Voice-Directed Work in the Supply Chain: What IT Execs Need to Know

A primer for anyone ready to implement voice-directed work


The questions in the minds of today's information technology (IT) executives run in a seemingly endless agonizing loop: "Do I have the right infrastructure in place?" "Are my servers and databases and applications doing what they need to do?" "How do I separate valuable new technology from all the junk?"

These are all tough questions. But as any business-minded IT executive knows, these concerns are not about technology alone. They are about technology as it relates to the bottom line, corporate strategy and other business threats, including rising costs, increased competition and ever-slim profit margins. In short, what really keeps the strategic IT executive awake at night is this: "How can I use technology to boost productivity, make the supply chain more efficient, and maximize return on investment?"

Increasingly, IT executives are finding that an often-overlooked and misunderstood application provides the answer. It's easy to implement, helps companies quickly achieve their cost and profit goals, and can give the IT executive the gold star for strategic innovation.

What is this competitive weapon? Voice-directed work. If this hasn't yet made it onto your radar screen, here's a primer to get started.

In the last 20 years, voice-directed work has made significant inroads into the global supply chain. The ability to be voice-directed is freeing up workers and allowing them to be safer, more accurate and more productive on the job.

While distribution center (DC) managers in the grocery and food industries were among the first to embrace voice, word of productivity and accuracy gains through voice quickly spread. As a result, many voice-directed work users are household names from a broad range of industries, including Office Depot, Pep Boys and Pepsi Bottling Group in North America and Norauto, Easydis and Primafrost in Europe.

The ease of use and success of voice-directed work has quickly found adherents in retail, third-party logistics, manufacturing and healthcare companies, as well. Voice has helped organizations maintain "lean" operations, decrease their training costs and reduce the time it takes for workers to become functional in their designated roles. It has proven especially useful for companies that employ seasonal help or have challenges with staff turnover.

Voice-directed work takes the most human approach to communication — two-way dialogue — and literally talks people through their daily tasks. For the supply chain/distribution industry in particular, voice alleviates the strenuous multi-tasking that is typical of work in the DC.

Voice-directed distribution's immediate contribution to more efficient selection, replenishment, put-away, receiving, and other areas has led many of the major grocery distributors to be some of the first adopters, including Kroger and Albertsons in the United States.

How Does Voice Work?

During the course of a typical day in a DC, work files are created by the company's warehouse management system (WMS). In companies without voice, work assignments generated by the WMS are transferred to paper-based systems, radio frequency (RF) scanner-based systems or pick-to-light systems. These systems are labor-intensive, time-consuming, and error-prone — and not all of them can scale as the business grows. But in a voice-enabled DC, the process is much simpler and more accurate.

To understand the importance of voice, it is important to understand the basics of how voice works. It starts with employee assignments, such as put-away, order selection and replenishment tasks that are generated by the company's WMS. Assignments from the WMS are sent via a radio frequency network from the WMS to a lightweight, battery-powered, mobile computer worn by the DC associate.

Once the wearable computer receives the work assignments, they are converted into a series of discrete verbal commands that the worker hears through a lightweight headset. The instructions direct the employee to an aisle/section and slot location. Once there, the employee confirms he or she is at the proper location and completes the task by speaking into the headset.

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