Time to talk about sound technology in the warehouse


Warehouse workers are finding their voices. Earlier this month, a group of Amazon employees at a order fulfillment center in Staten Island voted 2,131 to 2,654, marking the first time an Amazon facility has successfully formed an alliance in the company’s 28 years of operation.

But warehouse workers make their voices heard in more ways than one. As warehouse labor declines and inventory growth hits all-time highs, operators are turning to voice storage to fill the gaps. With projections Now that 45% of warehouse operators will adopt mobile technologies like voice over the next two years, it’s time to say hello to the next big innovation in storage.

Audio technology has been in warehouses since the 1990s and takes the form of large and bulky devices limited to aggregation functions.

“We used to call them bricks. They were literally 3 to 4 inches thick and 4 to 6 inches long on average, said Keith Phillips, president and CEO of the audio technology company. VoxwareHe told Modern Shipper.

According to Phillips, the earphones that connect to these devices were just as ergonomic—so not at all.

“They were heavy, they were uncomfortable, they were hot. Everything was wired, so you had a cable going from the headset to the mobile device,” he said. “I remember we had a client, every time one of their employees got down from the transpack to pick up a product, they almost always caught the wire because they wouldn’t put it inside their clothes.”

When Phillips joined Voxware in 2011, the state of audio technology had changed little since the ’90s. Only then, innovation began to take over.

First, the hardware used in voice select has become increasingly compact and wearable. For example, the vast majority of voice-enabled warehouse mobile devices are now the size of an iPhone, according to Phillips. That said, you’ll never see an iPhone used for voice-enabled storage – everything is done on Android today.

“Android has become the de facto leader in DC,” said Karen Bomber, vice president of global marketing for honey wellHe told Modern Shipper.

To watch: Warehouse technologies with Keith Phillips

Bomber, also the strategic leader in Honeywell’s distribution centers, transportation and logistics solutions, believes warehouse operators are moving away from proprietary technology.

New solutions built using Android software – such as Honeywell’s own warehouse audio technology – can be easily incorporated into a facility’s existing technologies and functions. Add in the ability to protect the personal safety of employees and operators, and it’s easy to see why Android has been a winner for warehouses in recent years.

But it’s not just hardware that’s evolving; they are also tasks that employees can accomplish with it.

“From a software standpoint, we came to the conclusion very early on that if it’s good for audio collection, it must be good for everything else in the warehouse,” Phillips said.

For example, he realized that errors in the picking process were not actually caused by the picker – a picker might pick from the right place, but still end up with the wrong product due to errors in the shelving or refurbishment process. Acknowledging this, Voxware and others have added voice-activated packaging, loading, and replace capabilities.

Because of these developments, the demand for storage for audio is higher than ever before.

“It certainly hasn’t been this high in the last few years,” Phillips said. “During the pandemic, most supply chains were struggling to get the product out and take it out, and they were struggling to keep employees at work rather than sick. And I think it was a kind of awareness over the past year that companies realized that the supply chain they knew and loved is no longer there and they have a better understanding of what the supply chain should look like going forward. it happened.”

Modern Shipper was able to see this demand firsthand at the Modex convention in Atlanta in March. There, hundreds of companies and thousands of people rallied around solutions like Voxware’s or Honeywell’s, seeking technology that would help them retain workers and save them from crippling labor shortages.

“At Modex, it became clear that there are key areas affecting distribution center workflows of a changing workforce alongside workforce shortages. And with that, it becomes more acceptable to adopt things that are more relevant to your personal life,” explains Bomber, noting the link between ease of work and employee satisfaction.

Modex is also where both Voxware and Honeywell give visitors a summit on the future of voice-enabled storage. At Voxware’s booth, the company showcased its VoxTempo speech recognition technology, which uses artificial intelligence to identify unprogrammed speech.

“The biggest benefit is that it eliminates the need for legacy technology that requires the user to create an audio profile that can be anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour. And then those profiles have to be updated and recreated fairly consistently,” Phillips explained.

Read: Your guide to the wild world of warehouse robots

Read: Warehouses will be a tough find by 2023

The solution works similarly to a virtual assistant like Siri or Alexa and can understand what an employee is saying without the need for operators to create a set of keywords and phrases. Instead, employees can scan a barcode to tell who’s using the technology, and the software does the rest.

More importantly, VoxTempo doesn’t only recognize English. The solution currently supports 34 languages; this is a very important feature given that the primary language in a repository is not always English. In fact, while warehouse work in the US was once made up mostly of English and Spanish speakers, Phillips noticed an influx of workers speaking European languages ​​such as French or German.

“They don’t want to be constrained by language in the way that companies have a hard time hiring at distribution centers today,” he said. “They don’t want to be able to hire someone because of the language they speak.”

At the other end of the convention hall, Honeywell demonstrated its solution. While many voice-enabled warehouse offerings are point solutions that are limited to a single function of picking, packing, or removing, Honeywell’s voice-guided storage solution brings it all together in a single workflow, routing workers throughout the warehouse like an audio to-do list. .

“We focused on voice-guided work, where the warehouse worker or front line worker, as we say, was activated by voice technology to guide them,” Bomber said. ”

Both Phillips and Bomber still see room for further innovation in voice-guided storage solutions where the market is so critical. expected to grow 12% per annum over the next ten years. In Phillips’ view, audio solutions will evolve to enable warehouse operators to make the most of their legacy technology.

“Overall, the underlying technology is outdated,” he said. “Companies in this market are using the same technology they have been using for a long time. And there is a lot to be gained from the existing technologies available today that have evolved over time into much simpler applications and maintenance.”

Phillips gave the example of workforce management systems that have changed little since their adoption nearly a decade ago. Even today, engineers typically enter warehouses with stopwatches and dashboards, but a voice-activated solution could do away with the old ways.

Phillips also believes that voice technology could soon be paired with warehouse robots to allow humans to “talk” to them. Bomber agreed that some transitions could be seen in the near future, especially as warehouse workers increasingly work with their AI-powered colleagues.

“This is a growing trend and voice automation matches perfectly with the trend of introducing semi-automated processes,” he said.

Bomber was also optimistic about the adoption rate of voice-guided technology: “The DC field is evolving,” he added. “Frame images are getting smaller, but efficiency is increasing. So having technology that helps the worker be more productive while maintaining and/or increasing accuracy is what we see happening.”

With little warehouse labor, voice-guided technology has been a saving grace for many operators. some reporting Provides up to 35% productivity increase. And it will certainly continue to be so, before the end of labor shortages, pandemics or disruptions to supply chains is in sight.

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