Multimodal: The Next Generation
One of the biggest trends over the past number of years has been the emergence of personal digital assistants (PDAs), handheld computer devices that are small enough for workers to carry with them. However, the new generation of PDAs are very different from previous ones.
"We're acute believers in voice," says LXE's Dessommes. "We think it's going to be a big chunk of the growth that we're expected to deliver over the next five years, so we have voice-enabled all of our PDA terminals."
"Thanks to the convergence of technology, we now have mobile devices that people are using in the warehouse that incorporate a number of different technologies that prior to now were separate devices," explains Bill Hubacek, director of distribution technologies, FKI Logistex, North America, St. Louis.
"Now, instead of just having a dedicated voice box, which only allows you to work with voice, PDAs are incorporating bar code scanners, RF picking units, keypads, display screens and also voice capabilities."
"It makes a lot of sense from a cost perspective, now that you don't have to buy two devices-a handheld device and a voice device-to get the job done," says Vocollect's Sweeney. "Not only does it save money, but it offers flexibility and choice for the customer."
The fact that these multimodal concepts are beginning to emerge means that there are now numerous technological and logistical challenges in the warehouse that can be answered with just one device and having instant access to multiple technologies means that warehouse workers can work smarter, which means higher productivity.
"We're going multimodal soon," says John R. Mackenzie, vice president of operations at ODW Logistics Inc., a Columbus, OH provider in the transportation and third-party logistics industry.
"We'll have voice and scanning done from the same unit. The picker will go to a location and he's going to get his pick commands-the check digit, the item, the quantity-via voice. However, some of the selections actually require lot and serial numbers from the picker and you don't want any of that done by voice."
Dealing with bar codes is problematic says Mackenzie, especially if workers have to speak lines of numbers that may run up to 26 digits long. This would squelch productivity. However, if the PDA they're using has a scanner unit embedded within it or a ring scanner attached to it, a worker need merely scan the unwieldy bar code when prompted by the voice system. The system would recognize the numbers and import them.
Another example would involve a worker looking at his pick list on the PDA's screen, while he is picking on the warehouse floor and deciding that going into a certain area to select might not be the smartest use of his time.
He can access the screen with a stylus and move the particular items lower on his pick list. The system records the change and the worker has created his own picking path, based on his own experience and knowledge.
Today's new devices are also integrating RFID along with voice and traditional data collection into one unit.
"Voice is the perfect technology to direct a person's work and think of RFID as the perfect technology that audits information," says Vocollect's Sweeney. "So combine those two and you have voice telling a worker what to do and to save time, RFID is making sure they're doing the right thing."