Mispicks can drop by 80%

Voice technology has been around for a while, but only now do wholesalers seem to be implementing it. BCP’s Tony Beales answers our questions on the subject.
Tony has been involved with Supply Chain Solutions for over 20 years. BCP is a leading provider of supply chain and e-business solutions.

PW: Tony, could you outline where a wholesaler would use voice technology and what benefits it offers?

TONY: Voice technology is most important to the wholesaler in warehouse operations, particularly for order picking. It involves the use of a wearable computer with headset and microphone so that the order picker is instructed by voice what to pick and where to pick it, verbally confirming his actions back to the system.

The main benefits are accuracy and productivity improvements. Mispicks typically drop by around 80% compared with paper-based systems. Productivity improvements – resulting from the hands-free operation – are usually around 10 to 20%.

There are also big stationery savings when moving from a paper-based picking operation. Dispensing with picking labels, for example, can save thousands each year. You’re also removing the costs of physically handling that paper and, because the picker is updating the system as he picks the goods, there’s no further office based confirmation or amendment process to go through

PW: Most wholesalers employ people from various backgrounds. Can voice technology handle different dialects and accents?

TONY: Absolutely. There are alternative speech recognition technologies, but invariably in a warehouse operation you’ll use speaker dependent voice recognition, in which each operator actually trains the system to recognise his voice.

PW: Does that mean every worker must have his own terminal?

TONY: No. Each speaker’s voice profile is held centrally on the system. As soon as he logs in, on whichever terminal he’s given, the system will download his voice profile so that the system can recognise him.

PW: Can it be used in noisy or extreme conditions like freezer rooms?

TONY: Yes, indeed. It will operate perfectly in cold conditions, and the hands free operation makes the work easier and more comfortable. Noisy conditions are not a problem with speaker dependent voice technology and the limited vocabulary needed for order picking. The system can easily distinguish responses from the background noise.

PW: What other activities could use this technology?

TONY: Order picking is the area where it’s going to give the fastest payback but voice technology is equally appropriate for all aspects of warehouse operations. For example, a voice terminal is an excellent alternative to truck mounted radio terminals for putting goods away into the warehouse and for replenishing picking stock. It’s also ideal for stock counting and can be used in conjunction with a laser scanner for goods received.

PW: So, what does a wholesaler need to implement it?

TONY: On the software side he’ll need a Warehouse Management System that provides a voice recognition interface or can be customised to provide one. It must be designed to provide real-time picking information and be capable of the task allocation that is necessary once there are no paper documents available for this purpose. On the hardware side he’ll need terminals, headsets and microphones for his workers – enough to cover the busiest shift – and, of course, a radio frequency network. If he’s already using RF terminals, it’s highly likely that the existing network can also be used for the voice terminals. There are alternative voice technologies available and some pitfalls to avoid so it’s important to choose a supplier who’s aware of these.

PW: It sounds expensive. Is that why it’s been slow to catch on?

TONY: It’s not cheap, but it is one of the few technologies that offers a speedy payback. Typically, a wholesaler will recoup his investment within the first year of operation. With multiple picking shifts it could be even faster. It has been around for a while, but it was probably released on to the market too soon. Now it is a proven technology with excellent benefits in the harsh warehouse environment.