Talking order fulfillment

Voice-directed fulfillment has been a bit slow to catch on among direct merchants, compared to traditional retailers. Why?

Part of the reason is that the process requirements for catalog and online fulfillment centers are vastly different from brick-and-mortar retailers.

Logistical challenges for order fulfillment vary greatly from one catalog company to another. Likewise, the standard order profiles, warehouse systems and fulfillment processes vary from company to company.

At companies that sell large items, such as furniture, order fillers might use turret trucks to pick products from high-bay racks, while staff at an apparel merchant may walk among shelves in pick modules. As a result of the differences, there are significant variations in the voice systems they each need to achieve their fulfillment objectives.

Voice technology and applications today are mature and reliable, and some are highly flexible. Moreover, 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.

Here are six things to keep in mind if you’re considering voice for your operation.

  1. Voice is one tool among many Rather than solving every fulfillment problem, voice may be only one part of a solution.

    For example, party supplies, toys and novelties merchant Oriental Trading Co. uses voice recognition and barcode scanning within a single voice-directed process, along with automated conveyors and sorting systems.

    Voice is not necessarily a straight substitute for radio frequency, however. Depending on your process requirements, voice may complement RF and other existing technology tools you have in place.

  2. Your hands-on process may not be what you think it is Whether your objective 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. This is obvious, but it’s not necessarily straightforward.

    DC managers and engineers can describe their fulfillment processes, 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.

    By observing and documenting the way work is done today, you can begin to understand the process obstacles — from a user perspective — that you need to address. As you uncover inconsistencies and process challenges from the user perspective, you can start to envision a new system that will address the needs of shop-floor workers.

    And by getting associate input early in the process, you have an opportunity to generate buy-in and support for new processes and systems.

  3. People close to the work need to own the system Because no two distribution centers are exactly alike, it’s important to create your own blueprint for a voice system for your DC. Consultants and vendors can offer suggestions and insights, but your floor supervisors and managers know your current challenges best. They have to be key members of your design team, along with voice technology experts.

    Likewise, by talking to floor associates you can more easily think about your new process flow and technology from a user perspective. A goal should be to make the system simple to use and easy to learn for the people on the floor, easing the mental, physical and psychological barriers to user adoption.

  4. Process drives technology When considering voice (or any other new technology, for that matter), engineers should avoid the temptation to design a process to suit a single technology or method. By assuming that voice is the best tool for every job, or that there’s only one way to do voice picking, you may overlook opportunities to maximize your process improvements.

    Similarly, you shouldn’t assume that a single voice-based process will be best for all items, order types or areas within your fulfillment center. The majority of voice-picking systems require users to speak a check digit affixed to the rack to confirm they are picking the correct item.

    A good example is an office retailer that wanted to ensure 100% picking accuracy for specific items. It requires associates to read a check digit and also to read a portion of the UPC code on those items as they pick them from a shelf. This UPC-check confirms that the user has the right item, and also verifies that the correct item was replenished in the right slot. Managers can change which items get the additional check, or require that only certain pickers do the double-check.

    A double-verification process will impact picking speed, so it’s important to weigh the accuracy benefits vs. the productivity costs of the additional step. For this company, absolute accuracy on those critical items was worth it, and the productivity cost was less than other alternatives.

    In another variation, an art supplies company uses item-level UPC codes instead of check strings on all items. An additional “multimodal” alternative is used by a healthcare products company that requires pickers to voice in a location check string and to scan a barcode on the product.

  5. Your back-end doesn’t have to limit your front Voice may enable dramatic operational changes within a DC, but in some cases the changes may be incompatible with inflexible back-end systems. 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.

    Most voice systems today include a voice server that communicates with inventory, order management or WMS systems on the one side, and with voice-enabled RF terminals that associates use on the warehouse floor. The voice server includes order, task and process management capabilities that fill gaps in existing WMS functionality.

    The voice system gives supervisors — and the WMS — real-time information that may not have been available before. For example, when a user reports an empty pick location using voice, the system can immediately send a replenishment request to the WMS, and managers can use the voice server application to mark out the item from the primary location. Replenishment will happen faster, plus others needing the item can be directed to an alternative slot to fill orders until the replenishment is completed.

  6. IT is a partner Although voice projects are first and foremost about operations, 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 types 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 of identifying where information resides in those systems and how you can get it out efficiently.

    The reality is that there are standard, proven integration technologies and processes that apply to every project, so integration is rarely a problem. The problems result if you design your voice system without due consideration to integration issues up front.

Jeff Slevin is chief operating officer and Pat Wilson is senior voice solutions manager, retail, at Lucas Systems, a provider of voice-directed logistics applications.

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