Optimizing Your Warehouse With a Voice System

Table of Contents

Brief Overiview

These days, businesses face a wide range of challenges. Within the supply chain, this is particularly true for distribution centres (DC), where supply and demand coincide. Management expects to be able to limit or even reduce costs, while handling more and more goods in picking systems and improving customer service in an era of booming e-commerce. In an effort to meet these expectations and increase employee efficiency, new technologies are coming under the spotlight.

When it comes to selection, workflow is the key. Without a doubt, one of the most effective tried-and-tested picking methods used in logistics is voice technology. This white paper shows how voice technology addresses key business challenges and how it compares with other available technologies. Finally, the benefits of a voice-directed DC will be explained.

Central Commercial Challenges in the DC

Business growth

Responding to a survey commissioned by Honeywell, more than 200 logistics executives responsible for distribution management said that “supporting business growth” is one of the main reasons for investing in new technology. These days, companies want to be able to process larger volumes or larger numbers of different products using the same resources.

A major problem for growing companies is the avoidance of operational bottlenecks and stock shortages, while at the same time reducing labour costs (in particular, the number of overtime hours). The intention is that technology can be used to synchronise product flow and maximise efficiency throughout the distribution centre.

Improving customer service

Order accuracy is critical and therefore often serves as a key performance indicator in service agreements with customers. For example, a DC that dispatches 10 million orders per year with 99% order accuracy generates 100,000 errors per year. If the cost per error is between $10 and $20, a 1% error rate will have an impact on results of between $1 million and $2 million. In addition, such a high number of errors will lead to customer complaints, refund demands and redundant shipping costs—ultimately impeding profitable growth.

As errors can occur in several places in the DC, it is usually necessary to change several workflows in order to reduce the error rate.

Reducing operating costs

Leading companies are finding ways to lower their operating costs while improving revenue and customer service by transforming processes and using cost-effective technologies. In many DCs, the most labour-intensive tasks have already been made more effective by changing processes and technologies. So how can managers find new ways to lower operating costs without compromising on service quality?

Finding The Right Solution for Key Commercial Challenges

The leading technologies used in modern DCs include voice, RF barcode scanning and pick-to-light. Each of these technologies has its own advantages, which vary according to the specific characteristics of the environment where they are used and the particular application. However, they all have one thing in common: they are far superior to paper-based processes.

As Figure 1 above shows, voice technology is characterised by flexibility and a high degree of accuracy. Although RF scanning is less costly, it is also less efficient. Pick-to-light is suitable for selected applications, provided products and locations do not change. As voice can be deployed throughout the distribution centre, companies can reduce training, integration and maintenance costs, thereby achieving synergies.

Other advantages of voice-controlled operations in the DC are:

  • Operatives’ hands and eyes remain free. While picking, employees do not have to constantly pick up and put down a scanner or paper documents and can easily remove several units at the same time. In particular, this makes working with forklift trucks much safer and more efficient: drivers no longer have to read directions on screens, and do not run the risk of accidents due to distractions.
  • Changing processes enables significant savings to be made, for example, by simultaneously picking multiple orders. Workflows such as cycle counting during picking and/or filing or reverse order picking can be linked to reduce travel times.
  • Voice significantly reduces training times. As staff are directed step-by-step, they can, on average, be trained to perform tasks at a high level within one to two hours.

Mastering Challenges with Voice-Directed Workflows

Definition and Benefits

The most natural workflow for most employees is one that leaves their hands and eyes free to do the work assigned to them. This makes voice a significant driving force when it comes to restructuring processes and systems. Voice technology is ideal for DCs where transactions are carried out very quickly and with a high degree of variability. Some DCs achieve significant advantages with voice solutions when workflows are relatively modest, in other words, when goods receiving, storage, picking, replenishment and loading take place at different times of the day.

A DC achieves the greatest advantages when voice is incorporated right from the start and processes are structured accordingly. DC processes can be synchronised to reduce bottlenecks. For example, two workflows that use the same type of vehicle (e.g., storage and replenishment) can be linked to make the best use of investment resources and increase driver productivity. Less training is required and staff can be assigned different tasks more easily, as only one system needs to be learned.

In a voice-directed DC, processes are standardised and the human-computer interface is optimised. In particular, heavily controlled workflows require a great deal of computer input and output. In these workflows, the computer issues a constant stream of instructions and the employees confirm receipt and execution.

A quick overview of a voice-directed workflow

In a voice-directed workflow, a DC employee receives orders from the Warehouse Management System (WMS) via Wi-Fi to a mobile computer that translates the text commands into voice prompts. Guided by a computer voice from a headset, the employee also confirms each individual step of the picking process verbally by means of a number or check digit at the storage location of the product to be picked. The voice system and employee work through the order list in this way until the order is completed. The verbal confirmation of the actions carried out improves accuracy.

