Voice Picking: what is it and how does it work?
Did you know that the average size of warehouses and distribution centers is increasing worldwide? Due to the growth of e-commerce, the square footage of warehouses and DCs doubled as companies require more space to meet the demand for their products. Although this increases the storage capacity, it is not without challenges: the high number of SKUs in the facilities decreases precision in the assortment and causes greater operational inefficiency.
In 2021 alone, the market for logistics software services has grown by 14.53% , as companies are trying to keep their operating costs down, while their warehouses and product offerings grow. These softwares have proven time and again that implementing them in logistics processes is more profitable than not doing so, even considering the initial investment they require. Logistics software services are an inevitable future for companies that continue to carry out their processes manually or those that continue to use paper to manage their day-to-day operations. Voice Picking is one of the systems that make processes more efficient because it ensures that operators receive precise instructions and that they can carry them out.
What is Voice Picking?
Voice Picking is a voice guided technology, that through a headset dictates instructions to warehouse workers, guiding them through the different tasks they must complete. It offers the advantage of reducing picking errors and increasing general productivity, preventing the workforce from forgetting the exact number of items to stock and what to do with them.
With the opening of large-scale warehouses, Voice Picking increases productivity by emitting voice instructions. Operators have their hands free to carry out the movements required for picking with precision. In addition, they can devote their attention to their tasks, instead of reading picking lists, marking incoming and outgoing goods or selecting orders with a scanner.
How does Voice Picking work?
As the operator moves through the warehouse or distribution center, they receive a voice message telling them which aisle to go to; once they arrive, they confirm this to the system using their voice. Afterwards, they are instructed to go to a specific shelf in the hallway and confirm when it is already there. Step by step, the voice system dictates the number of units to be picked by the operator, and the operator voices how many units he selected when the task is finished. Therefore, the workforce navigates the warehouse efficiently, without making mistakes caused by human error that can happen at any given moment. It's as if the Voice Picking system absorbs picking difficulties and simplifies the process for warehouse employees.
The technology behind Voice Picking
The electronic headset worn by warehouse operators receives a signal through WiFi network from an ERP System (Enterprise Resource Planning), a WMS (Warehouse Management System) or any other system. The language is configurable and the device's technology translates the message into voice. Once the task is complete, the operator communicates it to the device using their voice; the voice system then translates this message again and sends it back to the general warehouse system to record that the activity was completed. This cycle is repeated as many times as necessary, depending on the size of the order.
Voice Picking is a trending technology that is playing a large part in the growth of logistics software services market. It is one of the necessary components to digitize warehouse operations, as it communicates in real time with the other systems implemented to generate information and simplify each process. In this way, the human resources of a company dedicate their efforts to activities that increase the profits of the business, instead of wasting their time on redundant tasks that could be avoided.
The 6 warehouse processes that Voice Picking simplifies
Voice Picking assists in the processes of replenishment, distribution, warehousing, inventory counting, consolidation and shipment, each of them as follows:
In the fulfillment process, operators who are preparing orders must have the products to be packed on hand. Ideally, these products are in the most accessible levels of the racks, and products are always available, in order to streamline product selection and keep the process moving. To achieve these objectives, the operators that restock the racks must follow precise instructions, since the arrangement of the products has to be ideal so that they are accessible to the operators and so that they do not run out.
Based on the information that the software feeds the warehouse system, Voice Picking tells the operator which boxes or products they must move to the racks and how to order them. Instead of scanning a barcode in order to confirm that the instructions are being followed, they only need to confirm it by reading out loud the short code found on each rack.
2. Distribution or Put-to-Store
The Put-to-Store or distribution process can have a high error rate, due to the number of products that each order includes. Oftentimes, suppliers doing this must go through a long series of steps to complete each package, and it is in these steps that most errors occur, due to the number of factors they must take into account at the same time. For example, they have to tour the entire warehouse and make sure they are in the correct location to pick up the right products; they also have to include the precise quantities of each product in the order.
Even in warehouses where the Put-to-Store is more efficient —each route serves to fill orders for several stores— the same difficulties play a role. Voice Picking maps the warehouse path so that operators can fill multiple orders in a single trip, without repeating aisles or racks. At the beginning of the journey, the operators listen through the voice system where they should go. Once they reach the correct aisle, they read aloud the verification code of the rack the product is in and confirms the number of units included in each order. With this, the system records that the package is in the process of being completed and updates the inventory levels.
