Working Gear

Jul 01, 2001 9:30 PM  By

Having a conversation with your computer may be possible after all. Industry buzz around this topic has been rampant in recent years, but actual products left much to be desired. In the past, software developers struggled to get computers to talk, but voice recognition technology tended to be so slow, unwieldy, and difficult that it was just as easy to pick up the phone. Now, some new products are coming out that promise to be just as easy as picking up the phone.

The interactive voice response module developed by Billerica, MA-based Swisslog Software USA, Inc., for its Warehouse Manager system is in fact easier. The unit provides a real-time link between remote operations and the computer-based management system. Employees wear the small, belt-mounted unit, which is connected to audio headsets. Then, instead of typing data into keyboards or reading information from displays, they speak and listen directly to the system while their hands are free to carry out their duties. One ear is left free to hear ambient sounds such as vehicles approaching, but the unit can be noise-canceling for use in the loudest warehouses, and it can be integrated into hard hats for hazardous environments.

This interactive voice response module is designed for applications such as picking, cycle counting, packing station operations, and returns, and is extended to yard and dock management. “Our customers can now experience improved picking accuracy, reduced cycle times, increased levels of user satisfaction, and ergonomic improvements for users as the result of voice technology,” says Urs Birrer, president of Swisslog Software.

A new wrinkle offered by Boca Raton, FL-based NetByTel.com is using speech recognition as the interface connecting e-business Web sites and telephones. Director of product marketing Stephen Avalone says that his product, by acting as a real-time intermediary between a client’s Web sites and telephones, is able to seamlessly extend the transactional capabilities of these Web sites to every telephone. Through this application, companies are able to offer their customers voice-enabled automated functionality for product ordering, customer service, and dynamic research and sales promotions using a regular telephone.

Moving On Up

Dallas, TX-based EXE Technologies, Inc., a provider of multi-channel warehousing, distribution, and fulfillment software for e-commerce and traditional distribution channels, has been in a state of rapid growth. It was recently ranked number 119 on the Deloitte & Touche Technology Fast 500, a listing of the 500 fastest-growing technology companies in North America. EXE has the fastest growth rate of supply chain execution software companies. A key reason, according to EXE president/CEO, Ray Hood, is that five years ago EXE “recognized the need for supply chain solutions and the opportunity to leverage evolving technologies such as client server and the Internet.”

Pack Light

Whereas many high-tech solutions encourage you to look “outside the box,” the Concord Township, OH-based Ranpak Corporation has you looking “inside the box.” This represents a “whole new way of inside-the-box thinking,” says product manager Mark C. Dawson.

Ranpak has pioneered package technology and systems. The cornerstone of its approach is a patented process called PadPak, which converts three-ply kraft paper into lightweight and biodegradable multi-layered pads. These pads address the four main packing applications: void fill, wrapping, blocking and bracing, and cushioning. The system is said to make packing more efficient and cost-effective. The pads reduce packing material 10%-15% and carton size by as much as 25%.

Turning to the warehouse floor, there are a number of new technologies designed to make the distribution process run more smoothly.

Pint-sized Wonder

Traditionally, bar code verifiers have been precision instruments. This meant that the simple process of bar coding was complicated by the process of making sure the bar code was correct. However, Irvine, CA-based RJS Systems International has come out with a quick and accurate bar code analysis in a hand-held package.

Named Inspector® 2000, this verification solution automatically discriminates between symbologies, calculates print contrast, and verifies encoding with a single pass of the wand. The unit reads a variety of symbologies bi-directionally, including UPC/EAN, Code 39, Interleaved 2 of 5, and Code 128. Information immediately appears on an easy-to-read 32-character alphanumeric LCD, which also audibly indicates whether a bar code is in or out of specification. Scanned information can be stored and sent to a printer. RJS Systems spokesman Chuck Wilson says this device has been designed to be every bit as accurate as the traditional precision instrument verifiers, but at a far lower cost.

A Quick Boost

There are lift tables and pallet trucks. But Broadview, IL-based Interthor, Inc. has combined the best attributes of both in what it calls the “Thork-Lift.” General manager Richard Kopacz explains that the unit, which operates at a fraction of the cost of a driver-operated forklift truck, picks up a unit load, transports it to the workplace, and lifts it to the most convenient working height. Conversely, it also removes the unit load from a bench, transports it, and places it. The ergonomic design improves productivity and reduces the risk of worker injury. The Thork-Lift has a lifting capacity of 2,200 lbs., and can be raised as high as 3,112 inches.

Thork-Lifts are designed, says Kopacz, “for anyone feeding printing presses, cutters, binderies, metal presses, conveyors, and packing stations.” He adds that whether used for picking orders, positioning materials at production machines, or other applications, the lift reduces production time and labor stress by eliminating repetitive bending, lifting, and carrying.

Rolling Along

A conveyor belt is a conveyor belt, or so it would seem. But this is not the point of view of Louisville, KY-based Sandvik Sorting Systems, Inc. Its new SBIR-EL cross-belt sorting system has a number of modular options that allow different configurations on the powered conveyor belt to transport and move products on and off the carrier in a predictable manner.

Svante Lindholm, president of the Sandvik sorting systems group, explains that the system, with both its mechanical and electrical aspects integrated with the warehouse management system, allows for the transport and sorting of a diverse range of items. These include parcels, flats, books, CDs, video, and apparel, at up to 6,300 items per hour. Product sizes range up to 24″ × 27″ × 12″, and weights range up to 20 lbs.

Lindholm says the system has been designed to meet customer needs of quick delivery, modularity, low maintenance, and seamless software integration. “The modular design gives our customers the ability to efficiently grow the system as their fulfillment needs grow,” he adds.

Supercharged

Battery-powered electric forklift trucks have traditionally been expensive, usually involving a separate battery changing room, a battery inventory, and also the time for forklift drivers to drive back and forth to the battery room, which in some plants can be as far as a mile away. Recent solutions have been offered by Monrovia, CA-based AeroVironment, Inc. Marketing representative Lynda Stephens reports that the company’s PosiCharge ELT is the first stand-alone fast charger that is compact enough to fit right into the work area. This unit charges batteries in the truck during breaks and shift changes. “Our figures show that this unit will present annual savings of between $15,000 and $18,000 per truck,” Stephens says. “That translates to a return on investment in as little as 12 months.” She adds that the PosiCharge MVS is the first truly simultaneous multi-vehicle fast charger.

History Buffs

To keep up with demand for new technology, the York, PA-based St. Onge Company has launched the Institute St. Onge, which offers a Web portal featuring 24-hour access to 2,000 years of engineering expertise in materials handling, logistics, manufacturing processes, packaging, and transportation. For more information, call (717) 840-8181 or send an e-mail request to iStonge@stonge.com.