Digital assistants like Siri, Google and Alexa are on the rise, so there’s little surprise that this kind of technology found in consumer settings has made its way to the corporate and industrial sectors as well.

A study from Modern Materials Handling found that this is certainly the case for some warehouses. Voice picking systems are now in place within 18 percent of warehouse operations, and another 37 percent of survey respondents said they are considering or have plans to implement voice picking within the next few years.

Today, there are numerous choices for warehouse management, and many promise to improve efficiency and productivity while eliminating manual paperwork. However, it’s worth taking a closer look at voice picking systems – especially in comparison with advanced barcode scanning – to see whether this approach is really all it’s cracked up to be.

Basics of voice picking

As The Balance explained, the first voice picking systems emerged out of necessity – in cases where items didn’t come with a barcode, such as fresh produce, warehouse employees required another way to make the appropriate picks without bogging down operations. Utilization of the technology grew from there.

In voice picking, employees wear a headset and microphone, and the system leverages speech recognition and synthesis to enable workers to speak to the Warehouse Management System (WMS). The WMS provides instructions via voice over the headset, and workers pick items and verbally send confirmation back to the system.

Multichannel Merchant contributor Rene Jones noted that voice picking can improve efficiency by freeing up workers hands. Experts also point to a less complex training process for voice picking, compared to other warehouse and inventory management styles.

Is voice picking as beneficial is it appears?

Problems with voice picking: Supporting accuracy

But some of the advantages associated with voice picking don’t always ring true.

A main issue with voice picking is a lack of validation when it comes to the physical picks workers are making in the warehouse. With a barcode scanner, if a warehouse employee attempts to scan and pick the wrong item, the scanner and WMS will alert him to this mistake. This helps contribute to higher accuracy overall, and the reduced chance of a mis-pick and mis-shipment.

Voice picking, on the other hand, doesn’t have the benefit of this extra confirmation. Although workers should verbally confirm their pick through the headset and back to the WMS, human error can still happen. In other words, the voice picking system could instruct a picker to pick three of one item, but there’s no failsafe preventing that picker from actually taking two of a completely different item. And with the high costs associated with a mispick and mis-shipment, this simple mistake can end up costing the organization greatly to pick and ship the correct item.

Barcode scanning: The optimal solution

Despite voice picking providing a hands-off approach, there are still advantages to warehouse workers using a barcode scanner and WMS system. In addition to better supporting picking accuracy with mispick prevention built into the hardware, a barcode scanner also ensures that workers can see every item that needs to be picked, as well as those that have already been picked, on the screen of their scanners. In this way, workers can be more efficient in their picking based on items’ locations, and can reduce the amount of time they spend moving about the warehouse.

Choosing between voice picking and barcode scanning

As noted, both voice picking and barcode scanning have their advantages and disadvantages. It’s important to understand the benefits of both methods and select what is right for you. The decision comes down to being more product having two hands free versus accuracy that leads to reduced mis-picks and mis-shipments saving costs.