Warehousing is operating at record levels as the pandemic has spurred historic gains in e-commerce sales. The e-commerce boom has contributed to 1.25 million workers employed in the warehouse and storage sector as of September 2020. Retail e-commerce sales in the U.S. are predicted to reach more than $700 billion in 2020, a year-over-year increase of 18%. While these statistics are a silver lining in what has been a devastating year, the volume hikes do create some concern. How do you ensure the safety and health of these workers, particularly those brought on board for the peak season with possibly little background in warehousing?
We know that warehousing has integrated robotics and automation to improve efficiency and picking accuracy. Additionally, voice-enabled applications are helping both experienced and new hires be safe and accurate. Also known as voice-directed warehousing (VDW), earlier versions of voice-driven applications were used in the late 1990s, but they had their share of hurdles. To adopt any version of VDW, companies had to add hardware and middleware to transition from speech to text and to integrate with management systems. The early VDW also required host system modifications and could require locked-in contracts with traditional voice vendors. Essentially, these versions were clunky, hard to integrate and added unwanted cost.
Since the early days of voice, technology has taken great strides. Warehouse employees are no longer tethered to any one device or desk location. Android-enabled devices, for example, give pickers freedom to move around the warehouse floor and quickly record data and confirm accuracy. Voice-enabled picking technology now works without cumbersome middleware and no longer requires purchasing proprietary voice hardware. It also can integrate with any warehouse management system (WMS).
Despite the improved technology, recent studies have shown voice picking slow to gain traction. For example, researchers found in 2018 it was still at around a 25% adoption rate, up from almost 6% in 2008. Meanwhile, adoption of mobile technology was more than 50% in 2018 and cloud-based services a little over 40%. However, several factors are now influencing further adoption:
This dynamic requires highly efficient, cost-conscious solutions. Besides the lower cost of ownership, voice-enabled applications can benefit not only order picking but solve some of the challenges in quickly adding to the warehouse workforce to accommodate new levels of e-commerce and peak season demand.
In just one month, from August to September 2020, the warehouse and storage sector added 32,200 jobs, almost half the total of 73,600 added in the entire transportation and warehousing sector. Improved voice and device technology can help mitigate this crunch of new workers and increased demand through:
Embracing advanced technologies — Android or iOS handheld devices, hands free wearables, voice applications — is imperative to sustain what appears to be a long-term upward curve in e-commerce and support systems, like warehousing. It makes sense from an economic standpoint, and with no end of COVID-19 in sight, from a health and safety aspect as well.
This year has proven that unpredictability may become the new norm. Using safe, cost-efficient solutions, like voice-enabled applications, is one way to economically sustain warehousing as the world continues to move to contactless shopping.
Brandon Black is vice president and general manager at Ivanti Wavelink.
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