You can’t build a business if you can’t get your product to market. Warehouses and distribution centers (DCs) are a big part of that effort—and the warehousing industry is changing quickly. The pandemic diverted even more buyers to online shopping, hastening the trend of rising SKU counts.
With more SKUs and ever-increasing throughput goals, warehouse operators need a new approach to picking orders. Paper pick lists are on the way out; this legacy approach to picking was used by fewer than half the warehouses and distribution centers in Peerless Research Group’s 2020 annual warehouse survey. But what technology is stepping in to replace the paper pick list?
Radio frequency (RF) hand-held scanners are one option, of course. More than 60% of the warehouses and DCs in the 2020 Peerless survey said they used RF hand-held devices in their picking operations. But some warehouse operators are also turning to an audio-first technology called voice picking. Voice picking went from 7% adoption in 2017’s Peerless survey to 14% in 2019. Meanwhile, a Grande View Research report says the market for voice picking products will grow at a compound annual growth rate of nearly 15% through 2025.
If you’re experiencing supply chain strain, voice picking could be just what you need to boost throughput at all your distribution centers. Here’s what you need to know about the technology.
Voice Picking: What Is It?
Pick-to-voice technology uses synthetic speech to verbally direct pickers to their orders.
“Aisle 37 bravo,” the system might say into the picker’s wireless headset. Then, when the picker reaches the designated location, the instructions continue: “Grab 642 alpha. Confirm SKU. Quantity 1.” “642 alpha, quantity 1,” the picker may confirm, speaking into a headset microphone.
Voice Picking Example 1:
Voice Picking Example 2:
Voice Picking Example 3:
Rather than verbally confirming the SKU, the order picker may scan the item with a handheld scanner. Either way, with the right order on the cart, the picker is ready to listen for the next location.
Voice picking solutions integrate into the facility’s warehouse management system (WMS) or enterprise resource planning (ERP) software. That way, they can draw data on orders, optimal pick paths, and inventory locations to direct employees at every step. But the communication flows both ways. Employees can record their work with RF scanners, or, with speech recognition systems, they may speak into headset microphones to update the WMS’ inventory data in real time (as in our example above).
Altogether, pick-by-voice systems create a data-driven workflow that meets the changing demands of order fulfillment in an age of e-commerce and free, two-day shipping. They give warehouse management systems a way to direct all your employees at once, with minimal processing time. But is this technology worth the expense? A quick look at the benefits of voice-directed warehousing systems can help you decide.
The 4 Major Benefits of Voice Picking
Voice picking systems are hands-free. They’re eyes-free, too, as employees don’t have to constantly glance at a pick list or tablet screen. And they offer step-by-step directions, providing just the information a picker needs, only when they need it. These features add up to the following benefits for overall operation:
- Voice picking improves warehouse efficiency. Hands-free, eyes-free technology eliminates a small but constant delay for pickers: Checking and rechecking a pick list. Over time and across dozens of workers, those time savings add up to measurable productivity improvements. One provider of voice picking systems claims its products boost productivity by up to 35%. Another reports productivity gains between 10% and 90%, with an average benefit of 36%.
- At the same time, voice picking reduces errors. Accuracy is key to successful fulfillment. Voice picking systems read out SKUs and require verification from the picker; this helps to ensure every order is delivered to the packing area accurately on the first try. Voice picking companies have reported picking accuracy increases of up to 85%.
- Pick-by-voice technology creates a safer warehouse. In many warehouses, order pickers operate forklifts, electric tuggers, and other heavy material handling equipment. Voice picking removes the temptation to look down at a pick list while driving. Even pedestrians can maintain more environmental awareness when they’re not constantly looking down at a device—so voice picking can help to prevent workplace accidents in facilities of all types.
- Finally, voice picking leads to faster employee onboarding. A traditional warehouse may have to train order pickers for days before setting them loose in the aisles. It may take weeks or even months for those new workers to learn the layout and reach full productivity. By directing workers every step of the way, voice picking helps employees reach peak performance without these delays.
Of course, voice picking systems can also introduce new challenges. One of the key voice picking problems new adopters need to solve is a question of employee satisfaction: Do workers really thrive when they’re constantly taking verbal orders from a computer? They can, but only if you pay attention to—and invest in—sound ergonomics.
Sound Ergonomics for Voice Picking Systems
Traditional ergonomics is the study of matching work to the worker, and it’s a crucial part of warehouse management. Ergonomists identify risky tasks and movements—from repetitive lifting to awkward postures—and suggest interventions that remove or at least reduce the hazards. Sound ergonomics is the attempt to match audio to worker preferences. To keep employees happy, reduce turnover, and ensure company-wide buy-in for your new picking strategy, choose a voice picking system that provides the following benefits:
- Natural, lifelike text-to-speech (TTS) voices. Order pickers spend a lot of time with the synthetic speaker on the other end of their headsets. When that voice is harsh or robotic, the work day gets a lot less bearable. Voice picking providers who partner with ReadSpeaker get the benefit of AI-powered TTS voices that sound warm, welcoming, and authentic. That can make the difference between employee satisfaction and a high turnover rate.
- Multiple TTS personas. Even a mellifluous TTS voice may start to grate on a worker after a few hours. A choice of high-quality TTS voices allows employees to personalize their experience—or even switch it up to keep the work day fresh. ReadSpeaker offers more than 90 ready-made TTS voices in a variety of languages, genders, and expressive styles. We can also create a custom TTS voice that represents your brand and your workers’ preferences with precision.
- Language options for global reach. Clearly, your voice picking system must share a language with employees. That’s not always easy when you operate a world-spanning logistics network. ReadSpeaker TTS is available in more than 50 languages to support voice-picking systems in warehouses across the globe.
To be clear, ReadSpeaker does not build voice picking systems. Instead, we provide the TTS solutions that give voice picking products more lifelike, listener-friendly speech. That’s true whether your voice picking system operates through the cloud, over radio waves, or through a local server that controls your data fully. We even offer embedded TTS engines that produce speech directly on your voice-picking device—technology that allows your devices to produce speech without a network connection, freeing up that network from unnecessary traffic.
To learn more about how ReadSpeaker TTS can help your voice picking strategy succeed, contact us today.