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Cliff Holste is Supply Chain Digest's Material Handling Editor. With more than 30 years experience in designing and implementing material handling and order picking systems in distribution, Holste has worked with dozens of large and smaller companies to improve distribution performance.

Logistics News

By Cliff Holste

January 21, 2015

Logistics News: Want A Fast & Proven Way to Improve Customer Service? - Eliminate Paper Transactions

Making the Transition to Hands-Free Voice Technology

Holste Says:

In this digital age, why do some businesses continue to rely on out-dated, antiquated paper-based methods?
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Previous Columns by Cliff Holste

Sorting It Out: Shippers Looking To Increase System Capacity Are Surprised To Find It May Already Exist!

Sorting It Out: For Shippers - Benefits Of Real-Time Control In The DC Are Huge!

Sorting It Out: Shippers Looking to Improve Operations Choose Customer Centric Approach

Sorting It Out: Productivity is a Crucial Factor in Measuring Production Performance

Sorting It Out: Packaging Construction Impacts on Logistics Operations


In the past few years voice technology has been coming on strong throughout the consumer marketplace. Many of the common devices we use every day e.g., smartphone, PC, even the family car, are now equipped with voice activated features. These devices are gaining in popularity because they are user-friendly, bi-lingual, and offer the added benefit of hands-free convince and safety.

With the universal standardization and deployment of RF bar code scanning technology 4 decades ago, most of the common manual transaction errors associated with “paper work” have been eliminated. Voice technology (pictured on the left), which was initially introduced into the warehousing and distribution environment over 20 years ago, is now a mature technology which, when integrated into a Warehouse Management System (WMS), provides significant additional benefits. Whether its productivity gains of 35%, or accuracy improvements to over 99.99%, the benefits of deploying these paperless technologies are well documented. Not only do these proven technologies help companies optimize their existing resources for maximum performance, but the hands free benefit of voice also creates a safer, faster, and more efficient environment for staff throughout the operation.

Driven by the need for greater processing speed, accuracy, and productivity, most shippers have long ago abandoned there once essential paper based methods in favor of digital processes. However, there are a number of small to medium size companies that continue to rely on paper and pencil methods for such basic functions as receiving, order-picking, and shipping.

Over the years these businesses have developed all of the various paper forms required to support their operations. Often referred to as the “paper trail”, file cabinets full of paper provide “tangible proof” that various transactions took place. However, today most business communications takes place through Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) – that is to say there is no paper involved. Therefore, the question is: In this digital age, why do some businesses continue to rely on out-dated, antiquated paper-based methods?

In the following byline Keith Phillips, President and CEO, Voxware debunks 3 myths surrounding the deployment of Voice Technology and 2 keys for ensuring a successful deployment:

3 Myths about Switching to Voice


2 Must-Haves for a Successful Deployment

By Keith Phillips, President and CEO, Voxware


Although it’s easy to see the advantages of making the switch away from paper-based picking systems that have been the de facto warehouse management solution for decades, several myths regarding the transition to voice still persist. Many companies falsely believe that the change will be fraught with tedious challenges when, in reality, the transition is usually painless. Here we debunk 3 myths surrounding the application of voice software in the warehouse and look at the 2 must-haves for any successful voice deployment.

Myth 1: “With a paper system, I always have a paper trail. I’ll lose that with voice.”

Reality: It’s certainly true that warehouses that rely on paper-based picking systems generate, quite literally, a “paper trail” of their activities. However, when companies need to go back through this paper trail, it can actually be a nightmare to sort through piles of paper to find the useful information. On the other hand, voice technology actually makes it easier for companies to track everything from picks to equipment checks, and many companies who deploy voice report being able to trace accidents more effectively.

Companies should look for voice solutions that have tracking and analytics available, as this can help them with change management. A recent Supply Chain Digest report found that the average productivity gain for companies that deploy voice is 26% and a Gartner report found that most companies see a 30% increase in productivity when they switch from paper to voice. It’s one thing to cite these reasons before the switch—it’s even more powerful to point to the real-time data demonstrating increased productivity. Data lets order selectors clearly see the impact of voice on their own productivity.

