Voice recognition and synthesis technology is picking up where bar codes left off, promising to bring huge improvements to supply chains. In the most widely used applications, workers picking orders from warehouses have achieved, according to some reports, up to 25 percent more in warehouse productivity, plus a 35 percent drop in errors.
In the typical voice technology system, supply chain workers wear a headset and microphone connected to a mobile computer that they carry with them. The mobile computer communicates wirelessly with a computer server running a supply chain management software package.
Information from the server is sent to the mobile computer and translated into synthesized speech that the worker hears through a headset. In voice-directed picking, for example, the order picker is instructed by voice, via the headset, what to pick and where to pick it.
When the worker needs to communicate with the server to report that an order has been filled, for instance, the mobile computer recognizes the worker’s voice commands and sends the commands to the server. That way, the worker doesn’t need to use their hands to key in information, nor their eyes to read it from a screen.
Similar voice technologies have been used in a small number of factories and distribution centers for more than a decade. Applications where the systems proved successful have been quality control inspections, package sorting, and picking grocery orders.
The benefits include greatly improved accuracy that in some cases can reach nearly 100 percent. Some companies also have saved money by reducing the number of employees whose jobs are to check orders for accuracy. Other benefits include less training time than is required for conventional systems, and improved safety, since workers don’t have to let go of safety railings or take their eyes off moving forklifts to enter or read data.
In recent years, as computers have become smaller and more durable, and software for voice recognition and synthesis has become better, many more companies have begun looking into and adopting voice technology for supply chains. Sales of these hands-free, eyes-free systems are reportedly growing at 50 percent a year.
In the best-case scenario, an investment in a voice technology system can be repaid from cost and efficiency savings in as little as one year. However, despite the improvements in computer size, software reliability, and battery life, voice technology still has some limitations when it comes to supply chain management.
Equipping a warehouse with the latest voice technology still costs significantly more than more conventional systems employing bar codes. That means the systems are still most appropriate for larger operations that have information technology budgets big enough to cover the costs, long-range planning horizons to defray the investment, and economies of scale to further enhance the cost and efficiency improvements.
Costs have come down and will drop further as the technology itself achieves greater maturity. For instance, early systems based almost entirely on proprietary vendor standards are being replaced by technologies that employ open systems and generally cost less.
Economies of scale are also beginning to make it more affordable. Voice technology has still made its way into only a small percentage of even the large distribution centers that could best use it, although growth is accelerating. Recently introduced features such as multilingual voice recognition and synthesis will also increase its utility. And vendors are introducing solutions for applications such as restocking that will enhance its appeal and broaden its potential market.
With significant advantages over conventional approaches, voice technology appears to be a tool destined to take its place in many warehouses, distribution centers, and other supply chain elements.
Mark Henricks writes about business, technology, personal finance, and other topics from Austin, Texas. His work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Entrepreneur magazine, The Washington Post, and other leading publications.