In today’s fast-moving distribution environments, exceeding the performance of your competition is crucial. For this reason, modern picking technologies must not only bring efficiencies to operations but also allow performance to accelerate in measurable ways. Voice solutions are becoming increasingly popular in distribution centres (DCs) for their ability to deliver double-digit gains in productivity as well as dramatically improve picking accuracy. For those businesses looking to deploy Voice within their DC, there are several steps to consider in getting up and running:
There are a number of key technologies used in DCs today. From Voice, RFID, barcode scanning, through to pick-to-light, each technology supports productive warehouse operations and represent significant improvement over paper-based systems. Voice in particular provides a flexible solution with high accuracy and reasonable implementation costs. Because Voice can be deployed throughout all areas of the DC, organisations can obtain wide-ranging benefits including reduced training time, easy integration, and low maintenance, which are only achieved through the use of a single technology.
Voice should not be viewed as a standalone piece of technology; rather it should be considered an integral driver for reengineering processes and systems in a DC to dramatically increase productivity. In a Voice-enabled warehouse, distribution operators wearing rugged headsets receive verbal direction on tasks to complete select workflows, as opposed to managing multiple devices or paper. Workers speak their responses back to the Voice system, enabling the system to determine if they are completing the correct task. Voice systems enforce order accuracy through the use of random check digits. The check digits are placed directly by the product to be picked and must be read when a worker is at the appropriate location. The system won’t allow the worker to continue to the next picking location unless they read the appropriate digits, resulting in close to 100 per cent accuracy at all times. The ability of Voice systems to deliver picking accuracy means that the correct orders are processed for shipping more often, which in turn means there are fewer returns to process.
A Voice-enabled solution starts by interfacing to the Warehouse Management System (WMS). The Voice system, which includes both the software that defines a Voice-enabled workflow and the hardware used by workers to interact with the WMS, must link with the WMS in order to receive work instructions, provide acknowledgements of tasks completed, and update inventory levels. To minimise costly customisation, the system should allow for multiple interface options. WMS providers vary in their approach to this. A voice application is created for each workflow and specifies precisely the interaction between the WMS and the worker. Typically, a separate voice application is developed for each workflow in the DC (e.g. picking, put-away, replenishment). If workflows are combined, a Voice application will be developed for the total workflow. These applications are developed using vendor supplied tools and, once complete, are loaded onto the Voice solution.
Voice solutions are one of the easiest and fastest technologies on the DC floor to train employees on. Voice solutions use listening and speaking as the only mode of communication. This requires the operator to set his or her voice template, a process that takes only minutes, so that the Voice recognition software is able to Voice-identify and recognise the user. This includes their accents and unique speech characteristics. The worker is then ready to be directed through each step of the job assignment. Because of the simplicity for the worker of the Voice system, training is cut from weeks to just hours.
Voice systems are designed to integrate with all commonly used warehouse technologies, including scanners, with some systems coming coupled with scanners. Pairing Voice with scanning can assist with the capture of large amounts of data, or the input of large numbers of orders for batch picking. To improve warehouse receiving workflows, and to enable mobile working, wearable wrist-mounted scanners can be combined with Voice, particularly when product or carton ID numbers are too long to easily read out for the system. In this scenario, the Voice system will prompt the worker to scan the barcode and the collected data, and then provides information on that product for all of the workflows to come.
Voice technology in the DC provides the transformational change needed to address today’s key business challenges cost-effectively, while enabling growth. The steps to deployment of Voice are also relatively straight-forward, offering Australian businesses an easy-to-implement solution that delivers real gains in accuracy and productivity, and delivers a competitive edge.