How Voice Technology can be a Game Changer in Distribution Centers of All Sizes

Nov. 27, 2018
Voice Technology in Distribution Centers of All Sizes

The explosive growth of e-commerce and increasing consumer expectations for fast, accurate delivery has put tremendous pressure on retailers, distribution centers and logistics companies to optimize their operations.  As online shopping, same-day deliveries and free returns by mail become the new normal, distribution centers will continue to face unprecedented levels of pressure. As a result, consumer expectations will only continue to evolve, as e-commerce sales in the U.S. will increase approximately 16 percent in 2018, to exceed $526 billion, with projections that these transactions will account for more than 12 percent of U.S. retail sales in 2020. ­­

To address these challenges and stay competitive, retailers are considering several strategies including opening smaller, more nimble distribution centers to be closer to consumers. In addition, distribution centers need to find new ways to improve productivity and enable workers to operate as efficiently as possible. Enabling connectivity in the distribution center can uncover opportunities to greatly improve fulfillment operations, while dramatically increasing revenue.

A connected distribution center can continuously monitor activities occurring in all fulfillment systems and processes and notify operators when issues arise, targets are not met or errors are made, so that they can make the necessary real-time adjustments and allocate resources more efficiently. Most importantly, building a workforce that is more productive, more accurate and more flexible to changing demands can significantly and positively impact operations, boost performance and reduce costs. This is critical, as distribution centers are struggling today with finding, training and retaining qualified employees. However, supporting them with the right tools can ultimately improve employee satisfaction and productivity.

This is where guided work solutions such as voice systems can be critical to success. Voice-directed solutions can be a game changer in boosting productivity by minimizing paperwork that is often prevalent in smaller or less complex distribution centers. Quite simply, when processes are paper-based, workers continuously need to interrupt their tasks to look at handheld checklists that often hamper productivity.

Voice technology plays a key role in boosting efficiency and productivity in distribution centers by allowing workers to perform their tasks hands-free and eyes-free. At the same time, it provides the added benefit of improving worker satisfaction in their jobs by empowering them with the tools to be most effective without forcing cumbersome amounts of technology on them.

Today, thousands of large distribution centers are already reaping the benefits of this technology. The good news is that such connected technology is not only available to large, complex distribution centers. Small to medium-sized distribution centers can also significantly improve operations by taking advantage of such tools in a cost-efficient manner. Today, there are more options for deploying voice systems so that smaller distribution centers are armed with the same powerful voice technology as their larger counterparts. As long as they take advantage of systems that bring together the power of voice with the flexibility of modern mobile operating systems, they will be better equipped to improve their operations as they drive their business forward.

Small and medium enterprises can now more efficiency and quickly deploy voice solutions, which can be tightly integrated with their existing enterprise resource planning (ERP) platform. Coastal Pet Products, a manufacturer and shipper of pet accessories, moved away from paper-based picking process in favor of voice. In addition to productivity improvements, the voice technology minimized the risk of errors and helped them achieve a 99.8 percent accuracy level.

Accuracy is critical to meeting consumer expectations, especially during peak shopping seasons. The fact that nearly half (47 percent) of online shoppers globally report frustration with delivery is not surprising considering that, according to a Honeywell/YouGov survey, picking errors cost distribution centers around the globe $400,000 a year on average. Voice technology, combined with software and cloud-based platforms can help distribution centers rapidly move inventory and reassign warehouse staff to different functions to minimize disruption and improve efficiency. 

Distribution centers can also benefit from voice technology when it comes to quickly training new and often inexperienced workers, swiftly bringing them up to speed on their processes. This is of critical importance, since the warehouse sector has an estimated 40 percent annual employee turnover rate according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the growth in the supply chain industry outpaces the labor pool by a ratio of six to one. Unless it’s managed properly, this essential training and onboarding operation can cause unnecessary downtime, which can be extremely costly during peak season. By contrast, with voice technology, tasks such as picking can be performed with virtually no training since workers receive simple, real-time instructions from the back-end warehouse management system (WMS) via specialized headsets. In the case of Coastal Pets Products, the company simplified the training process for its workers using voice. An associate could be up and running on the new system in less than 25 minutes.

Contributed by Bill Birnie, General Manager of Voice Solutions, Honeywell 

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