Beyond Order Picking

Voice is expanding its range of users, both inside and outside the warehouse.


“Our experience with voice-driven picking was so extraordinary, we sought to leverage the value of voice throughout the entire warehouse,” says Warren Engard, director of distribution operations at Dunkin’ Donuts’ MADC. “It’s working very well for us. We knew right from the beginning that we wanted to more [than just picking].

“By extending voice to the rest of our material handling applications, we improved our return on investment and increased productivity,” he continues. “We have also increased our product availability, enhanced inventory control, improved our ability to respond to our franchisees and better utilized our workforce.”

That is typical, says Jefferson Barr, Voxware’s director of marketing communications. “In warehousing, 40 percent of the labor is in picking, so the biggest ROI [for voice] is there, but you can migrate it fairly easily to other applications as well,” he says. “Other applications also contribute to labor costs, and the ROI may not be as rapid, but why not roll voice out to them if the infrastructure is already there?”

At St. Louis-based FKI Logistex North America, product managers are seeing the same thing. “EasyPick was originally for full cases, and now it is going into split-case picking. It started as something dedicated just to picking, but is now going into anything that surrounds it. Replenishment, cycle counting, etc., are also part of the software,” says Bill Hubacek, product director for order fulfillment products.

“In logistics, there are applications that go together, like picking and replenishment, receiving and put-away, and if you are doing one with voice, you can certainly go with it for the other,” adds Mike Smith, business development manager at LXE, Norcross, GA.

“Applications [for voice] abound,” says Ken Ackerman, president of KB Ackerman Co., a Columbus, OH-based consulting firm. “Order selection is the most widely used application, but the technology is also adept at handling receiving, put-away, replenishment, sortation, truck and line loading and cycle counting.”

Though loading, put-away and replenishment are among the most common non-picking applications to use voice today, other applications where voice is making inroads include temperature tracking, quality control and pallet transfers. Beyond that, many feel that in the not too distant future the technology will also work its way beyond the four warehouse walls into yard management and all the way out to the customer site through proof of delivery by truck drivers.

These applications “all typically have a what and a where that has to be collected and sent, and voice can do that,” maintains Smith. “Whenever you’ve got something that needs to be validated, voice can have a role, and all the technical advantages that voice has will come through.”

Mike Miller, director of strategic consulting, sales and professional services at Pittsburgh-based Vocollect, feels that yard management and proof of delivery are really the most ripe for voice technology.

“With yard management, a lot of it is now manual and walkie-talkie based, but it doesn’t have to be. The yard is really the same as the inside of a warehouse; you’re just dealing with a different set of SKUs—trucks and trailers instead of cases and pallets,” he says. “On deliveries, the driver can let the system know when he gets to a location and it can work with him on what is supposed to be taken off and where it is in the truck. The truck is really a mini warehouse on wheels.”

The four basics of voice, he adds, are telling a worker where to go, what to get, how many to get, and where to put them, and any application that centers around that same information is ripe for voice.

Receive With Caution

But of all the applications that voice can accommodate today, the one where there is still a lot of disagreement is receiving because of the high volume of information that comes in at that stage of the warehousing process.

Discussion in the industry centers around what role voice-based systems will play in the entire process, and whether voice can adequately do the job of a scanner or radio frequency identification (RFID) tag reader.

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