Warehouse workers are finding their voices. Earlier this month, a group of Amazon employees at a fulfillment center in Staten Island voted 2,654 to 2,131 to unionize, the first time that an Amazon facility successfully formed a union in the company’s 28 years of operation.
But warehouse workers are making themselves heard in more ways than one. As warehouse labor dwindles while inventory growth hits all-time highs, operators are turning to voice-enabled warehousing to fill in the gaps. With projections that 45% of warehouse operators will adopt mobile technologies like voice within the next two years, it’s time to say hello to the next big innovation in warehousing.
Voice technology has been in warehouses since the 1990s, taking the form of big and bulky devices that were limited to picking functions.
“We used to refer to them as bricks. They were literally, on average, 3 to 4 inches thick and 4 to 6 inches long,” Keith Phillips, president and CEO of voice technology company Voxware, told Modern Shipper.
According to Phillips, the headsets that connected to those devices were just as ergonomic — which is to say, not at all.
“They were heavy, they were uncomfortable, they were hot. Everything was wired, so you had a wire going from the headset to a mobile device,” he recounted. “I remember we had one customer that every time one of their workers would get off of a pallet jack to go pick an item, they almost always would catch the wire because they didn’t put it inside their clothes.”
When Phillips joined Voxware in 2011, the state of voice technology had changed little since the ’90s. But it was around that time that innovation began to take over.
For one, the hardware used in voice picking gradually became more compact and wearable. For example, according to Phillips, the vast majority of voice-enabled warehouse mobile devices are now around the size of an iPhone. That said, you’ll never see an iPhone being used for voice-enabled warehousing — everything today is done on Android.
“Android has already become the de facto leader in the DC space,” Karen Bomber, senior director of marketing for productivity solutions and services at Honeywell, told Modern Shipper.
Watch: Warehouse technologies with Keith Phillips
Bomber, who is the strategic lead on Honeywell’s solutions for distribution centers, transportation and logistics, sees warehouse operators moving away from proprietary technology.
New solutions built using Android software — like Honeywell’s own warehouse voice tech, for example — can be easily incorporated into a facility’s existing technologies and functionalities. Add in the ability to protect workers’ and operators’ personal security, and it’s easy to see why Android has been a winner for warehouses in recent years.
But it’s not just the hardware that’s evolved; it’s also the tasks workers can accomplish with it.
“From a software perspective, we came to the conclusion pretty early on that if voice is good for picking, then it should be good for everything in a warehouse,” Phillips reasoned.
For example, he realized that often, errors in the picking process don’t actually come from the picker — a selector can pick from the right location but still end up with the wrong product due to errors in the put away or replenishment process. Recognizing this, Voxware and others have added voice-enabled packing, loading and put away capabilities.
Because of these advancements, the demand for voice-directed warehousing is higher than ever.
“It certainly hasn’t been this high in the last couple of years,” said Phillips. “During the pandemic, most supply chains were just scrambling to get product and get it out, and they were scrambling to keep employees at work and not sick. And then I think last year, there was sort of this realization that the supply chain that companies knew and loved was no more, and they better figure out what the supply chain needs to look like going forward.”
Modern Shipper was able to see that demand firsthand at March’s Modex convention in Atlanta. There, hundreds of companies and thousands of people swarmed around solutions like Voxware’s or Honeywell’s, in search of technology that could help them retain workers and give them relief from crippling labor shortages.
“It became obvious at Modex that labor shortages as well as a changing workforce are key areas affecting the distribution center workflows. And so with that, adoption of things that are more in line with your personal life are becoming more acceptable,” Bomber explained, pointing out the linkage between ease of work and worker satisfaction.
Modex is also where both Voxware and Honeywell gave visitors a peak at the future of voice-enabled warehousing. At Voxware’s booth, the company demonstrated its VoxTempo speech recognition technology, which uses artificial intelligence to identify speech that hasn’t been preprogrammed.
“The huge benefit is that it removes the requirement of older technology which required a user to create a voice profile, which could be anywhere from a 30-minute to an hourlong process. And then those profiles have to be updated and recreated on a fairly consistent basis,” Phillips explained.
The solution works similarly to a virtual assistant like Siri or Alexa, able to understand what a worker is saying without the need for operators to build a suite of key words and phrases. Instead, employees can scan a bar code to tell the technology who’s using it, and the software does the rest.
Importantly, VoxTempo doesn’t recognize only English. The solution currently supports 34 languages, a crucial feature given that the primary language in a warehouse isn’t always English. In fact, whereas warehouse labor in the U.S. was once composed mainly of English and Spanish speakers, Phillips has noticed an influx of workers speaking European languages like French or German.
“With the way that companies are challenged by hiring in distribution centers today, they don’t want to be restricted by language,” he noted. “They don’t want to not be able to not hire someone because of the language they speak.”
At the other end of the convention hall, Honeywell demoed its own solution. Whereas many voice-enabled warehouse offerings are point solutions, limited to a single function like picking, packing or put away, Honeywell’s voice-guided warehousing solution wraps them all together into one workflow, directing workers around the warehouse like an auditory to-do list.
“We focused on voice-guided work, where the warehouse worker, or as we say the front-line worker, is enabled with voice technology to guide them,” Bomber said, “which allows them to be hands-free and eyes-free.”
Both Phillips and Bomber still see room for more innovation in voice-directed warehousing solutions, the market for which is projected to grow 12% annually over the next decade. In Phillips’ view, voice solutions will evolve in a way that allows warehouse operators to get the most out of their older technology.
“Across the board, the underlying technology is old,” he explained. “The companies that are in this marketplace, they’re using the same technology that they’ve been using for a long time. And there is so much to be gained through current technologies that are available today that translate into much simpler implementations and maintenance over time.”
Phillips gave the example of labor management systems, which have changed little since their adoption around a decade ago. Even today, engineers typically go into warehouses with stopwatches and clipboards, but a voice-enabled solution could do away with antiquated methods.
Phillips also believes that soon, voice technology could be paired with warehouse robots to allow people to “talk” to them. Bomber agreed that some crossover could be seen in the near future, especially as warehouse workers are increasingly working alongside their AI-powered counterparts.
“This is a trend that is growing, and voice automation perfectly pairs with the trend to offer semi-automated processes,” she asserted.
Bomber was also bullish on the adoption rate for voice-directed technology: “The DC space is evolving,” she added. “Square footage is shrinking, but throughput is increasing. So having a technology that helps the worker become more productive while maintaining and or increasing accuracy is what we’re seeing occur.”
With warehouse labor as scarce as it has been, voice-guided technology has been a saving grace for many operators, with some reporting boosts in productivity as high as 35%. And with no end in sight to the labor shortage, the pandemic or the disruptions to supply chains, it will certainly continue to be.