When asked what warehouse technology brings the most immediate improvement in efficiency, voice picking often comes to mind for warehouse operations professionals. The ability to guide the picker through an order, provide item location and quantity required, then have the action confirmed by voice makes a distribution warehouse more efficient. And given that order picking can account for 40 to 60 percent of the labor in a food or beverage warehouse, this benefit remains a driving force for voice automation.
By using a voice verification system, information from the warehouse management software (WMS) is transformed to speech, instructing the order picker to the item location and quantity required. The picker then verbally confirms the location via a number, or check digit, located where the product is stored and the quantity picked.
But as WMS, voice verification technology and computer hardware all evolve, system integrators are finding ways to expand voice technology’s benefits beyond that of order picking.
While this article focuses on voice technology’s growing capabilities, it is important to note that order picking remains the key benefit that voice technology provides, given the importance of this function in a distribution warehouse.
It must also be noted that voice technology is not the only order picking system that distribution warehouses currently use. Radio frequency (RF) scanners and pick-to-light systems are also being used, both of which have begun utilizing visual logistics to make the order picker’s job easier.
Warehouse managers are advised to consider all options when choosing an order picking technology.
Wyoming Liquor: full- and split-case orders
The Wyoming Liquor Division faced a demand for a larger inventory of items available for overnight delivery and expanded the special order and catalog selections at its Cheyenne, Wyo. distribution center. Its manual paper pick order fulfillment system was unable to adapt to the shifted retailer preference from full cases or pallet loads to more complex split-case orders.
The division found the Intelligrated Voice solution offered pick-by-voice order fulfillment featuring hands-free, step-by-step picking instruction and real-time order management. Wireless phones and Bluetooth headsets replaced paper pick lists, and enabled the WMS to direct workers to each item location for accurate item picking, improved efficiency and accuracy.
Meanwhile, voice technology has expanded to improve warehouse operating efficiencies in areas other than product picking.
Voice recognition software can manage the following functions: selection (case, piece batch and cluster picking), put-to-store (building location specific pallets, both single and multi-SKU pallets), replenishment, transfers (point-to-point item moving), put-away, line loading (order assembly from belts for pallet building), cycle-counting, loading, back stocking, receiving and inventory control.
Jay Blinderman, director of product marketing at Vocollect by Honeywell, based in Pittsburgh, Pa., notes that accurate cycle counting can eliminate the need for a stand-alone inventory audit function.
Combining bar code scanning and voice
The marrying of bar code scanning and voice – so-called multi-modal applications – marks one of the most recent advances in warehouse management, voice technology providers and integrators agree.
Jennifer Lachenman, vice president of product strategy and business alliances at Lucas Systems, a Wexford, Pa.-based voice technology provider, notes that more than 80 percent of all new Lucas customers are using scanning within their voice applications.
Meanwhile, voice technology providers are making their software more “hardware agnostic.”
“We can use any hardware that’s voice-capable, including industrial PDAs and smart phones,” says Marceline Absil, vice president of sales and marketing at TopVOX Corp., a Barrington, Ill.-based maker of voice hardware and software.
The TopVOX “speaker independent” speech recognition engine allows the system to recognize people’s voices without the need for lengthy voice template training. This greatly reduces training time and ensures that voice users are up and running in a timely manner, Absil says.
For Nature’s Way Products Inc., a manufacturer and distributor of dietary supplements based in Green Bay, Wis., the “speaker independent” feature was an important consideration in choosing a voice technology for the company’s new West Coast distribution center in McCarran, Nev., according to Tom Krajewski, Nature Way’s director of distribution.
Nature’s Way Products has used voice verification for functions other than order picking; packing and shipping are also voice-directed. Woodridge, Ill.-based Numina Group’s warehouse control system (WCS) manages the order fulfillment automation module. The WCS simultaneously processes the entire mix of order types including split-case orders, Internet and less-than-truckload (LTL) shipments.
