The evolution of voice

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INFORMATION: Free information is available from VOCOLLECT on the subject in this story. Click here to request a copy

Some may argue that voice applications in the warehouse are still considered to be the new technology. But voice is already established and proven as a highly compelling technology solution that delivers impressive results and like all technology is evolving, not only with the technology itself, but also with how it's being applied. It's no longer perceived as the new kid on the block or the untried, untested or cost unjustified tool, says Greg Tanner, managing director of leading industrial voice systems company, Vocollect Europe.

"Since its introduction (voice), its demand in the distribution centre market has grown year-on-year by well over fifty per cent."

Those companies that have taken the voice technology plunge are already reaping the efficiency, productivity, accuracy and safety benefits in the most obvious application of order selection and are looking at alternative ways of applying the technology. Use of voice recognition and speech synthesis is fast becoming the preferred alternative to established and more traditional solutions of old. Unlike many other technologies, it is a genuine investment, not a cost, and to the people who use it, it even makes warehouse work more fun.

Going back
Speech recognition is an established technology in itself, but its introduction into the warehouse environment wasn't until the late 1990s, where the pricing and sophistication of the technology became appealing. Since its introduction, its demand in the distribution centre market has grown year-on-year by well over fifty per cent.

Voice was not so much seen as a replacement to alternative solutions, because it happened to be the new thing, quite the contrary. The decision to deploy voice technology was predominately for improving efficiency and accuracy in the picking environment for situations where there were lots of heavy case picks, where employees either wore gloves or needed to have their hands free, in freezers and cold stores, or where other hardware was proving unreliable and would breakdown. If you add to this the fact that order-picking is one of the warehouse's most labour-intensive functions, the cost justifications of voice technology becomes a no-brainer when replacing slow, paper pick-lists or even slower hand-held computer solutions and where the issue of human error is still prevalent.

"accuracy is typically elevated to 99.99 per cent, mainly by the simple avoidance of mis-keying."

Simplicity
The application of voice into a distribution centre is straightforward. With Vocollect's system, Talkman, for example, warehouse staff need only a small rugged terminal, worn on a belt and a lightweight headset to talk and listen in real-time with their warehouse management systems (WMS). In order picking applications commands are streamed from the WMS to the terminal on the pickers belt, directing him/her to the part of the warehouse where the item is to be picked through short verbal instructions via an attached headset; on reaching the appropriate rack he/she reads two or three check digits to verify the location; the system then gives the number of items; the operator picks them and verbally confirms the number taken. Then on to the next pick

It's that simple-no pick-list, no scanner or hand-held terminalthe operator is now working hands-free, eyes-free, with an immediate and positive impact on accuracy, productivity and workplace health and safety-and ultimately, customer satisfaction and bottom-line too. To put those statements into perspective, accuracy is typically elevated to 99.99 per cent, mainly by the simple avoidance of mis-keying.

Where to now?
So where has voice evolved? Its beginnings as purely a picking technology has already been proven. This is particularly evident in the retail warehouse environment where companies such as Wal-Mart and Carrefour already reap the benefits-and with the Co-op (United Co-operatives Ltd) experiencing full payback on its investment in a single quarter.

With voice being fully established and justified in the picking environment, the technology can benefit alternative applications such as put-away, receiving and even replenishment-a function traditionally controlled by terminals mounted on a fork-truck, where the attraction to remove the distractions of looking at a display is high. All these applications can be made faster, more accurate and safer by workers using voice to communicate with their IT systems.

"Voice's potential to be complemented by RFID technology is already being investigated...the potential for achieving the holy grail of 100 per cent accuracy in the supply chain could be closer than imagined"

Talking technology
Let's not forget that as with other technology, voice has changed and will continue to do so to suit new demands and changes and to embrace both experience and new developments. Vocollects technology already understands any language, dialect or accent on the planet and new synthesised speech languages are being added regularly. The extension of Vocollect's voice recognition solutions into applications outside of the warehouse where fulltime, full shift voice data interaction may not be as critical, is occurring as Vocollect begins to port its recognition technology to other hardware platforms. Although the technology possibly attracting the most discussion-and hype-at present is RFID, many people make the mistake of confusing RFID and voice as competing technologies. The reality is that the compelling benefits of voice, from an efficiency, productivity and safety aspect, has the potential to be even further improved by the addition of RFID for tracking and tracing. Voice's potential to be complemented by RFID technology is already being investigated. Imagine that an order selector could be directed by voice to the right location and instructed to pick the right quantities of the right product, and then the RFID tagged product confirming the correct selection and quantitythe potential for achieving the holy grail of 100 per cent accuracy in the supply chain could be closer than imagined. The leading retailers who are driving the RFID initiatives of tomorrow are confident that they would not have been able to be at the forefront without having first voice-enabled their warehouses. They know that the ongoing savings voice technology provides every single day contributes to the budgets for the costs associated with RFID, for the time when all of the challenges of that technology can be overcome and implementation can proceed.

The simple answer to "is it too early for voice technology in my warehouse?" is "no". Voice is an application that is already established and successfully used in major international markets by the canniest of operators. The technology has evolved to a point where to ignore the high value ROI is follyand the evolution continues from a rock solid base into even more markets and applications. Listen to the operators and ask them why they made their investmentthe answers speak for themselves.

Greg Tanner is managing director of Vocollect Europe, the global leader in voice technology and the growing range of industrial applications that put voice to work. With more than 60,000 users at hundreds of companies and locations throughout Asia Pacific, Europe and North America, Vocollect has deployed more integrated voice-directed distribution systems than any other company. Together, its market-leading Talkman wearable computer and integrated software suite cut operating costs by eliminating errors and improving worker productivity shift after shift.

INFORMATION: Free information is available from VOCOLLECT on the subject in this story. Click here to request a copy

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