Voice technology for the supply chain has undergone a dramatic change over the past 20 years, according to Huck. The original units, big and bulky to accommodate batteries that could last the length of a shift, have given way to smaller devices of greater flexibility and durability. Headsets, too, have improved, with their ability to tolerate ambient noise. "Devices today don't resemble those we had in the beginning in any way," says Huck.
On the software side, the industry has seen major advances in an area that plagued many early devices: voice recognition. According to Huck, today's applications can handle a range of foreign languages and dialects. In addition, vendors have beefed up their software to help companies integrate voice technology into a variety of products for inventory control.
The earliest application of voice technology was in the area of manufacturing and hardware inspection. In the early '90s, companies began asking vendors to develop tools that could help out with picking in the warehouse. That's still the primary focus of the technology, Huck says.
As for industries, grocery retail and wholesale distributors were early adopters of voice, which has subsequently been embraced by soft goods and other distribution environments.
The economic downturn has put a crimp in many corporate pocketbooks, so one might assume that the purchase of voice-driven devices has slowed accordingly. Huck argues that the technology is an important tool for surviving tough times. Because it optimizes the performance of pickers, companies "can do much, much more for less."
Voice is poised to break out of the four walls of the warehouse. It's ripe for markets such as field service, inspection and repair, Huck says. In addition, it can complement radio frequency identification (RFID) devices as well as traditional barcoding. In the pharmaceutical industry, where the pedigree of drugs must be tracked "from cradle to grave," some companies are combining RFID with voice to monitor the unique identifier of each product, Huck says. At the same time, vendors are looking for ways to stretch the useful life of batteries, which currently don't last more than a year.
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