Finding Your Voice in Fulfillment Technology

Voice-directed fulfillment which uses advanced speech recognition technology to voice-enable processes such as order picking, replenishments, put-aways, transfers and receiving, is slowly catching on with direct merchants. This wireless communications technology lets workers operate essential warehouse equipment and systems “hands-free,” without reliance on cumbersome lists, labels and scanners.

What’s more, voice-picking hardware options have increased, and costs have come down. In some cases you can now use the same terminals you use for barcode scanning for voice-based processes.

But like any major investment, there are many factors to consider with voice. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

–Your hands-on process may not be what you think it is
Whether your objective with voice is to improve order accuracy or staff productivity, it’s important to start by documenting your fulfillment process so you can understand why you’re not getting the results you need.

DC managers and engineers can describe their fulfillment process, but it’s not uncommon for staff on the floor to follow a different process flow. The discrepancies typically point out underlying process, information, or logistical challenges for which workers have improvised a solution that makes their lives easier. Such improvisations lead to inconsistent results, errors and inefficiency.

–People close to the work need to own the system
Because no two fulfillment centers are exactly alike, it’s important to create your own blueprint for a voice system for your DC. Your floor supervisors and managers know best what your current challenges are. They have to be key members of your design team, along with voice technology experts.

Supervisors and managers will have to implement and manage the system every day on the warehouse floor, so getting their input early will result in a better system design. It will also create a sense of ownership in the new system. Likewise, by talking to floor associates you can more easily think about your new process flow and technology from a user perspective.

–Your back-end doesn’t have to limit your front
Voice may enable dramatic operational changes within a fulfillment center, but in some cases the changes may be incompatible with inflexible back-end systems. The good news is that voice systems today are not limited to WMS-supported workflows. Rather than functioning as a simple voice front-end to a WMS, voice systems can provide the new execution capabilities you need to optimize your processes.

Many companies have installed voice systems during the past decade to modernize fulfillment systems without modernizing or replacing mainframe-based host systems and legacy WMS packages. There are even some voice users that don’t have a WMS, such as Awana Clubs International, a direct fulfillment center for youth groups.

–IT is a partner
The best laid plans of your operations team will be upended if you don’t involve your IT department early in the design process.

Looking at your processes from a ground up perspective gives a good idea of the type of data users will need to do their jobs, as well as what information the voice system can pass back to your host, WMS or other systems. Your IT team has the critical role in identifying where information resides in those systems and how you can get it out efficiently.

Jeff Slevin is chief operating officer and Pat Wilson is senior voice solutions manager, retail, at Lucas Systems (www.lucasware.com), a provider of voice-directed logistics applications for warehouses and fulfillment centers.

For more on voice-directed technologies, look for “Talking order fulfillment” in the October issue of Multichannel Merchant.

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