Voice-activated order processing technology first came to Australia in the late-90s. In the 20-plus years since, warehousing and logistics changed irreversibly; on the surface, at least.
Digital technology and fixed automation infrastructure made order picking and packing easy, with human operators leaning on mechanised solutions to aid what were still manual procedures. But looks can be deceiving, and many core workflows in Australian warehouses have actually changed less than expected.
The problem? Business leaders’ mindsets are often limited to a familiar way of working – reading and mentally checking off information.
That’s why voice solutions represent a truly dynamic change in supply chain management. The technology pulls organisations away from repetitive, undynamic processes that prioritise mental administration and data processing over bigger-picture problem solving. Instead, operators can work with streamlined, integrated technologies which feed into more effective ways of locating and transporting warehouse stock. Voice-powered logistics solutions can also make accessing and managing data on stock in real-time a reality.
High labour costs and lengthy turnaround times for complex orders means warehouse management and order fulfilment have always been hamstrung by the same old inefficiencies. No longer. Modern voice solutions are ideal for many businesses’ immediate supply chain needs – and, with the right technology partner, can be aligned for the future too.
Voice solutions represent a truly dynamic change in supply chain management.
The history of voice technology and how it works
The technology, despite its seeming complexity, runs off some very simple principles. Voice software records and creates a soundprint of key operator phrases and commands, converting this audio information into digital data that guides actions. As an example, voice systems can recognise numbers between zero and nine (and combinations of these figures) and commands like ‘Skip Slot’ or ‘New Container’. This means the technology only responds to pre-set information, streamlining its capabilities to the precise needs of a given enterprise.
Voice-powered picking and packing has roots back nearly as far as the famed Ashes competition. But while the 1886 edition of the cricket contest was being played out In England, across the Atlantic manufacturing business Westinghouse Electric Corporation was formed. Roughly 100 years later, a team of Westinghouse engineers developed a voice-directed inspection system to aid the organisation’s defence division.
It was the size of a desktop computer, and the first iteration could only help with basic administration (Roger Byford and David Maloney’s ‘Talking Warehouse’ eBook). The solution, like the early Ashes tours, failed to ignite immediate interest – but it would explode in popularity Down Under in years to come.
Over more than a decade of further research and development, including multiple attempts to find the ideal sector application for the burgeoning technology, voice solutions found a home in warehousing. The ability for human operators to more easily locate, pick and pack stock for processing or delivery was a boon for businesses globally – but particularly in Australia. A voice offering was first properly deployed in a Queensland warehouse in the late nineties, sparking nationwide intrigue in the sophisticated technology that exists to this day.
Addressing order picking and management in the modern market
The research paper ‘Warehouse Processes Improvement by Pick-by-Voice Technology’, produced by academics from the University of Zagreb, claims order picking accounts for more than half of warehouse operating costs. With this significant expense at the centre of business leaders’ minds, addressing stock transportation and processing inefficiencies becomes key to competing in the modern warehousing market.
The challenges operators face during order picking and management are multifold:
- Travel to access stock can be time consuming, especially in large facilities and when using outdated wayfinding techniques (like following map directions rather than using a GPS).
- Picking and packing is also inefficient without automation – finding an item on a shelf can take time, and then the good needs to be picked and systems manually updated.
- Updating stock data in a warehouse management system manually is also a poor use of resources and time. Without instant insight into where a given item is, operators can waste effort locating goods that may have already been dispatched.
The best way of mitigating these issues is through automation. But what are operators’ options in the modern market?
- Fixed automation infrastructure, a staple in the sector over the last two decades, doesn’t offer the flexibility required for warehousing businesses to perform tasks with the use of real-time data or to best serve end consumers and supply partners.
- Radio frequency identification (RF) solutions are ideal for risk-averse enterprises wary of adopting new technology too soon – but it still requires thought processing.
- Vision technology such as Augmented or Virtual Reality (A/VR) meet the needs of future-aligned organisations but can require an extensive upgrade of warehouse management systems and work processes.
