2023 Vertical Markets Spotlight: Speech Technology in Manufacturing/Distribution
Companies that produce and distribute products face multiple challenges today, from labor shortages and inflationary pressures to continued supply chain issues. To meet them head on, they need to streamline raw material acquisition, assembly lines, shipping departments, and other areas.
Speech technologies are already making a difference in some of these areas, including labor, tooling, packaging, quality control, and shipping/delivery. With the right speech solutions, businesses can enhance efficiency, better allocate resources, reduce waste, save on labor costs, speed up distribution, and improve their bottom lines. Of note are the many advances in natural language processing (NLP), automatic speech recognition (ASR), text-to-speech (TTS), and generative artificial intelligence.
With these technologies in tow, computers today can better comprehend and analyze spoken language, vastly improving much of the automated systems that companies have deployed throughout their manufacturing and warehouse floors, loading docks, and back-office operations.
Cloud-based speech systems are also becoming popular, as manufacturers and distributors find them to be more scalable and flexible than on-premises solutions. “With cloud-based solutions, companies can scale their speech technology solutions up or down without investing in expensive hardware or infrastructure,” notes Muhammad Tariq Khan, head of digital marketing at FlexiPCB, a circuit board manufacturer.
The goal of any speech deployment in these sectors, though, is to improve operations and enable more efficient communication, real-time data access, hands-free task management, and effective employee training. So far, speech has been delivering, enabling capabilities like voice-activated commands, providing real-time information, and allowing for seamless collaboration between employees and departments.
Charlie Wright, operation director for Epos Now, a retail and hospitality point-of-sales solutions manufacturer, is bullish on speech technology’s increasing abilities in industrial settings.
“Today, speech-enabled technology can automate tasks such as time tracking, obtaining accurate inventory data, loading pick lists and labels onto mobile devices, issuing voice commands to robots in warehouse settings, facilitating conversational commerce with customers or other stakeholders, and notifying employees about safety hazards or pending tasks,” he says. “These activities are made much simpler by allowing staff to communicate naturally through conversational language.”
Eric Jones, CEO of Couture Candy, a fashion e-commerce business, says that speech tech can benefit companies most by cutting the time and effort required for routine tasks.
“This can be achieved by using voice-activated devices to access important information, such as checking inventory, without having to use their hands,” Jones says.
On the factory floor, voice-activated commands can even help control machinery and equipment.
“Manufacturing and distribution operations move a lot quicker with the use of speech technology because it provides less of a chance for human error and moves production a lot quicker than sending messages through human-to-human contact,” notes Walter Lappert, CEO of Triad Drones, a manufacturer of unmanned vehicles.
Indeed, voice-guided systems can do a lot of heavy lifting.They can, for instance, generate automated reminders for reordering supplies, thereby helping prevent costly delays due to miscommunication between departments. “Automatic recognition of customer orders minimizes paperwork errors. Natural language processing can help sorting robots identify specific items being stored in a warehouse, all while improving accuracy rates across key performance metrics,” Wright says.
“Employees can use voice instructions to report problems with machinery or seek help from supervisors. This can simplify communication and enhance overall productivity in the manufacturing process,” Khan says.
Speech for Hands-Free Safety
Speech tech can also enhance safety by enabling workers to operate machinery hands-free, according to Jones.
“This can reduce the risk of accidents. It can even detect when a worker is in distress” and call for help, he says.
Furthermore, speech technology tools can furnish workers with touchless access to information, “allowing for real-time data capture and evaluation, simplifying communication and workflow, and enhancing accuracy and speed in multiple aspects of the manufacturing and distribution process,” Khan adds.
When it comes to warehouse operations, voice-activated picking systems can be especially beneficial.
“Voice picking systems let warehouse staff pick and pack items with just their voices. The efficiency, accuracy, and safety in the warehouse environment can all be significantly improved by this technology,” says Scott Lard, general manager of IS&T Consulting Group. “Additionally, these systems can give workers immediate feedback and direction to make sure they are correctly picking and packing items. By lowering the possibility of mistakes and returns, time and money may be saved.”
