Voice-directed picking technologies for warehouses and distribution centers are growing rapidly due to the efficiency and productivity gains they can provide. Worldwide, the value of the voice picking solutions market is expected to grow 15.3% per year and reach $2.9 billion by 2025, according to Research and Markets.
Using a combination of real-time communication, speech synthesis and interactive voice response, voice picking technology can help optimize warehouse operations by boosting accuracy and productivity while reducing employee training time.
What Is Voice Picking?
Voice picking solutions are paperless, hands-free systems that use easy-to-understand voice prompts to direct order fulfillment workers to specific locations throughout a warehouse and then tell them which products to pick to complete customer orders. One of the biggest benefits of this increasingly popular warehouse automation technology is it leaves pickers’ hands and eyes free of other tasks — such as reading or hitting buttons — so they can focus on selecting the correct items.
- Voice picking can significantly improve order accuracy.
- Voice-directed solutions are easy to use and quick to set up.
- Warehouse workers typically move more quickly with voice picking than with other picking systems and have their hands free for lifting or other tasks.
Voice Picking Explained
Voice picking technology uses everyday language to communicate information from supply chain systems to warehouse workers. This type of solution, also known as pick by voice and voice-directed warehousing, is paperless, and doesn’t require employees to use their hands or eyes to interact with the system.
In practice, pickers wear headsets with an industrial microphone. The mic connects to a mobile device that runs a voice application that tells warehouse workers where to go and what to pick. Pickers say a reference code and the system uses speech recognition software to validate the picking location and item. If the spoken information is incorrect, the voice application corrects the picker. Voice-directed applications may also incorporate complementary technologies, such as barcode scanners or radio frequency identification (RFID) devices.
How Does Voice Picking Work?
Voice picking is as simple as donning a headset and following verbal instructions and responding with a verbal code or scanner. Here’s how it works:
- Each warehouse worker assigned to picking duties receives a voice-picking device, which is usually a special-purpose mobile computer linked to a headset with a microphone and a barcode scanner.
- The picking system imports customer orders from the warehouse management system (WMS) or enterprise resource planning (ERP) software. Those orders are recorded, sequenced and released for processing.
- The voice-picking device speaks instructions to the warehouse worker, detailing the picking tasks and providing their locations.
- The worker can feed information back into the system via voice, text entry or barcode scanner.
- When the voice-picking operator arrives at a specific warehouse location, they verbally provide confirmation digits to verify the location and bin.
- The voice-picking system confirms the aisle or section and provides the operator the pick quantity. The operator verbally confirms the quantity.
- When the task is completed, the system sends the picker to the next pick location, providing an optimal path to maximize the worker’s efficiency.
- All interactions between the picker and the voice application are tracked, so managers can view the progress of orders as they are fulfilled.
When Is Voice Picking the Right Solution?
Voice picking can be used in warehouses of all sizes, but it is particularly well-suited for large warehouses with high volumes of different items, each with its own stock-keeping unit (SKU) with a scannable barcode. It’s more cost-effective than other systems, such as pick to light (PTL), which uses different colored LED lights along with a series of letters and numbers to direct workers to the correct picking locations. Those solutions can be costly because the modules are installed at the physical pick locations, and it can be very expensive to place lighting over an extensive area.
Voice picking can also be used outside of a warehouse, including on manufacturing lines and in stores. For example, in a retail store a voice picking operator could receive verbal instructions through a headset and pick parts of a retail order, confirming each item as they locate it. When the last item for that order is selected, the system would provide the picker instructions to finish the task — for instance, dropping off the completed order in a shipping area.
Voice picking can also help when the picker needs to lift heavy items, such as in a tire warehouse, where they often need to use both arms. Some solutions are especially valuable for workers in cold and deep freeze environments where workers typically wear gloves, making it difficult to operate keyboards for data input.
What Equipment Is Used in Voice Picking?
Voice-picking systems typically are integrated with a WMS or ERP solution that runs on-premises or in the cloud. Each picker must wear a headset and industrial microphone and carry the mobile device running the voice picking application.
More advanced solutions might add an accessory that combines speech recognition with barcode scanning or include display tools such as smart glasses. To support cloud versions of the technology, warehouses must have fast, reliable internet connections.
Voice Picking Benefits
Picking is often the single largest cost for a warehouse or distribution center, which makes it a prime candidate for optimization with voice technology. Here are a number of advantages voice picking offers.
- Boost speed and accuracy of orders: Voice-directed work helps users focus on their tasks. Their hands and eyes are free from reading directions, so they can quickly locate items visually, select the right quantity and place them in the appropriate place. Higher accuracy at faster speed means happier customers; by meeting or exceeding customer expectations, companies can improve customer loyalty as well as attract new customers.
- Increased productivity: Since operators’ hands are free from picking up and putting down devices or instruction sheets, their eyes and minds can concentrate on picking the correct products. After removing these distractions, pickers often see a marked increase in productivity.
- Increased inventory accuracy: Inventory counts improve with better picking accuracy. To optimize voice picking, warehouses often organize items in a way that simplifies the picking experience. A high degree of organization, combined with the accuracy of voice picking technology, can help a business manage inventory more accurately.
- Reduced picking errors: The lack of distractions reduces the chance of an incorrect pick caused by looking away from the picking area to glance at a scanner or piece of paper. Higher order accuracy rates result from workers’ verbal confirmation of each pick. Studies show that the average picking error rate is between 1% and 3% — or between 10 and 30 errors per 1,000 picks. Real-time distribution system (RDS) voice technology with integrated barcode scan validation can increase accuracy to 99.99%, or to only about one error per 1,000 picks. With the average cost per error between $50 and $300, accuracy is critical to the bottom line.
