The Benefits and Risks of Voice-Directed Order Picking
Barcodes and their associated scanning guns have been a staple in inventory management. Whether implemented in a library for signing books in and out, or within a large-scale online retailer’s distribution centre (DC), the use of both wired and wireless barcode systems is widespread throughout the supply chain. Tech companies including the Vitech Business Group are currently shaking up the inventory management industry through their integration of voice-directed order picking. Their product allows for order pickers to receive picking lists audibly, then confirm the pick by reading the product name or code out loud , rather than scan it with a traditional barcode scanning gun. The technology, originally developed by Honeywell as Vocollect Voice Total Solutions, has been around for quite some time. Vitech has integrated it into the SAP Extended Warehouse Management (SAP EWM), a component of the SAP’s supply chain management suite of solutions. The recent adoption of Vocollect Voice Total Solutions by Patterson Companies Inc.: a distributer of dental and animal health technology, products and equipment, will be used to demonstrate the effects of voice-directed order picking on the supply chain. This article will provide the reader with an understanding of the subsequent advantages in addition to some risks that may arise in inventory management.
Increased picking speed and efficiency
With voice-directed order selection at Patterson, order fillers operate 25% faster than with the traditional barcode scanning system. In fact, pickers were even faster on their initial attempts with the new system than they were on the legacy barcode system to which they were accustomed.
Vocollect displays the pick list audibly at the push of a button, with the ability to repeat the audiable list. This alleviates the need for printed picking lists. A reduction of paperwork generally contributes to greater efficiency.
Less Mechanical Error
Damaged barcodes tags lead to errors in the scanning process causing order pickers to input the code manually. This not only causes a delay, it also can lead to input errors. A literate order picker will possess the ability to discern what a marked-up tag represents, where a barcode scanner cannot.
Reduction of training time
Patterson claimed a greater ease and speed for training using the hands-free voice system compared to training employees on a traditional barcode scanning system. This is especially beneficial for temporary order picker hires during the holiday season.
Paul Courchene, Logistics Core Team Leader at Patterson claims that “No one wants to use the radio frequency (RF) guns…They all want to go hands-free and use voice”. The BBC’s Amazon The Truth Behind the Click Panorama documentary highlights how the constant countdown beeping coming from scanner guns leads to emotional distress, nightmares and has provided evidence of increased risk of mental illness.
Hands-free voice systems are found to produce greater employee cognitive engagement in a repetitive task, leading to increased employee job satisfaction. There is also an institutional benefit derived from the pride associated with the feeling of doing things differently than other organizations.
While Vitech boasts of superb accuracy, voice-directed picking requires validation by the order picker at the pick and at the put in, therefor requiring a second visual confirmation of their voice confirmation. The risks of human error are clearly a possibility within this process. It is up to the inventory analyst to determine whether the increased efficiencies derived from voice-directed picking outweigh the risks of human error.
Barcode Still Required
It should be noted that the implementation of a voice-directed order selection solution will not completely do-away with barcode scanners. As was the case in the Patterson case study, barcode scanning continued to be utilized for receiving and put away functions.