Reducing direct picking time and expense means cost savings across the board for business. Voice is the answer to that need, and the key to success in the modern market.
Voice solutions: modern success driven by modern partnerships
Voice technology is a step into the unknown for many organisations – that’s why partnerships are crucial to designing a custom solution and integrating it with existing warehouse management processes. This point is key to a seamless enterprise upgrade, and not necessarily driven by the nuts-and-bolts infrastructure either.
A successful partnership between a warehousing business and a tech provider requires a system tailored to enterprise requirements.
A successful partnership between a warehousing business and a technology provider requires a system tailored to enterprise requirements. If that means upgrading an existing warehouse management system or other software, partners should be able to assist with the transformation. If that means redesigning the voice solution to better fit in with a customer’s unique requirements, this should also be done. Technology needs to serve strategic aims for the future, the core structures of business partnerships and support people – that’s the route to true automation success.
The Cohesio team are adept at meeting the needs of clients with dedicated technology. Voice solutions are no different – from determining project scope to the launch date for your new system and beyond, our specialists will meet the needs of your business as partners to your success, not providers for it. We usually work in a three-step roll out:
- Discovery – meeting with your team and visiting your facility to identify strengths and improvement opportunities for your existing warehouse management infrastructure.
- Implementation – designing and integrating our voice technology into your business.
- Entrenchment – ensuring your enterprise processes and employees are prepared to get the best out of our voice solution and to meet supply chain challenges to come.
Can voice address Australia’s warehousing challenges of the future?
The warehousing and logistics sector will face some key challenges in the future:
- The Australian Parliament’s 2018 Productivity Commission found that the proportion of the population aged between 15-64 (the national workforce) will fall to less than 60% by 2051. This will reduce the number of available warehouses workers but could also mean lower labour capabilities stemming from the smaller segment of employees’ able to perform extensive manual labour tasks.
- Ever-rising costs of labour will bite harder on business’ bottom line. Luckily, the Australian Treasury’s analysis of wage growth shows rising salaries are driven primarily by commercial productivity. Rather than seeing prosperity as a risk to the wage budget, companies should embrace the trend to move staff into more value-adding roles, like customer service. This way employees can maximise the return on the wages they are paid.
- Blurring lines between business-to-business and business-to-consumer retail means organisations need to adopt future-aligned ways to connect with and serve new customers in order to survive and thrive. This is especially true when trying to compete with global distribution and eCommerce platforms like Amazon.
That latter point is made even more real by advanced technology adoption in other markets. While Australia and New Zealand organisations are slowly embracing warehousing automation, the market size and the above issues means Oceania could struggle to compete on the world stage in the future. Voice technology will help businesses close the gap.
Fostering a change-management culture with ongoing voice support
Using voice technology to propel the Australian and New Zealand warehousing sector into the future is only as future-aligned a strategy as the people within your business making it happen.
The portion of the population aged between 15-64 (the workforce) will fall to less than 60% by 2051.
Change management is one of the most critical elements of adopting new technology. Perceptions of automation as a ‘job-killer’ are incorrect, but persist, nonetheless. That makes guiding individuals as to why AND how voice technology helps their day-to-day truly valuable, especially in a market often willing to invest in technology for technology’s sake. Not every business will need voice right now – but everyone could suit it.
Cohesio works to the mantra that ‘go-live is just the beginning’. We aid your business throughout solution design and integration and consider our role in supporting your team to be an ongoing process. That means providing a dedicated change management framework and altering mindsets about what voice solutions offer your business.
Accountability is the final major element needed for a high-quality technology partnership. KPIs and ROI look different for every leadership team – so we want to make sure our solution is perfectly tailored to the unique needs of your company, whatever those may be
Why Cohesio are your ideal voice solutions collaborators
We use the phrase ‘collaborator’ because that’s what the best technology partners offer – buy-in to your business that goes beyond selling a solution for another sale. The Cohesio team works around your business’ unique needs and infrastructure to develop a voice solution that can integrate seamlessly into your existing processes and drive immediate change. Each voice technology offering is unique – because no two businesses work in the same way with the same resources towards the same objectives.