Commentary | IT Matters

Dispelling Five Common Myths about Voice-Directed Work

Tags: Logistics I.T., Warehousing, Distribution, Materials Handling, Picking Solutions

Mike Miller is Senior Director, Consulting Services, Vocollect, 214-912-1325

Nearly one million workers use voice-directed technology daily in warehousing and logistics applications. These tools can help improve worker safety and reduce employee-training time. Yet many companies still resist investing in voice-directed solutions – often because of one of the following five common misconceptions.

Myth: Voice is only applicable for picking workflows.

Fact: Voice is being used for multiple workflows beyond picking to achieve improvements.

Regardless of the task, freeing workers’ hands and eyes can help achieve higher accuracy and productivity; improve and safety; faster training time, and reduce product damage. Workers accomplish tasks much more easily, accurately, safely and with greater focus when they are not holding cumbersome papers, manipulating scanning devices or viewing keyboard screens.

It takes considerable administrative and effort to manipulate devices, read screens, and/or enter data. These distractions increase the chance of errors, lower productivity, safety issues, and racking and products being damaged. Whether the employee is manually handling products or driving warehouse equipment, using voice is a safer and more efficient way to work.

Myth: Voice is too complex to support

Fact: Voice is simpler to deploy and manage than ever before.

Voice allows for flexibility and ease of use. In fact, a warehouse recognizer isn’t required to recognize many words – usually less than 100. Warehouse recognizers can be ‘fully trained’ to better understand the user, which greatly increases recognition rates. The user invests 10 to 20 minutes teaching the system how he pronounces the words used in the DC environment. Languages, dialects and accents do not matter, because the system is trained to a user’s unique voice. Multilingual options are available too, making it easier to train workers who speak other languages besides English. In some cases the leader may be unclear on the ability of voice to connect with other systems in the IT infrastructure. If a company needs to connect directly to the Warehouse Management System (WMS), there are many off-the-shelf interfaces available through most major WMS companies. A voice system can be up and running within as little as two weeks.

Myth: Voice does not work well in loud environments

Fact: Today’s highly sophisticated voice technology overcomes the DC noise factor

The background noise from lift trucks, fans, blaring music, public address systems and other equipment makes it challenging to have precise speech recognition on the floor with every task. While the design and implementation of the recognizer itself plays a role in maximizing performance in a noisy environment, it is crucial to provide the recognizer with the best possible input, maximizing the signal (user speech) – to – noise (other sounds) ratio. The purpose-built headset with microphone is designed to filter out unwanted noises, which is a sophisticated feature of the voice system.

Beyond design, several additional factors determine headset performance and ultimately affect the accuracy of speech recognition. For example, the microphone must have reliable noise cancellation characteristics, eliminating noises that originate far from afar, while capturing sound that comes from speaking directly into the microphone.

All of this works together to ensure maximum speech recognition.

Myth: Voice does not function well with scanning

Fact: Voice and scanning can be effective complementary technologies supporting work processes

Voice systems are designed to integrate with a wide variety of scanning peripherals, many of which can save money versus having to use a full-function mobile computer. Pairing voice with scanning can fill the need to capture big streams of data or to induct large numbers of orders for batch-picking. In some cases, it may be desirable to combine a ring- or wrist-mounted scanner with voice in the receiving operation, particularly when the identifying number of the carton has too many digits to speak easily into the system. The voice system simply prompts the worker to scan the barcode at the desired time. The captured data, whether gathered by voice or scanning, provides information on that receipt for all of the processes to follow.

Myth: Voice does not fit our workflow processes

Fact: It’s time to take a fresh look at all of your processes when introducing new technology into the DC

Optimizing your workflows to reduce travel time and congestion is an ongoing process. For example, look at ways to group your picking tasks. In a typical warehouse, 80 percent of the picks come from 20 percent of the product SKUs. Consider adding strategies such as sequential picking, batch-picking, pick-and-pass, Z-patterns, and U-shaped paths. To be effective, these pick paths must be accompanied by proper slotting of items optimized for these selection patterns.

Be sure to place frequently selected items in preferred ergonomic positions. Also consider equipment that may increase worker comfort, as well as taking advantage of the productivity voice can bring, such as using flow racks in place of static shelving to hold faster-moving SKUs.

Your voice implementation is only the starting point. Once your team sees the benefits, it is easy to take the additional steps to make new process improvements. Once employees are confident in using the voice system, voice is easily migrated to other tasks within the facility. And most importantly, listen to your employees, as they are often more familiar with their jobs than management is and are a wealth of ideas for how to make incremental improvements.