds to 20.”
Because voice so dramatically improved accuracy and productivity compared to paper-based processes, some early adopters got carried away. As they say: When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. But scanning is sometimes quicker and more accurate than speaking, and it’s rare that a single technology is ideal for an employee’s entire shift.
“Instead of working with only one modality, we see more technology that augments or is an alternative to voice,” Wheeler says. “Robotics, wearables, light-directed solutions. There are a lot of options.”
Now wearable displays are coming along, he adds, and the ability to read faster than one can listen, for example, could be advantageous for many workflows. A multi-modal approach incorporating several devices results in a common data platform. Taking it a step further, the same voice platform in multiple departments can help improve an entire facility or organization.
“You don’t want silo improvement, you want systemic improvement,” Bova says. “Any type of commonality you can introduce to break down silos will help managers, who won’t have to track down their counterparts for answers. They can all get on the same page and justify any investment because the best path will present itself.”
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