Voice technology allows workers to operate hands-free and eyes-free, so they can focus more completely on the task at hand. The old way was tailor-made for all sorts of mistakes. Workers would have to walk to a control desk to get a long sheet of paper listing everything they were to pick. They carried the list and a pencil around, crossing off products picked as they worked their way through the warehouse. Any mistakes meant the process would have to be redone.
Voice improves worker productivity, usually cutting labor costs significantly, especially in the picking area. "Labor costs here are the number-one cost for a DC in the food industry," notes Slevin at Lucas Systems.
The biggest benefits to voice are in-creased productivity and near-perfect accuracy. Gerard reports companies increase productivity by around 15 percent to 40 percent, depending on the process, and one food company's error rate is about one mistake in every 6,000 picks made.
Slevin at Lucas adds a customer had an error rate of one error per 1,000 cases, but that changed to one error per 8,000 cases only a few weeks after implementation.
Voice is an excellent training device, without requiring a supervisor to follow new workers around the warehouse. "Workers grow in confidence and productivity a lot faster," adds Gerard. "This is great for food companies that have to deal with training large seasonal workforces, who can now get up to speed very quickly."
Worker confidence is an ancillary benefit most companies did not anticipate. "Workers describe using voice similar to having a supervisor helping them do their jobs by providing information they need," Slevin says. "And managers have access to productivity information with visibility into their operations, which enables them to make more real-time decisions in allocating their workforce across the DC."
Incentive plans are a way companies reward their workers for higher productivity and accuracy. "Before voice, workers would try to go faster but they made more errors," says Sweeney at Vocollect. "Now they can go faster and still be accurate, so they look at voice as a way to make more money. And companies report worker satisfaction is up."
Although companies generally choose voice to reduce operating costs across the board, some choose voice because it's a way to increase throughput without having to invest in expanding a facility or building a new one, notes Sweeney. "We hear this much of the time."
Safety is yet another byproduct. "Our customers tell us workers' compensation claims drop once voice is deployed," continues Sweeney. "This is because workers are not looking down at a piece of paper or carrying handheld devices while operating equipment like a pallet jack—so they can work with their heads up and they're more aware of their surroundings."
Voice Grows Up
In the early days of voice, the focus was on the voice hardware unit, and many companies found they were stuck with inflexible proprietary software architectures out-of-step with IT standards adopted by their IT departments over the last several years.
Open voice software solutions are popular as customers search for voice solutions that run on a variety of hardware designed to perform multiple capabilities. Customers don't have to get locked into one vendor for their software and hardware requirements, which means they can shop based on price.
Voxware offers an SOA off-the-shelf software product. "It's fully configurable, so you create the voice solution by assembling the building blocks instead of writing programs," explains Gerard, adding this is a relatively new development in voice solutions. "This allows customers to have more control in having a tool set they can use to make changes they need to make. They are also implemented a lot faster at less cost."
Integrating voice directly with a WMS solution is nothing new, notes Slevin at Lucas. "The real issue is choosing the best approach to add voice to your current system, and we've seen this is a hot topic. It will differ for each warehouse in terms of whether the best solution is a direct interface or whether it's a middle-ware or three-tier solution where the voice application runs on a separate server and integrates in real time with the WMS."
VoiceLink 3.0, recently launched, is an SOA-based middleware software that integrates easily into a company's current IT enterprise. "It's a Web-server-based approach," explains Sweeney.