Voice Picking is Picking Up in Supply Chain Systems

Voice picking is making the mandate clear: automate, or lose the plot.

Australian retailer Kmart Australia, owned by the conglomerate Wesfarmers Limited, has become the first retailer in the country to deploy Android Voice across its fulfillment operations, the company announced in a statement on July 13.

The project facilitates voice picking at Kmart distribution centers (DCs) in partnership with German tech multinational Körber’s Cohesio Group, its corporate partner of six years and a provider of Android Voice software-as-a-service (SaaS) plug-and-play solutions.

The deployment is supported by tech corporation Honeywell’s Guided Workflow Solutions, an enterprise workflow solutions suite.

To meet growing customer demand, the technology will be deployed in Kmart DCs opening in July, the statement said, adding that the solution has already been deployed in four Kmart DCs across Australia.

With the deployment of voice picking technology, Kmart “will be able to meet faster and more efficient delivery and picking targets across its DCs, instore and online operations,” it said in the statement.

The Need to Automate

Automation has become the go-to enabler for sellers to increase efficiency at warehouses, thereby streamlining the fulfillment process and improving margins in the long-term.

A majority of supply chain professionals agree that companies need to automate their warehousing processes to stay competitive.

A prominent way this is happening is by integrating robots into the workforce, such as through Amazon’s deployment of hundreds of thousands of robots at its warehouses, or through startups such as Dorabot, an artificial intelligence (AI) robotic logistics company.

One of the goals for such companies is to optimize workflows at the warehouse, firstly by integrating with human labor, and further, by incorporating into warehousing operations without much renovation of process.

Voice technology fits well within this structure, and one of the places it is being applied is in warehouse through voice picking.

Voice and Warehouse Picking

Warehouse picking refers to the picking of specific order items for fulfillment from the maze of inventory at distribution centers or fulfillment centers. Traditionally, this is done through Radio Frequency (RF) barcode scanning, which replaced the older paper-based system.

It sounds simple enough, but picking can contribute to up to 63% of operating costs at a warehouse, the H. Milton Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering (ISyE) at Georgia Tech found.

At the same time, voice technology in the warehouse can reduce ‘mispicks’ by almost half, and increase productivity up to 30% as well.

Voice picking simply migrates picking to a headset and microphone, making the entire process hands- and eyes- free. It can also be called Pick by Voice or Voice-Directed Warehousing.

The entire system works on the basis of communication between warehouse workers and the technology application, such as Android Voice.

Warehouse workers navigate their way to specific pick locations in the warehouse for order fulfillment through a voice system facilitated by the headset. It also tells them which items to pick and in how many quantities.

The microphone allows workers to communicate back to the system, confirmed that they have picked the right product before moving on to the next order.

Research suggests that voice picking can help make picking time-efficient by as much as 15% to 20%, with increased productivity and decreased costs, the holy grail of warehousing. The use of voice in the warehouse also ties well with the theory that the next big stride in communications technology will be voice-driven.

A range of developments in machine learning technology is making this happen, including voice recognition for not only for consumers (Alexa, Siri etc.) but industrial users as well. Adoption of voice picking, for instance, grew by 20% from 2008 to 2018. Although a modest figure, it represents the biggest adoption increase among different DC technologies.

This is highly significant for supply chains, where improvements even in fractions can potentially compound into bigger benefits for companies.

Header image by senivpetro on Freepik

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