Implementation of the voice system

A voice-directed workflow solution consists of numerous components. Most important here, however, is process knowledge. Process knowledge is important because implementing a voice system in a DC with poorly structured processes will not achieve the desired improvements in productivity and accuracy. Voice-specific process knowledge is needed in combination with industry-specific knowledge in order to derive the greatest possible benefit from the provision of a voice-controlled system.

Voice Data Process Flow

WMS Interface

A voice-directed workflow solution starts with the WMS interface. The voice system includes both the software that defines voice-directed workflows and the hardware or voice device that employees use to interact with the WMS. This must be linked to the WMS to receive work instructions, confirm completion of the task, and update the inventory. To minimise costly customisations, the system should allow a variety of interface options, as WMS providers differ in their approach. In some WMS, the provider implements a direct interface that integrates the new voice-directed process logic directly in the WMS and supports a real-time interface between the voice system and the WMS. In other WMS, a middleware application may support employee-to-WMS communication without changing the WMS code.

Voice Applications

As a rule, a separate voice application is developed for each workflow in the DC (e.g., picking, storage, replenishment) that precisely defines interaction between the WMS and an employee. If workflows are interlinked, a voice-directed application will be developed for the combined workflow. These applications will be developed using tools supplied by the provider and installed in the voice device when complete. The system must allow for the rapid development of voice-directed workflows to adapt to changes in DC operations.

Voice device and headset

The most important components of the voice solution from the employee’s perspective are the specially developed voice device, a headset for commercial use and the associated speech software. This combination converts the instructions from the WMS (for example, indicating which products are to be picked) to speech received by the user via the headset. In addition, the user’s speech is recognized and his input is recorded in the system. The voice device can be worn on the user’s belt (battery-powered) or mounted on a vehicle (vehicle-powered). The device runs firmware that processes the voice applications, communicates with remote systems, converts text instructions into speech, and recognises the user’s speech.

Managing the Voice System

To allow better management of the voice device, a management system with a dashboard is provided in the DC. This management system supports device management, the downloading of new voice applications on the devices, the display of performance statistics, the monitoring of device locations and battery power as well as other functions.

Integrated, voice-directed systems are optimised to meet key business goals with the lowest total cost of ownership. In addition, the ergonomic efficiency of a specially designed, integrated solution improves employee satisfaction and reduces absenteeism, employee turnover and costly mistakes.

Integrated Voice Solutions: Specially Developed for Distribution Centres

The DC environment is complex and therefore requires a dedicated end-to-end solution. While different providers can supply individual components of a solution, responsibility for creating an interoperable solution lies with the customer or value-added reseller.

Businesses can achieve higher returns with an integrated end-to-end solution, such as Honeywell Voice, as these are customised and optimised for their specific environments. A true end-to-end solution starts with the headset and a microphone that can identify the user’s voice and filter out ambient noise. The microphone must be robust enough to withstand the rigors of the working environment, including the extreme temperatures and/or condensation found in many facilities. To ensure the safety of operatives, the headset cable and connector have been designed to detach safely from the voice device (without causing damage) when the cable “catches”. Alternative solutions require expensive adapter cables and usually do not provide trouble-free connections. This often results in speech recognition errors and a slower pace of work. For special applications, wireless options are also available that have been optimised for high-quality voice transmission, ensuring correct speech recognition.

A voice device, such as the A700x, a mobile computer designed specifically for DC applications, can withstand extreme temperatures and the shocks and impacts associated with working in DCs. The devices are ergonomically designed and reduce keyboard usage to a minimum. The devices also eliminate the need for an integrated display, which can often lead to errors, inefficiencies and failures. The batteries in these devices will usually last a full shift, including overtime (8 to 12 hours). The devices also support several languages, dialects and accents (including operating system, memory, audio circuitry and speech recognition software).

Drivers can also benefit from voice control by using the voice device in a vehicle-mounted configuration.

Some applications can be optimised with additional technologies that complement the voice system. For example, an additional screen may be useful in the incoming goods area when a user needs to search through large amounts of information and a purely voice-directed solution would be less efficient. In addition, it may also be necessary to record long pallet ID numbers. In such cases, the integrated A730x barcode scanner or a compatible external scanning device can be used in conjunction with the voice-directed system.

Concluding Remarks

A voice-directed DC provides a strategic platform that enables businesses to grow, while keeping operating costs under control and improving the quality of customer service. Voice-directed workflows allow operatives to work with their hands and eyes free, and are the most natural and effective way for them to carry out their tasks.

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