Quality control is another obvious beneficiary. “Speech technology can be employed to detect flaws in goods or monitor inventory levels,” Khan says. “This can guarantee products meet quality standards and are delivered on time.”
Shipping and distribution can significantly improve, too. Consider that voice-assisted inventory management and routing can optimize logistics and monitor goods and reduce errors as they proceed through the supply chain. “Businesses can use voice-activated devices to update the status of shipments or monitor inventory levels in real time, which can enhance accuracy and speed up delivery times,” Khan adds.
Other Uses for Speech
Speech tech can also improve service by letting customers place or track orders using voice-activated devices.
“This can reduce the need for human interaction, improve the overall customer experience, and increase customer satisfaction and loyalty,” Jones says.
Think of the benfits related to real-time data analysis. “By collecting and analyzing data in real time, managers can gain valuable insights into their operations,” Jones notes. “This includes monitoring equipment performance, detecting defects or quality issues, and identifying opportunities for improvement. This can help companies optimize their processes, reduce waste, and save costs.”
While this technology has become common in modern manufacturing and distribution facilities, some companies’ use of it stands out, according to Khan and others.
German auto manufacturer BMW has implemented voice-controlled robots in its assembly lines, “which improve safety and efficiency, allowing workers to communicate with the robots using natural language commands,” says Amaete Umanah, founder and managing partner of Amaete Venture Studios. “
Other adopters include Amazon, which uses speech technology in its warehouses, with employees receiving voice-guided instructions through headsets, and Coca-Cola, which uses voice technologies to help factory workers through product selection and movement.
“Since workers may operate hands-free without printed instructions, productivity and accuracy have increased at Coca-Cola,” Khan points out.
GE has in place what it calls Brilliant Factory, a speech-activated platform that automates manufacturing and distribution processes, offering voice-activated job instructions, real-time analytics, and inventory management to improve efficiency and product quality and decrease downtime and waste.
And at worldwide logistics services provider DHL, speech-enabled systems in its warehouses and distribution hubs include voice-guided picking systems and inventory tracking and management devices. “DHL has improved order accuracy, worker training time, and warehouse and distribution center productivity by employing voice technology,” Khan says.
For companies looking to duplicate these benefits, the deployment process can seem overwhelming. Experts concede that adopting speech tech within manufacturing and distribution operations will require careful research and preparation. Umanah recommends taking the following actions:
- Assess your company’s specific needs and identify areas where speech technology can provide the most significant benefits.
- Research and invest in cutting-edge speech technology solutions tailored to your industry’s requirements.
- Train employees on how to effectively use speech technology tools and integrate them into their daily routines.
- Monitor the impact of speech technology implementation, adjusting as needed to ensure optimal results.
- Stay informed about advancements in speech technology and be prepared to adapt as new innovations emerge.
Iu Ayala Portella, CEO of Gradient Insight, an AI consultancy, agrees with these recommendations.
“Companies need to identify the specific areas where speech technology can make a difference, assess their infrastructure and data needs, and partner with the right vendors or consultants to develop and implement customized solutions,” he says. “They also need to educate their employees on how to use the new technology effectively and continuously monitor and evaluate its performance to ensure optimal outcomes.”
“Carefully research software systems that will work best for your business. Make sure to spread the knowledge of this software throughout your business so that others can access and learn from it. This will improve productivity in your workplace and advance the knowledge of your workers,” Lappert advises.
Lastly, don’t be intimidated by the latest technology or the learning curve involved. As speech tech continues to advance, its potential applications in manufacturing and distribution should grow exponentially, driving further innovation and efficiency. You don’t want to be left behind.
“Companies that embrace these technologies will likely gain a competitive edge, enhancing their productivity, reducing costs, and improving overall operations,” Umanah concludes.
Erik J. Martin is a Chicago area-based freelance writer and public relations expert whose articles have been featured in AARP The Magazine, Reader’s Digest, The Costco Connection, and other publications. He often writes on topics related to real estate, business, technology, healthcare, insurance, and entertainment. He also publishes several blogs, including martinspiration.com and cineversegroup.com.