The “Pick-A-Little Talk-A-Little” song in the 1962 musical “The Music Man” features the gossipy, hat-and-feather-wearing matrons of River City, Iowa, telling Professor Harold Hill unsavory things about the town librarian. Although today’s voice picking technology focuses on warehouse operations instead of a library’s “dirty book” selections, the technology is drumming up its own attention thanks to its ability to escalate productivity and accuracy, improve safety and ergonomics, and aid in pickup, delivery and in-store workflows. 

Since its initial utilization in beverage plants about eight years ago, voice picking technology is becoming more widely accepted and now features better hardware and software, the ability to be wirelessly integrated via Bluetooth, and to function in applications both inside and outside of the warehouse, says Stephen E. Hoffman, technology specialist for software engineering at Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Dematic Corp.

“Voice [picking] is becoming more mainstream and part of more applications outside of the warehouse. For example, in-store selection of grocery items for later customer pickup is getting a lot of attention right now,” he says. “… Voice picking is an ideal method to encompass or supplement other types of beverage automation. Layer picking via a lift truck-mounted claw is a prime example.

“Hundreds of warehouses in the U.S. and Canada use voice direction of both the layer pick and layer support operations to pick at 300 percent or better productivity increases over conventional each-pick environments,” he continues. “It is also used to interface directly to conveyor and sortation systems in the wine and spirits business.”

Carlstadt, N.J.-based DMW&H’s Vice President of Food and Beverage Paul Laman says that bottle picking for less than a full case order offers the greatest benefits for voice picking technology, noting that “voice picking increases both the rate and accuracy for the task.”

Further, voice picking complements other automation solutions and directly works with an overall warehouse control system to aid in picking products and to keep production flowing, he adds.

Voice picking also helps to facilitate next-day delivery of alcohol products to retail shelves, according to Michael Womeldorph, senior product manager of voice for Intelligrated Software, Mason, Ohio, citing a case study featuring the Wyoming Liquor Division, Cheyenne, Wyo. The 100,000-square-foot distribution center needed a system in place to manage 1,800 SKUs and speed up its ability to process and ship more than 3,000 full cases and 12,000 bottles a day of alcohol beverages, the report states.

“Our voice-directed fulfillment solution is configured to manage both full- and split-case order picking,” Womeldorph says. “Scott Workman, their operations manager, said, ‘Intelligrated’s voice solution offered a hands-free voice solution system that tells us where to go, what to do and how much to pick.

“We’ve gained between an hour to an hour-and-a-half per day getting our product ready and out the door.’”

Although it can be more challenging for smaller warehouses to acclimate to voice picking solutions, the technology is enabling both small and large beverage distributors to better handle the massive SKU proliferation that’s taken place the past few years, while “leveling the playing field so that both small and large operations realize significant benefits,” says Larry Edelson, marketing director for Vermont Information Processing (VIP), Colchester, Vt.

VIP has customers with two to 22 pickers that have benefited from its voice solutions. These include accuracy increases to more than 99 percent, improved productivity of 10 to 15 percent, increased customer satisfaction, improved accountability with real-time picking statistics, better inventory control and reduced training time because “pickers only need to go the location they’re directed to and don’t need to think about picking by description,” he says. Voice technology also provides a fast return on investment, usually within the first 12 months, he adds.

Hands-free operation

Regardless of the size of the distribution center, voice technology will continue to flourish in the market, according to Bruce Stubbs, director of supply chain marketing for Honeywell Safety and Productivity Solutions, Fort Mill, S.C.

He cites the growing use of voice outside of the picking workflow, including fork applications, stocking, packing and cycle counting. “Our latest survey shows that 87 percent (nine in 10) of distribution centers in the U.S. and Europe plan to add voice direction technology in the next five years,” Stubbs says. “Additionally, voice solutions are being developed and deployed in other operations to include maintenance and inspection, pickup and delivery, and in-store workflows.

“Voice picking technology can seamlessly be integrated with other warehouse automation solutions, such as accounting software to keep track of order progress,” he continues. “Our Vocollect technology can be paired with a Bluetooth ring scanner to enable workers to be more mobile and hands-free. … [I]t also supports more than 35 different languages.” 

Scan guns & pick lists

The integration of scanning and voice systems also have made voice a better choice for batch- or cluster-based picking operations, Dematic’s Hoffman says.

“E-Commerce batch pick-to-wall operations are a very popular new trend. Specific to beverage, scan/voice systems have been proven to increase accuracy for both case and bottle pick environments,” he says. “… Voice pick systems are being deployed on a wide array of devices, from purpose-built hardware to traditional [radio frequency] (RF) guns to tablets and smartphones.”

Dematic’s real-time, beverage-specific middleware voice package for the beer, dairy, carbonated soft drink (CSD) and bottled water markets is installed in more than 430 sites in North America. It also offers a bottle, case and layer pick application that specifically is designed for the wine and spirits industry, he adds. 

Voice directed workflows drive consistent processes and reduce workforce variability. Hardware and software advances, lighter, faster and less expensive equipment with a longer battery lifespan, and improved voice and noise modeling for speech recognition also have contributed to the overall success of voice picking technology, according to experts.

“Voice picking technology makes people’s jobs easier and all but eliminates the mis-picks,” VIP’s Edelson says. “Before voice, pickers had to know all of the products in the warehouse and where to find them. They also had to refer to a piece of paper to know what to pick and how many. With voice, this all goes away.”

Among the technological advances VIP offers are quality control and the ability to verify a pallet through the voice system by weight or number of cases on a pallet.

Experts say that in the future, new technologies for voice picking solutions might include cloud-based solutions with WAN optimization to reduce a plant’s on-site footprint and capital expenditure, feature improved self-learning speech recognition solutions, offer an opportunity to drive maintenance and inspection activities for warehouse vehicles, and the further adaptation of Google Glasses to evolve the hands free/eyes up nature of voice.

“In the beer and CSD market, voice will be used as the bridge between traditional voice packing and automation subsystems designed to specifically address the SKU volume erosion and the rise of craft SKUs,” Dematic’s Hoffman says. “… As the beverage industry continues to evolve, be sure your voice industry can grow and adapt with you.” BI