Market Spotlight: Opportunities Abound for Speech in Factories

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The story of manufacturing in the United States since 1960 has been one of decline and transition. Many are aware that manufacturing’s share of domestic employment has dropped steadily from 25 percent in 1960 to about 10 percent by 2010, taking an especially hard hit of 5.7 million jobs between 2000 and 2010.

While the trend of U.S. manufacturing in the past half-century has not been encouraging, the sector is experiencing a bump. According to the March 2017 JP Morgan Global Manufacturing Economic Update, the state of U.S. manufactured goods in the global market is improving. U.S. manufactured exports totaled $83.1 billion in January of this year, up nearly 5 percent from $79.2 billion the previous year. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, domestic employment in manufacturing has risen by 927,000 jobs between 2010 and the present.

Globally, manufacturing is on the rise. Manufacturing employment has increased internationally for six successive months since September 2016, marking the highest rate of global job creation in the sector in five and a half years. Staffing levels have risen in the United States, Western Europe, Japan, and the United Kingdom, but have dropped in China—traditionally a cradle for manufacturing.

While the U.S. has not returned to pre-Eisenhower levels of manufacturing employment, the message is clear: Manufacturing is enjoying a significant boom, and this signals an opportunity for vendors supplying technology to the manufacturing industry.

Employers are always on the lookout for how to do more with less. This might be especially true in cases where export demand is on the rise but employment numbers are slower to rebound. In these cases, the market might be particularly ripe for efficiency solutions that mobilize portions of the manufacturing process from stationary or attention-intensive labor to hands-free and wearable technologies. As manufacturing employees continue to work with their hands, employers in the upcoming years might be increasingly searching for tasks they can do simultaneously through voice activation, speech recognition, and intelligent assistance, saving time and money and—hopefully—increasing on-site safety.

Vuzix offers a model for how speech technology solutions can be specifically targeted at manufacturing.

Vuzix specializes in wearable display technology on which third-party applications run to optimize the manufacturing experience. The success of these applications depends on a synergy between the augmented-reality that Vuzix’s smart glasses provide and the ability for manufacturing employees to control, update, and document manufacturing processes through speech interfaces.

“Vuzix has applications from warehouse picking, to field operations, to pharmaceutical drug production,” notes Vuzix CEO Paul Travers, explaining the breadth of utility for hands-free wearables.Workers equipped with microphone-enabled Vuzix products can access equipment using speech commands with the APX lab application, perform smart picking and inventory maintenance with iTiZZiMO’s Simplifier, and carry out voice confirmations with UbiMax’s xPick application. Together, these functions provide up to a 30 percent increase in worker performance, with significant reductions in error rates and a 70 percent reduction in maintenance travel expenses.

While the voice recognition and text-to-speech contained in Vuzix’s solutions are not homegrown, Vuzix engineers are engaged in the constant update of product hardware to optimize the performance of speech applications. White noise isn’t that hard to filter out. Background speech is the biggest challenge, according to Vuzix engineers, who note that this is true both of speech commands and in using the cloud for dictation. To address that issue, they are repositioning the microphones on the company’s headsets to do beam forming, sensitivity control, and noise cancellation for higher fidelity and responsiveness.

Vuzix engineers are also working to expand the number of languages their equipment supports. “We currently support 40 languages,” Travers says, “and we have plans to include more in the future, as well as dialects.”

Beyond that, Vuzix is also looking to increase sensitivity and noise reduction and to add voice input as a primary security biometric, Travers says.

Several other vendors are also capitalizing on the move toward hands-free efficiency. Most of these vendors, like Voxware, Zebra Technologies, and Honeywell’s Vocollect, use speech-enabled solutions. Voxware, for example, offers Voice Direct, and Zebra offers TekSpeech Pro, both of which provide voice workflow solutions to warehouse operations but have the potential to be adapted to manufacturing concerns in ways similar to Vuzix’s targeted approach.

In fact, Voxware worked with Vuzix recently to create an augmented reality (AR) offering that brings voice and scanning together with vision and image capture. The first two workflows addressed by the AR solution use Vuzix’s smart glasses technology to improve packing, shipping, returns, and receiving in distribution centers.

“By continuously building upon our existing offerings, Voxware has developed a comprehensive solution to support distribution teams striving to run a more efficient operation,” said Keith Phillips, president and CEO of Voxware, in a statement. “The benefits offered by augmented reality technology make it invaluable to a wide range of industries, but we built these first two workflows with direct input from our existing retail customers.”

“The manufacturing industry has yet to adopt smart glasses in a big way, but it is starting,” Travers says.

But it will take time. According to a recent Material Handling Institute (MHI) study, the major barrier to the adoption of emerging technologies—such as cloud computing, drones, robotics, sensors, smart glasses, voice, and 3-D printing—is the lack of a clear business case to justify the cost. It was a concern among 43 percent of industry respondents. That’s the bigger challenge than providing the technology itself. 

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