- Shortened training time: Voice picking requires little training, as it guides the operators through tasks with simple and easy-to-understand voice prompts. Each task that a worker performs is driven step-by-step through voice commands, so no training on reading printouts, applying labels, etc., is required. Only a voice template is needed, which can be created in less than an hour. Because training is minimal, voice picking is ideal for environments with many seasonal workers or with high warehouse employee turnover.
- Safer warehouse: Pickers often need to use box cutters or lift heavy objects, so they must be able to use their hands. Voice picking lets pickers keep their hands free.
- Satisfied customers: Customer service levels are often directly improved by the increased accuracy and speed of voice picking.
- Happier employees: Workers enjoy using voice technology because it is easy and makes them more efficient, so they feel more productive. The minimal training required can also make them a valuable contributor right away.
Applications of Voice Picking
Voice picking can be used for a variety of warehouse processes that involve moving inventory, including:
- Cross-docking: The software that handles picking instructs operators how to unload products from a truck or railroad car, sort them and prepare them for reloading onto outbound transport.
- Pick by line: This is similar to cross-docking, but also provides voice instruction to guide workers in the breakdown of arriving pallets. It’s especially popular in the produce industry.
- Picking to conveyor: Operators are guided by voice to pick the required cases and then place each case on an outbound conveyor.
- Putaway: Voice technology guides operators to replace items on the shelves after replenishment orders arrive in what is essentially a reversal of the picking process.
- Inventory management: Voice picking provides a high degree of order accuracy, which results in more accurate inventory counts.
The History of Voice Picking
Warehouses have used voice picking for decades to increase worker efficiency. Speech recognition software first gained traction in the late 1990s, and early adopters of voice technology in warehouses had to work around the software’s limitations. Still, even these early applications improved the productivity and efficiency of order pickers and warehouse operators.
During the following decades, the technology continuously improved, as vendors invested millions to improve the accuracy of voice recognition. That’s one reason why today’s voice picking systems enjoy the 15% annual growth mentioned earlier.
Optimize Order Picking With a WMS
Many companies employ warehouse management systems, specialized software that’s often offered as a module that’s part of an ERP suite or as standalone products. They help make daily warehouse operations more efficient by automating processes and coordinating a warehouse’s many moving parts, including staff, equipment, inventory and orders.
A WMS with the right functionality can significantly improve the efficiency of any order picking technology by providing the business intelligence needed to improve warehouse layout for efficiency, optimize picking routes and streamline the many related warehouse processes, like cross-docking and putaway process.
Voice picking has significant potential for increasing both productivity within a warehouse and order accuracy. By getting instructions and interacting with a system via voice, warehouse workers free their hands and eyes in ways that make their work safer and more efficient, productive and accurate. Adding voice picking to a strong WMS gives companies an extra edge over the competition. Investments in voice picking technology pay off for distribution centers in the form of a higher perfect order rate and faster shipping times, which leads to more satisfied customers — and a more profitable business.
Voice Picking FAQs
What does voice picking mean?
Voice picking, also known as voice-directed warehousing or speech-based picking, is a paperless, hands-free system that uses simple voice prompts to direct warehouse workers to picking locations and tells them which items to select. Warehouse workers wear mobile devices linked to headsets to communicate with the system and make this work.
Is voice picking hard?
Voice picking is not difficult; it requires only minimal training and therefore is ideal for warehouses that experience seasonal surges and/or are supported by a temporary workforce. Solutions can be broadcast in any language.
How do you use voice picking?
Voice picking is generally used in the warehouse, although it can also be used in other environments, such as factory lines and retail stores. Pickers are given verbal commands through a headset, directing them to specific products. They find and select the products and speak into their headset microphones to confirm their work. The voice picking application’s speech recognition software interprets and corroborates or rejects order pickers’ spoken responses. Once the correct items have been picked, the system continues providing direction until the order is complete.
What is the process of voice picking?
A warehouse operator is outfitted with a headset with a microphone and a mobile device. From there:
- A warehouse management system (WMS) relays order preparation information to the voice picking device, which translates it to the worker/operator.
- The worker receives a message on the headset with instructions on where to go, the SKU and the quantity to collect.
- Once at the correct location, the worker speaks the control code into the microphone to confirm and picks the specified merchandise.
- The WMS receives and verifies the picker’s information. The remaining quantity on the shelf is confirmed with the operator, ensuring that the inventory shown by the WMS matches what’s remaining. If everything is in sync, the task is recorded as completed and the next picking command goes through. If things don’t align, the system instructs the worker on next steps.
- Once the entire order line has been completed, the voice picking system instructs the operator where to get the labels and how to finish weighing and packing each order.
How does voice picking increase productivity?
Voice picking increases warehouse productivity because it frees up a worker’s eyes and hands for other tasks. It eliminates reading papers and then looking up from papers or screens to locate items. The picker simply listens to the voice prompts and follows the instructions.
Is voice picking that much more accurate than other systems?
Yes, because voice picking associates do not take their eyes away from their picking tasks to interact with paper or screens. They can therefore be totally focused on the task at hand.
I have just a 3% error rate in my picking operation. Will voice picking really make a difference?
It probably will. A 3% error rate translates into 30 mistakes for every 1,000 orders picked. With integrated barcode scan validation, voice picking can increase accuracy to 99.99%, so an operation can reduce that error rate to only one or two mistakes per 1,000 orders.
How long will training take?
Not long. Voice systems are familiar to most people, and the solutions are intuitive and easy to learn. The systems provide simple verbal instructions, and pickers cannot proceed if they respond incorrectly.