Voice in pharmaceutical manufacturing: how it’s going to change everything

Machines talking to each other is nothing unusual. What is new, however, is the way in which humans are beginning to communicate directly with those machines, explains Mark Lippett, CEO of XMOS

During the past few years, technology has enabled pharmaceutical equipment to communicate with various systems and perform numerous tasks — from informing engineers about a potential fault to automatically scheduling routine maintenance.

In the consumer world, people are getting increasingly used to interacting with technology using their voice.

But, in the manufacturing sector, engineers still interact with and operate machinery using buttons, dials and other “physical” methods. As people become accustomed to the benefits of hands-free control, manufacturers are rightly asking if it’s now possible to benefit from voice in their own industry.

Voice has the potential to transform three major areas in pharmaceutical manufacturing: safety and security, ease of use and access to vital information.

Safety and security: Pharmaceutical machinery already has a significant number of safety features built in … but there are multiple ways in which voice could enhance safety. First, machinery could be taught to respond only to authorised personnel to ensure only the correct people have control, reducing the risk of misuse. Secondly, voice can act as a failsafe in emergency stop situations if the physical controls are out of reach.

Controlling machines aside, pharmaceutical companies can also use voice as a biometric method of authentication alongside face and fingerprint recognition, to access to restricted areas such as the manufacturing floor and warehouse stocks, for example. Lighting, security systems and surveillance cameras can all be voice-enabled.

Mark Lippett, CEO, XMOS

Ease of use: Voice is a much more natural way to operate machinery than a complex set of controls on a physical or digital dashboard. By making the operation of machinery more intuitive, pharmaceutical companies can reduce the amount of training required (and therefore save money), while those in control of the machinery can save a significant amount of time during operation and work more efficiently.

Access to vital information: Using voice to access information is far more natural than using a computer; it also enables faster and more efficient business decision making.

For example, if managers need to know the volume of medication they have created during the past quarter, or review current stock levels, they can simply use their voice to ask the question — and receive the answer within a few second thanks to their business analytics tool crunching data in the background.

The here and now

All of this is possible thanks to two major shifts in the voice-processing market. The first is a drop in the price of artificial intelligence (AI) processing capabilities, which finally makes it economically viable to build AI into manufacturing equipment. Doing so removes one of the biggest barriers to voice adoption in industrial settings.

Previously, all voice control relied on connecting to the Internet, which would often mean a delayed response — something that is a major risk when safety and security are paramount. By embedding AI into the machinery, equipment can respond to voice commands much more quickly and effectively while reducing or removing the reliance on Internet connectivity in factories.

The second shift is the advancement of voice-processing technology to the point whereby it can distinguish voice commands — even at a distance in loud environments — and still determine who is speaking. This kind of “far-field” voice capability, which uses advanced interference cancelling and noise suppression, is far more effective than the current consumer-grade voice capability you might have experienced in your everyday Amazon Alexa or Google Home device.

Together, these shifts are helping to make the human–machine interface more natural, making the world of pharmaceutical manufacturing safer, more secure and simpler to use.

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