The ‘secret sauce’ for Voxware is their configurable system, along with their continuous recognition capability, which means the system can recognize long phrases of words, e.g. “I am at location X and I’ve just picked up six cases of product X,” versus having to split the phrase up into two parts.
In addition, “Our product is agnostic as to whether the worker is using voice or a scanner. The configurability aspect means the worker can speak it in or scan it in. Configurability also reduces the need for excessive (or unnecessary) coding,” says Gerrard.
These features were among those that attracted PFG to the Voxware system.
“They wanted three things: rapid deployment, open architecture, and scalability,” says Gerrard. “PFG didn’t want a long implementation time that would drive up costs. Secondly, they wanted an open architecture so they could have options around hardware devices and vendors. And thirdly, they needed it to scale up to support all of their DCs.”
Rather than installing hardware in each facility, PFG uses a centralized computer center to support their DCs. It saved the company considerable money because they didn’t have to duplicate infrastructure at each DC and furthermore, it’s much easier to support the system from a central location.
As for the ‘next big thing’ for voice picking applications, Gerrard sees the technology expanding beyond order fulfillment.
“There are companies that are looking at the benefits of doing hands-free work in other areas such as loading, and replenishment, and put-away.”
There’s also plenty of room to grow for offerings aimed at managers. “We’re announcing an update to our product that will enable the manager to run the console from an iPad or other tablet device,” says Gerrard.
Better warehouse management, locally and globally
Not only do small and large warehouse operators approach productivity with different priorities, there are differences between U.S. and European operators, according to Donal MacDaid, vice president of supply optimization for Aldata Group, a leading global player in retail and distribution optimization.
For starters, prior to the formation of the European Union, which led to standardized and harmonized customs processes, the movement of goods throughout Europe meant multiple border clearances and ultimately higher supply chain costs. European retailers, therefore, were keenly focused on managing their inventory, explains MacDaid. This was in contrast to U.S. retailers, whose attention was on merchandising and selling the product, and less on inventory optimization during that time.
There were exceptions, such as Walmart, which has long understood the value of supply chain management as a competitive differentiator, MacDaid points out.
However, “In recent years, we’ve seen more U.S. companies begin to focus on inventory management and optimization because it reduces inventory levels and reduces cost,” he says.
Other factors, such as longer and more complex supply chains, rising fuel costs, and new consumer channels, are pushing companies to optimize their inventory, says MacDaid.
The new consumer channels include “mobile computing and social networking,” he says, part of the broader e-commerce sector. “This adds a lot of complexity to the supply chain and raises questions like, ‘Where am I going to keep my inventory?’ Also, consumers today want to have the option to buy an item in one store location and return it the next day at another location 500 miles away.”
The proliferation of e-commerce has created other consumer channels, too. In France, the “drive” concept is extremely popular, according to MacDaid. These “hypermarchés drive” or drive-through hypermarkets offer a vast range of products, about 50 percent grocery products, and 50 percent non-grocery.
Customers have the option to either drive up to an electronic terminal at the “drive,” place their order and pick it up at the service point, which takes about 5 minutes, or they can pre-order online via their smartphone, tablet PC, or computer.
The importance of inventory optimization in this setting cannot be overstated. This retail model would simply not work without the support of a robust inventory management operation.