How Voice Compares
Voice Picking Versus Warehouse Automation, Scanning, and Pick to Light: Comparing Your Technology and Process Options
A first step in evaluating voice is to consider how voice or other technologies may support your current processes or allow you to design new ways of operating your DC to support broader business goals and customer service requirements. Voice is only one technology choice of many, including barcode scanning (RF), pick to light, and goods-to-man automation (carousels and conveyors, robotics, AS/RS, etc.).
Compared to paper, barcode scanning is a proven way to dramatically increase accuracy in all phases of operations. Pick to light, as the name suggests, has traditionally been used to improve picking productivity. Voice directed warehouse applications combine the productivity advantages of pick to light and the accuracy benefits of barcode scanning. Like scanning solutions, voice also can be used for everything from receiving through picking, shipping and returns. In addition, today’s advanced voice solutions can combine voice direction and speech recognition technology with barcode scanning, RFID and other mobile technologies, allowing warehouse workers to use the best tool for the job. Voice can also be used with lights.
Automation solutions that eliminate human travel and labor – so-called goods-to-man and/or robotic solutions – have been around for years, but they have traditionally only been practical in very high volume, large-scale distribution operations that can justify a high initial capital cost. For an existing DC, these solutions typically require wholesale changes to warehouse layouts and physical infrastructure (racking, shelving, etc.), so they are usually only economical in situations where a company may be building an all-new facility. While goods-to-person automation is a great way to eliminate travel, voice is an excellent complement to streamline and improve the accuracy of the hands-on tasks that may still exist in a goods-to-man system.
Comparing Voice and RF Scanning
Barcode scanning solutions using mobile handheld or wearable computers improve the accuracy of hands-on warehouse processes (compared to paper) by requiring a positive scan confirmation of every location or product as items are picked or moved. These so-called RF systems also eliminate the data entry and paper-handling tasks associated with paper-based processes. However, since scanning may add an additional verification step in every task, some warehouses actually lose points in productivity when moving from paper-based picking to a scan-based process, especially among top performing pickers. This is a trade-off many DCs are willing to make, at the cost of associate satisfaction.
Companies that move from barcode scanning to voice typically see improvements both in productivity and accuracy, due to the inherent advantages of a hands-free, heads-up process:
- Heads-Up Improves Accuracy and Safety. With voice, users never have to look down at a terminal screen to get information – their eyes stay focused on the work they are doing. Every time a user looks away from a pick location there is a possibility he will pick the wrong item. And like texting and driving, using an RF terminal while driving a piece of equipment is never a good idea.
- Two Hands Free Is More Productive. Voice users never have to juggle a scanner while trying to grab and move items, so they can grab, lift and move items more efficiently, saving time in every pick and move. In addition, voice users never have to stop to scan or key enter a quantity or exception – they speak and listen as they move.
- Ease of Use and Training. Depending on the solution, training time may increase when moving from paper due to the need to educate workers on how to use an unfamiliar piece of equipment, in addition to learning the details of the job.
- Voice Plus Flexibility. Modern voice solutions offer the ability to configure a voice-directed process to combine speech recognition and scanning, where it makes sense. For example, setting up a picking cart with multiple picking totes may be faster by scanning rather than voice. Likewise, there may be instances where it makes sense to scan a lot or serial number within a voice-directed process. In effect, voice plus systems allow DCs to use the best tool for each step in a task, achieving the best possible accuracy while also realizing dramatic gains in user productivity.
Comparing Voice and Pick-to-Light
As the name suggests, pick-to-light solutions are intended primarily for picking and order fulfillment processes, addressing the productivity shortcomings of scanning and paper based systems. Next-generation voice picking systems can typically match or exceed the productivity rates of pick to light systems, while improving accuracy (especially item counts). In addition, voice picking solutions have a lower initial and long-term ownership cost, can be extended to support end-to-end warehouse processes, and provide greater flexibility to adapt operations to changes in business.
- Pick-to-light is best suited for processes where products are small and pick-faces are dense. While lights may be good in one limited area of a DC, voice can support multiple picking styles in addition to other warehouse tasks.
- Light systems place an emphasis on speed but accuracy may suffer in comparison to voice- or scan-based solutions where additional checks are built in. Light systems offer no means to verify the products in a pick location.
- Discrepancies and exceptions may not be addressed automatically. The productivity advantages of the hands on pick to light process have to be weighed against manual data entry processes that may be required to identify exceptions (damage, wrong item in slot, etc.) and track work and productivity.
- Pick to light systems typically require a large initial capital investment and high long-term maintenance costs. Adding new locations requires you to add more equipment, unlike voice where the system is not tied to the physical locations.
Comparing Voice and Automation
Goods to man automation solutions typically involve door to door changes in distribution operations and warehouse infrastructure aimed at eliminating travel time from a pick process. Workers don’t travel to locations to pick items; instead, the automation system sends items to workers who take the item and place them in totes or on destination pallets. Voice directed batch or cluster style picking can typically deliver equal or better productivity at a fraction of the cost of a goods to man solution.
- Goods-to-man automation solutions often require a large infrastructure investment. Voice solutions can be deployed without changes to existing pick modules and racking, leading to both lower risk and a faster return on investment.
- In addition to physical infrastructure costs, automation systems require complex, customized software control systems. Voice solutions typically utilize standard software modules that integrate and complement existing warehouse management systems. Voice software costs less to install and maintain.
- In addition to the upfront costs, any type of automation brings additional, ongoing maintenance costs for the DC. These long-term costs of ownership need to be considered when figuring the payback period of the investment.