The first time I was confronted with the idea of voice picking, I was intrigued. This was quite a long time ago, but when I saw the design spec I sat down with the consultant who was designing the system to learn more. I asked him, “Why the heck would a user want to talk to the computer.” His response: “Because functions executed using voice are much more efficient.” Clearly, technology evolves, and that’s a good thing.
The technologies we’ve used up until now have some clear deficiencies. We started with scanning guns that were miles ahead of manual processes, but still had some limitations.
Cons with the RF handheld devices
Users need to put the device down to finish their pick, and then pick it back up to continue scanning. That slows things down.
Users always need to be concerned that they don’t drop and break the device, so they spend extra time looking for a safe place to set it down.
Users must press keys on a small and crowded interface to use the device, which leads to errors and delays.
Handheld devices are easy to lose, and even get dropped by mistake into boxes shipped to customers.
Next, wrist-mounted devices came along to address some of the concerns. The biggest boon was the hands-free capability, but there were still some down sides.
Cons with the wrist-mounted devices
The smaller form factor required users to press multiple keys for certain commands. Log in and use are a struggle, and take lots of time.
Some users found the wearables bulky and heavy.
The second shift disliked using devices that had been strapped on to other workers for hours. (Sweaty, smelly, and unsanitary.)
Complex key commands also makes training onerous.
Finally, voice technology emerged to promise multiple benefits.
Voice combines hands free and eyes free. The picker doesn’t have to carry a device or look at a screen which speeds everything. This provided clear benefit for to the picking process by increasing throughput (i.e. the amount of product received through the inbound doors and shipped through the outbound doors). There’s a clear connection between orders shipped, orders invoiced, and company revenue. A billion-dollar retailer/distributor typically picks about 100 million units, so a savings of half a second per pick, results in 50 million seconds saved, equivalent to 13,889 hours, which at rate of $14 per hour, translates to $194,446 is savings per year.
Voice commands preclude workers chatting with each other, which offers an unexpected time savings. In addition, the cool factor of the technology enhances user adoption. Also with voice, it keeps the operators going constantly, they don’t have the time to chit chat with their fellow pickers, hence that time is saved also.
Paper-based systems are fast, but error prone. The voice system, because it is closely intertwined with the warehouse management system (WMS), caught errors immediately. In the end, it provided the best speed and accuracy combination.
I'm reminded of this really funny video of Stephen Hawking trying to pick a voice for his computer. It was really quite funny - that guy had a serious sense of humour when he was still on this mortal plane! But that said, I can imagine that it would be a very tedious and sensitive process to find a voice "talent" that could convey the feel of your brand! So pick carefully if you've got to do it!
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