Motorola Solutions, based in Plantation, Fla., recently introduced a solution called TekSpeech Pro which offers speaker-independent voice recognition and requires no speaker training for easy deployment. A speech analyzer captures all types of time and event information from voice-directed processes, providing the user visibility to maximize workflow and worker productivity.
Enabling product traceability
The combination of voice and scanning also promises to play an important role in efforts to improve product traceability, especially as government mandates become stricter and companies pay more attention to product handling. “Voice handles special instructions very well,” notes Lucas System’s Lachenman.
Food manufacturers and retailers have been at the forefront of efforts to improve traceability “from farm to fork.” In foodservice, the GS1 Foodservice Initiative, a voluntary effort among manufacturers, distributors and operators to improve supply chain efficiency and product traceability has given new impetus to voice and scan verification in that sector as well, Lachenman notes. In addition to improved traceability, GS1 and other standards efforts serve a dual purpose of improving supply chain efficiency by creating agreed data standards and communication protocols.
Computer hardware evolves
As warehouse managers find new uses for voice verification, computer hardware continues to evolve, bringing new management tools to the warehouse. These include smart phones, “smart watches” and visual display technology (“Google glasses” is the best known example of visual display technology). Hence, warehouse managers must consider software/hardware compatibility to be in a position to take advantage of new hardware tools.
Lucas Systems recently certified Samsung Galaxy S4 smart phones for its software, Lucas’ Lachenman says. “Technology in the consumer space is impacting the industrial mobile worker,” she says. “More and more, technology developments in the consumer world is impacting the industrial world.”
But wait – won’t a smart phone in the warehouse require a picker to once again have to hold something in his hand? Rapidly-evolving consumer product technology has already provided answers.
Have you heard of the “smart watches” from Samsung and LG that deliver text and graphics and voice recognition software to your wrist?
“All of that (the use of smart phones with voice recognition along with smart watches to display other information) is enabled through our multi-modal software,” Lucas’ Lachenman says.
But it doesn’t end there.
Lucas has worked with Motorola to evaluate the use of “heads up” display technology in warehouse logistics applications, using a wearable computer that pairs voice and heads-up display technology. This technology has been referred to as “smart glasses” (Google glasses being the best known example.) Users can receive visual cues and information – product image, list of pick locations and quantities, etc. – without the need to take their eyes away from their task.
Smart glasses maker Vuzix, based in Rochester, N.Y., and global enterprise software firm SAP are marketing an augmented reality offering designed for distribution warehouses In a demonstration video, a forklift operator sees and hears picking instructions through his smart glasses. The operator is directed to pick a product in a specific aisle and row. As he nears the pick location, a green rectangle appears to highlight his destination. When the operator picks the item, a built-in scanner verifies that the operator has the right package, then directs him to the next pick or the loading dock.
Vocollect’s Blinderman says one of the major benefits of voice in the warehouse is allowing the worker’s hands to remain free. Google Glass might have potential to provide a similar benefit, however, the business challenge to be answered is how that type of display might enable a warehouse worker to perform distribution center functions faster and more accurately.
As hardware and software both advance, warehouse managers have to consider hardware/software compatibility. Providers of voice verification software increasingly note the importance of “hardware agnosticism.”
Order picking, meanwhile, remains the key benefit that voice technology provides, given this function’s importance in a distribution warehouse.
For an extended version of this article, go to http://www.foodlogistics.com/article/11598300/voice-recognition-expands-beyond-order-picking
For more information:
Intelligrated, intelligrated.com, 877-315-3400
Lucas Systems, Lucasware.com, 724-940-7000
Product Marketing Association, pma.com, 302-738-7100
Motorola Solutions, Motorolasolutions.com, 631-525-2139
Numina Group, numinagroup.com, 630-343-2600
SAP, SAP.com, 866-681-6121
TOPVox, top-vox.com, 847-842-0900
Vocollect, vocollectvoice.com, 412-829-8145
Vuzix, vuzix.com, 585-359-5900