Accuracy also improved with the voice picking system. “The system directs you to a location, then once you get there, you have to confirm your location with the system. If you’re at the wrong location, the system will announce ‘incorrect location, please go to location X.’ So, you shouldn’t have any mis-picks.”
The warehouse staff was equally excited about this feature, because too many mis-picks results in the worker being addressed by his superior.
Mis-picks are also costly to the company. “This is a huge issue,” says Abbott, “because the customer isn’t getting their product when they need it. And, you have product going out on a truck that needs to come back to the warehouse, while other product has to be re-selected and sent out.”
Prior to the Voxware installation, PFG’s mis-pick rate was 1.5 cases per 1000 selected. “Right now, in my facility, it’s dropped to 0.5 cases per thousand. We’ve cut our mis-picks down by two-thirds,” he says.
Abbott has also seen remarkable savings when it comes to training staff. “One of the huge benefits that we experienced was in training. The voice picking system cut the time in half. Before we had Voxware, we had an 8-week training program, in part, because of all the different languages our staff spoke. In fact, the normal training period without a voice system is 6-8 weeks in our industry. Voxware cut that training time in half. We’re now down to 3-4 weeks.”
All told, from the initial installation of hardware and antennas to going ‘live,’ the entire process took four months, says Abbott.
As it turns out, the biggest obstacle was introducing change to the staff. “It can be a rough area,” admits Abbott. “You’ve got some workers who have been doing this job for 10-15 years and now you’ve taken their world and flipped it upside down.”
According to Voxware’s Steve Gerrard, vice president, marketing and strategic planning, “Voice in the warehouse is still in the early adopter phase. It’s got roughly 11-17 percent market penetration. There are still plenty of companies out there that could benefit from this type of system.”
Voxware is one of only a few vendors that concentrate on voice in the warehouse, he says. “That’s what we’ve been doing for over 10 years. We are one of the two earliest providers of voice; we’re number two in the marketplace behind Vocollect.”
Gerrard understand his customers’ concerns. “Productivity is a huge issue in the warehouse, particularly in North America. The single highest cost a warehouse has is its labor pool. So, if there’s anything that can be done to help improve worker productivity, it will get noticed. Furthermore, it’s estimated that half of the cost spent on labor is for order fulfillment—the people that pick things from the shelves and pack them—and that’s where voice is usually implemented first.”
Voxware delivers the software and sometimes will deliver the hardware that the system runs on as well, says Gerrard.
In fact, it was a move by hardware manufacturers that helped make voice picking systems much more affordable, particularly Motorola and LXE, whose voice-only devices are designed to be used with a voice application and nothing else.
“When Motorola introduced their voice-only wearable device, that was a strong signal that the major manufacturers were serious about getting market share in this space. Likewise, the acquisition of Vocollect by Intermec was also significant. Overall, these developments helped drive down the cost of the hardware substantially,” Gerrard explains.
“If your were one of the early voice implementers, it was not uncommon to spend $5000 to $10,000 for every voice unit, but nowadays that price is under $2000. Voice has followed the typical trajectory of all high-tech—it started out as a proprietary solution, which meant you had to purchase a device from a boutique manufacturer and get custom-made software.”
Companies in the market for a voice picking system need to realize that the quality of the voice recognition software is the most important consideration, according to Gerrard.
“The software has to be able to recognize what the worker is saying. It may seem obvious, but there are a number of companies that have jumped into the market with inexpensive, consumer-oriented software, such as that used for airline reservations systems. However, warehouse environments are a lot noisier and the results are not the same.”