As a best practice, the rack verification codes are periodically changed in some warehouses, so that the operators do not memorize them. This ensures that the error rate remains low, as the accuracy of this process is not based on the memory of the workforce. By reading the codes each time, it is certain that warehouse workers actually are in the indicated location.
After being received on the platforms, the products enter the warehouse and must be arranged according to a plan that facilitates their access in the other processes. There are several storage methods: the most basic of them is the chaotic arrangement, in which the storage location for each product is determined according to the spaces that are free in the racks, regardless of the area. Other methods are based on the areas in which the warehouse is divided and the demand for each product; These storage methods are designed to facilitate daily operation.
Voice Picking tells the person in charge of the arrangement which pallet to take from the receiving area; the operator reads or scans the LPN (License Plate Number) printed on the pallet to confirm that the correct part is to be stored. Afterwards, the voice system indicates where the employee should go to store the merchandise based on the customary arrangement method.
4. Inventory counting
For effective picking, it is important to know the exact location and inventory of each of the products in the warehouse. During day-to-day activities, products are accidentally moved from their correct locations, which means that information in warehouse systems loses accuracy. For greater inventory visibility, companies deploy total counts that often cost time and money, requiring the contribution of most of the workforce and shutting down the operation for a full day or more.
An alternative to reduce the number of total counts per year is cyclical counting, in which operators, during their daily picking activities, receive instructions through the Voice Picking system to count the products or boxes in a certain rack while they complete a task nearby. To avoid biases and the recording of false information, the Voice Picking system asks an open question, such as "What product is stored in this rack?", and the operators say the number of products or the type of product that they find. Subsequently, a WMS or ERP system can verify that this data matches the recorded information. If not, the software sends a second employee to perform the same exercise and validate that the products are, in fact, incorrectly located or accounted for.
In warehouses that prepare orders on conveyer belts, operators receive boxes identified with a code and must place the corresponding products inside them, as indicated by the voice system. As the operators advance through this process and finish preparing each box, they reach the end of the bands; the boxes that correspond to different orders can go out through the same band. For this reason, there are people in charge of carefully consolidating each order by packing the boxes on the appropriate pallets or by placing them in the corresponding shipments; this is order consolidation.
Voice Picking technology tells consolidation managers which boxes go on each pallet or shipment. The operator repeats out loud the code printed on the box label and the system responds on which pallet or at which point of the shipment it should be placed. Thus, the operator can collect all the boxes of an order until all shipments are complete.
Regardless of the picking method used, orders always end up in the staging area, where they are packed and ready to be shipped. After completing an order, a WMS determines in which staging area it should be placed, depending on its proximity to the corresponding loading dock.
Voice Picking technology instructs operators how to load pallets into the shipping container, and operators must confirm each pallet shipped by reading its verification code aloud. This way, the system records that the correct pallets are in the indicated transport.
Benefits and results of Voice Picking
Voice-directed work positively impacts the productivity levels of each member of the workforce, and therefore of the overall supply chain operation. Companies that have implemented voice-directed work in their warehouses have reported the following results and benefits:
More than 30% increase in operational productivity
Up to 99.99% of picking accuracy
Up to 80% reduction in errors
Up to 30% reduction in waste
Visibility of inventories, times, orders and operational capacity
Better use of time
More efficient routes within the warehouse
Higher level of service at points of sale
Reduction of distribution costs for each item
Balanced workloads between operators
Faster and smoother processes
Technology in the supply chain
Voice Picking technology is part of the stream of innovations that are simplifying the operation of supply chains globally. Voice Picking, like other technologies, compensates for the obstacles that companies encounter after expanding their warehouses and distribution centers, since it improves productivity and works with the other systems implemented. This technology is just one of many pieces that work together to evolve the supply chain to a digital operation.
Follow us on LinkedIn to stay informed!
Begoña Sánchez Ferrer
I like to write texts that inform and educate the reader in a didactic, visual and fun way. I write about issues related to the supply chain and technology to make them easy and digestible, in order to achieve meaningful learning in anyone who reads it.