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Tired of keyboards and touchscreens? Want to be able to say: "Computer, bring up the instructions for the next job on screen 1," or "I'm finished with job 17. What's next?" or "Notify the tool room that I'll need a new 9/16 bit by 11 o'clock." All this and more will be coming to a workstation near you soon.
Voice technology, which includes both voice recognition (talking to your system) and voice response (the system talking to you), are not new technologies. Voice systems have been in use for decades in limited applications in plants and warehouses, but huge advancements in AI and speech recognition, driven by the high demand for devices such as Amazon Echo and Google Home in the consumer space, will soon usher in a new, truly functional and effective voice interface for business and factory systems.
Benefits, challenges of voice technology for manufacturing plants
Certain areas of plant and warehouse operations benefit from data collection and reporting while the job is in process -- picking a number of items to put into a shipping carton for retail fulfillment, for example. A voice technology-enabled headset with a microphone enables the worker to receive instructions and report picks while moving up and down the aisles, using both hands to pick and pack on the go. Voice technology is used for similar data collection tasks in the plant. These are limited applications, however, with simple information exchange only.
The new breed of voice technology is much more interactive and functional. Voice is developing into a full-service human-machine interface (HMI) that replaces the keyboard and touchscreen, and its functionality is a result of AI. Human language is, by its nature, imprecise and subject to interpretation. Without AI, the voice commands have to be very specific, predefined words and sounds in order to be understood by the machine. AI and machine learning enable the system to learn all of the different ways a human can say something so that it can respond appropriately.
Voice interfaces promise to be quicker, more reliable and less invasive than a keyboard or touch interface because it does not require taking eyes or hands off the job. And it feels natural, too.
There are some barriers to widespread adoption of voice technology in the plant. Noise is one. And software developers have to incorporate this technology into application sets as well. The additional computing power needed to operate these voice engines will add cost for these systems and the plant infrastructure to support them.
Voice technology taking manufacturing plants into the future
When will voice technology become commonplace in the plant? A good rule of thumb for such advanced technology is "sooner than you might think." Look at how fast millions of people have installed and quickly become enamored with -- if not entirely dependent on -- Apple's Siri, Amazon's Alexa and Google Assistant. And voice is not likely to be the end of the road for HMI. Remember Tom Cruise manipulating holographic images in the 2002 movie Minority Report? And how about brain implants or wave sensors? Many science fiction technologies are becoming a reality in an ever-accelerating technology explosion. Voice is next, but who's to say what comes after that?