The Case for Voice-Driven Tech in the DC

Warehouses are experiencing remarkable increases in productivity by taking paper and RF scanners out the hands of their workers and giving them headsets with microphones instead. These distribution centers have learned that voice-driven logistics technology really works, even in the noisiest, harshest environments. .

Distribution centers that implement voice-driven logistics technology typically enjoy an increase in worker productivity of at least 15%. The increase can be even greater for warehouses making a transition from a completely paper-based system. And warehouse managers are often surprised to learn that the productivity increase does not come at the cost of accuracy. In fact, warehouse workers who use voice-driven technology typically maintain an accuracy rate of more than 99.9%. Many warehouses that have implemented voice-driven logistics technology no longer feel the need to employ quality-control staff to assure that orders are correct before shipping.

Workers wear mobile computers that are equipped with audio and wireless networking capabilities. They also wear headsets with boom microphones, which are connected to the mobile computers. The most reliable and flexible systems are speaker-dependent but device-independent: An employee “trains” the system to recognize his voice by reading from a list of vocabulary words and creating his own voice profile. Device-independent systems store personalized voice profiles on a central server and automatically download them to the workers’ wireless computers at the beginning of a shift. That’s how the mobile computer is able to understand the workers’ spoken responses, regardless of language, dialect, or ambient noise and regardless of which mobile computer the worker uses.

Begin with picking
Warehouses derive the greatest benefits from voice-driven logistics technology when they apply it to the most labor-intense tasks. That means warehouses usually start by implementing voice for order picking, where, depending on their industry, they can spend on average up to 46% of their labor dollars.

Here’s how a voice system typically works in a picking operation: After a worker logs on, the system begins his first assignment by verbally telling him the location of the first pick. When the worker arrives, he reads aloud a check digit that’s posted on the location. The mobile computer sends that information via the wireless network to the server, which uses it to confirm that the worker is at the correct location. If not, the system advises the worker verbally. If the worker is at the correct location, the system verbally instructs the worker how many items to pick. After the worker picks the items he speaks aloud the number of items he picked. If he picked the incorrect number, the system corrects him. Otherwise, the system sends him to the location of the next pick.

The step-by-step way in which voice-driven logistics systems provide information to workers greatly reduces the time required to train employees. Many warehouses find that new workers are up and running in half a day and operating at desired productivity levels within two weeks.

Because everything happens verbally, workers never have to look away from their work. This heads-up, eyes-front posture significantly improves worker safety, reducing accidents such as pallet-jack collisions. Another benefit of voice is that both hands are always free to properly lift and handle materials. What’s more, today’s voice-driven logistics systems are able to understand workers’ spoken responses, even when the noise level would prevent two workers from having a normal conversation with each other.

The productivity and accuracy gains of voice-directed picking enable warehouses to typically receive returns on their investments in less than 12 months. And warehouse managers quickly realize that they can improve other operations by implementing voice in other areas, such as receiving, loading, put-away, and replenishment.

Modern systems based on open standards
Distribution centers can purchase voice-driven logistics technology built on open industry standards such as VoiceXML and Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP, the same protocol Web browsers use). Such systems are written in Java, a language designed for Web-based environments, which creates easy-to-maintain applications. These new standards-based systems provide many benefits over earlier systems, which were strictly proprietary.

One of the first benefits of open, standards-based systems comes when it’s time to configure them to the needs of individual warehouses. Older, proprietary systems required expensive, custom programming before they could be used. But vendors and even end-user companies can quickly configure today’s open standards-based systems with a visual interface that makes programming unnecessary.

This is also valuable to an operation downstream, as it mitigates the traditional costs associated with operational changes that warehouses inevitably make and that require changes to their existing voice systems. Open, standards-based systems also interface easily and inexpensively with existing warehouse management systems without expensive custom programming.

Finally, open, standards-based systems do not lock a warehouse into buying a certain company’s hardware. They work with a wide range of mobile computers from many manufacturers. So if a warehouse already has a relationship with a mobile device vendor, it can continue to work with that vendor when it adds voice to its operations.

Integrating voice with other technologies
One of the newest benefits of open, standards-based voice systems is the opportunity to use multimodal technology for even greater benefit to the warehouse. Because any manufacturer can build a device that works with an open, standards-based voice system, manufacturers have begun incorporating voice capability into mobile devices that also perform other functions, such as barcode scanning or RFID reading. The resulting integration of technologies is a significant and measurable improvement in warehouse operations beyond what any single technology can provide. Multimodal integration allows warehouses to adapt a variety of technologies to their business processes, rather than adapting business processes to technologies.

Here’s an example of multimodal technology at work: As with the picking example above, an integrated system uses voice technology to tell a worker where to pick the next item for an order. With an integrated system, a worker might use a pallet jack that’s equipped with an RFID reader. As the worker picks items and loads them onto the pallet jack, the RFID reader counts the RFID-tagged items, sending the data wirelessly to the central, integrated system. The system then verbally informs the worker when he has placed the right number of items on the pallet jack.

In another example, it is sometimes more efficient for a worker to scan in a barcode than to read a long string of characters aloud through his headset. If the worker is equipped with a device that provides both voice and scanning functions, he can scan the data, perhaps with a scanner worn as a ring on his finger, after which the system confirms the scan through a verbal response.

Scott Yetter is president of Voxware, a Lawrenceville, NJ-based voice services provider.

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