Myth 2: “Paper is cheap. Technology is expensive. Making the switch will cost me.”

Reality: This myth couldn’t be further from the truth. Though each individual label or checklist a company prints out may be cheap, the cumulative effect of purchasing and printing that paper is not. One company that switched to voice reported an annual savings of over $130,000 on paper alone. Even more significant than the cost and savings is the return on investment that many companies realize from making the switch as a result of huge productivity and accuracy gains.

Myth 3: “My staff knows the paper system. If I switch to voice, I’ll have to undergo a costly and lengthy training process.”

Reality: With voice, training new hires is fast and easy. Voice technology is easy to learn and most new and temporary hires can start picking within the first hour of the first day, even if their primary language isn’t English. High-end voice providers will also leverage a “train the trainers” approach that cultivates an army of super-users who can go on to train other pickers throughout the facility. Also, companies can leverage the business analytics provided by voice solutions to incentivize order selectors and further drive adoption. For example, some companies have installed large monitors to display real-time productivity data in common areas, which helps foster a fun, competitive environment for order selectors.

Ensuring Staff Buy-In: 2 Must-Haves

The benefits of voice are extraordinary for both senior management and warehouse picker. Leadership can glean new insights into warehouse operations from voice analytics that can help further drive accuracy and efficiency improvements. Floor staff can now move about the warehouse more safely with both of their hands free while also decreasing the cognitive load required to check and double check paper checklists. Even so, the one area where voice deployments are likely to hit a few roadblocks is in the area of user adoption. Mixed reactions among end users are inevitable. Human nature dictates that some individuals will always be uncomfortable with change, no matter what. In order to minimize the impact of change-weary users on the rest of the staff, companies will want to take steps to set the whole operation up for success. Here’s how to do it:

Commit to Accountability: It’s one thing to send a memo and hold a few meetings about a new solution. It’s entirely different to take the time to educate end users about the reasons for making the switch to voice, the benefits that it will bring to employees and the company overall, and how everyone will be held accountable. When pickers understand that the decision to implement voice is well founded and that everyone will be held accountable for the new solution, they are more likely to take it seriously and embrace it.

Create a Positive Atmosphere: Even more significant than committing to hold staff accountable is the way companies can choose to hold users accountable. It’s important to foster a positive atmosphere and environment where leadership doesn’t simply say, “We’re going to use these tools to evaluate you,” and instead asks, “How do you like the technology?” Taking time to include users in the decision and deployment process and imbuing a positive attitude throughout the training period can go a long way to improving adoption. In fact, when all of these steps are taken, companies can create an environment where pickers are eager to track their productivity and improve their pick rates.

Final Thoughts

Transitioning from paper to voice has proven to be one of the fastest and easiest ways for shippers to up-date their operations, optimize their existing resources, and improve customer services. ProMat 2015 (March 23 thru 26) provides a great opportunity to learn how smart and easy it can be to adopt voice technology.

Recent Feedback

As someone who's grown up in the midst of this technological revolution that has transpired over the course of the past twenty years or so, it is interesting to hear about how this switch to hands-free voice technology has been met with opposition. Especially considering the fact that this transition will only serve to ease the jobs of many distribution professionals in the long run, it is intriguing that there is resistance in the short term. 

However, in the midst of all of this, I wonder how this switch to hands-free voice technology has effected paper suppliers. Surely the demand for paper has been significantly diminished in light of this transition. In terms of the procurement teams at distribution centers, it is certainly costly initially to invest in this new technology, but in the long run it helps to save money that would previously be spent on paper for labeling, filing, etc. It would be interesting to note how this has affected major paper suppliers with the drop in demand as technology becomes more pervasive. 


Luke Aschermann
University of Texas at Austin
Feb, 18 2015