Voice-directed working has enjoyed huge success as an order-picking technology thanks in part to the well-publicised proven speed and efficiency gains it can bring. However, this success has also led to it being viewed almost exclusively within the context of picking.
Why branch out beyond picking?
The essence of voice technology is that it allows warehouse operatives to work hands-free and eyes-free, allowing them to concentrate fully on current tasks. Logically, this makes it ideal for manually intensive order processing, but it also fits seamlessly into a whole range of other workflows, not least because the clear, uncomplicated direction it provides fosters enthusiasm in the workforce.
As executives recognise the impact that voice can bring to their logistics centres and users on-site, increasingly warehouse and distribution centres are expanding their use of voice-directed solutions beyond picking to include workflows such as cycle-counting, receiving, loading, put-away, replenishment and put-to-store.
Replenishment and put-away are potential voice tasks as they mirror picking in several respects, such as ensuring the right goods are placed into (rather than selected from) the right locations with maximum accuracy and speed. At the same time, safety is also enhanced, as drivers are free to concentrate on the task without the distraction of having to refer to screens or lists. Additionally, productivity gains drive down labour costs and can reduce materials handling equipment expenses.
Voice allows the more efficient checking of goods in the receiving process. Hands-free, eyes-free operation allows workers to speak and confirm pallet and order numbers while carrying out manual unloading, ensuring quickly that all goods are present and correct. There are also benefits for loading, as voice enables forklift drivers to report load information verbally and concentrate on manoeuvring safely, thereby reducing the potential for equipment and product damage.Becoming a flexible voice-centric warehouse
However, the real value of voice-directed working lies not just in its ability to improve isolated tasks, but in its capacity to transform the overall operating efficiency of the warehouse. In dynamic and changing environments, affected by unpredictable seasonal peaks or work patterns, some distribution centres find themselves constrained by work patterns that resist change and flexibility. In other words picking is by and large done by pickers, receiving by receivers, and loading by loaders.
With voice, where the operation is essentially intuitive and training times for new tasks much reduced, distribution centres can more easily direct an operator to carry out different tasks during the course of a day depending on the varying business requirements. So voice-enabled individual operators may easily find themselves managing receiving tasks in the early morning, picking for much of the day, before finishing with replenishment or loading. All supported by the same simple intuitive voice-directed link to the host system.
To maximise the potential offered by current voice technology, the recommended approach is to make voice the starting point, 27rather than the exception, and explore its use in every workflow. Traditional hand-held and vehicle mounted computers, scanners and paper processes may well find a place in a voice-centric distribution centre, but should be considered once the validity of a voice approach has been assessed.
Of course each company is different, while some distribution centres migrate all workflows from paper to voice straight away, others are more cautious and start with voice for picking. However, once the double-digit gains in productivity and accuracy in picking are realised, many quickly transition to voice in other workflows to take advantage of their now hands-free, eyes-free workers.
In Europe, many companies have spotted the potential of voice and are using it for multiple applications. One such company is Glanbia plc, a 2.6 billion euro international nutritional solutions and cheese group headquartered in Ireland. Glanbia has implemented voice for picking, transfers, receiving, loading, stock-counting and forklift applications. Similarly, in France, PPG Architectural Coatings, a manufacturer and distributor of decorative paints uses voice for a different mix of processes, such as picking, filming (wrapping) and loading control. As a result, these companies are seeing a significant uplift in performance and cost savings.
Extending voice across an operation is a well-established process, achieved primarily by asking the warehouse management system provider or system integrator to implement existing further software modules that support these processes or to develop new functionality to fit the requirement.
Whichever approach is taken, the benefits of voice beyond picking are becoming progressively well understood. In market conditions that make ever-increasing demands of distribution centre management to ‘do more with less’, the ability of voice-directed working to deliver previously unseen benefits to warehouse operations makes the voice-centric warehouse an increasing reality.Richard Adams
Richard Adams is EMEA vice president of sales for Vocollect. In this capacity, he is
responsible for growing the company’s sales and presence throughout the region,
expanding its network of resellers and supply chain performance experts, and increasing opportunities for Vocollect Voice in newer geographic markets of the world, including Russia and Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa. He is based in the company’s EMEA headquarters office outside of London in Wooburn Green, UK.Vocollect
Vocollect, a business unit of Intermec, Inc. is the leader in creating and providing voice-centric solutions for mobile workers in distribution and warehouse environments worldwide. The speech recognition software and extreme recognition accuracy of in-vocabulary speech helps customers achieve a higher level of business performance through voice.
For more information, visit www.vocollect.comIntermec Inc
Intermec Inc. develops and integrates products, services and technologies that identify, track and manage supply chain assets and information. Core technologies include rugged mobile computing and data collection systems, bar code printers, label media, and RFID.
For more information, visit www.intermec.com