There can be little doubt that a number of major sea changes have taken place over the past decade in terms of data capture and voice technology. As part of Manufacturing & Logistics ITs 10th Anniversary celebrations this year, a number of leading solutions providers offer their views and observations on some of the key developments.
The past decade has certainly seen a number of major advances in the technological development of automatic data capture (ADC) solutions and voice technology. But what have been the particularly notable leaps forward, and what have been the resultant benefits provided to the end user? In terms of ADC solutions, Max Tatford, marketing manager at Avery Dennison, Printer Systems Division, believes the single biggest technological development is the adherence and agreement of wireless standards and the business benefit they bring. The increased data traffic capabilities combined with the enhanced security of wireless standards has assured a greater confidence in the technology, he said.
Tatford continued: Due to wireless scalability and a reduction in implementation costs, businesses have seen a quick ROI. Combined with the relative ease of integration into ERP and back-office systems, wireless has proven reliability and provides real benefits for a variety of business sectors. He also highlights the fact that terminals have advanced in the past decade from bulky, character-based devices to ergonomic, mini computers with serious processing power, which they use to accumulate and manipulate data, whatever the process, to the back office systems. These devices have integration and remote management capabilities, often as standard; enabling even advanced rollouts to be accomplished effortlessly, said Tatford, adding: The sheer variety of terminals available has meant the consumer has more choice than ever, and with the advent of the ergonomic and ruggedised terminal, they have an option that wasnt available 10 years ago.
Robert Hurt, EMEA marketing director at Metrologic pointed out that the past decade has witnessed a significant leap in the advancement and integration of new technologies going into ADC devices. Like Tatford, he highlights the widespread adoption of a number of wireless technologies that have brought greater freedom of movement and communication for the operator. Cordless scanners liberate cashiers from the till, while in the mobile computer market, theres voice communication for everyone on the move, he said, adding: Radio technologies have brought productivity and mobility, as well as freedom from the inconvenience of downloading every piece of captured data via a cradle. Raymond Wolfert, sales & marketing manager at Unitech, also recognises that one of the major technology leaps for the ADC industry over the past decade has been the developments in wireless activities. In todays world its becoming more and more vital that organisations can transfer, manage and share information quickly, efficiently and in real time, he said. We have seen that over the last couple of years there has been a move from primarily warehouse short-range mobility applications to more long-range mobility outdoors applications, he added.
In the view of Steve Gerrard, managing director of Voxware UK, one of the biggest advances has been in the movement from closed proprietory systems to open standards-based systems; and, hand-in-hand with this development, the move from customised systems to more of a package software solution. In fact, voice technology is a great poster child for the adoption of this technology because if you turn the clock back only three to five years virtually all voice systems were hand-made, bespoke, custom-coded applications with interfaces that took a long time to develop, said Gerrard. Then, once they were developed, the customer had better not bring in a new WMS or implement some change to workflow because they would then have to go back to that process all over again. Things have certainly moved on since then.
Hurt points out that the development of open standards has led to a reduction in the number of proprietary technology developments, giving users much greater flexibility to mix and match solutions from different suppliers. Duncan Smillie, managing director of Psion Teklogix UK, also cites the switch from proprietary to open systems as one of the main developments of note. This has allowed users to be more flexible in the selection of equipment from multi-vendors, he said. At the same time, says Hurt, advances in processor power, memory and battery technology have enabled a rich diversity of applications and communications, 24 hours a day. Miniaturisation of these core building blocks has enabled significantly enhanced design ergonomics making devices lighter, smaller and generally easier to use, he said. Hurt adds that the market has started to see the widespread adoption of 2D barcodes in a variety of new applications, many of which are security-related. This has helped to drive significant investment in the development of imaging technology, bringing the price down and the performance up, he remarked.
In terms of navigation, a key development has come in the form of GPS (global positioning system) functionality, according to Jim Austin, sales director at ToughStar Technologies. He points out that it is now possible with a GPS-enabled device to run navigation solutions natively on the mobile computer. The driver can be presented with information on best route to the next customer and then receive turn by turn instructions during the trip the device will also constantly update the expected time of arrival, he said.
With regard to developments in voice technology, Anton du Preez, business development manager, Vocollect believes one key technology driver has been the efficient increase in performance of hardware terminals and headsets. This has enabled smaller, more lightweight, dedicated voice terminals as well as allowing voice applications to be deployed on multi-functional data collection terminals, said du Preez, adding: Headsets are a key component in voice solutions and the development of high-quality, ruggedised headsets has supported the rapid uptake of voice. He also recognises that wireless networks have continued to provide a means for real-time data transfer between voice terminals and back-end systems.
David Stanhope, CEO of VoiteQ, points out that a decade ago voice technology was in its relative infancy, even though it was then already ten years old. When we first saw the technology back then it already worked incredibly well and looked very high tech, he reflected. However, when you look at todays voice technology compared to what was available back then things have moved on massively. The dedicated voice units are much smaller, even more robust, have increased battery power well beyond a full eight-hour shift and significantly improved processing power, which has enabled these mini-computers to perform many more tasks simultaneously.
The move to make the more traditional data capture units voice-capable has also been important, claims Stanhope, and something the traditional RF manufacturers have only started to get right in the past couple of years. Initial attempts at putting voice onto a handheld device were beset with problems due to audio capabilities, but these have been overcome now for a range of devices, he added.
Jan Vermeesch, VP of marketing at Zetes Industries, and Marcel Kars, manager of the 3i Competence Centre at Zetes, believe that voice technology has crossed the chasm as a data-capture solution. Major integrators and solution providers in most European markets have built solutions based upon this technology and have provided most of the major European retailers and logistics providers with installations, they said. The fact that in a couple of years companies like Zetes have been able to deploy over 350 projects with more than 25,000 users has set a new standard for warehouse-processes such as order-picking, added Vermeesch and Kars. They also pointed out that the attitude toward financing the investment of an IT project has changed. Where, lets say five to seven years ago, there was a major emphasis on increasing productivity to make an investment decision, today that has shifted clearly to paying much more attention to the improved quality achieved in certain processes, they said. This has impacted the discussion and the requirements of a project. Additionally they remarked that ROI is expected to be achievable in under 18 months, which is another reason why voice has become a widely accepted method of data capture.
And what of system integration with back office systems how has this developed over the past decade? Tatford made the point that the tools now available ease integration for IT departments and, in conjunction with experienced system integrators, offer greater added value than ever before. Businesses can select a partner to fit their exact needs, he said. A much greater emphasis has emerged in the last decade in terms of how implementations are managed by both businesses and system integrators, from inception to completion. And there is now a far greater emphasis on utilising project management techniques, to ensure effective, on-schedule roll-outs, with businesses employing an increasing number of experienced practitioners in this area.
Either through integrated offerings from a single vendor or through support of common standards by various vendors, du Preez points out that customers have sought to minimise the complexity that arises from deploying IT systems across their business. As is the case with all emerging technologies, early voice systems required bespoke integration and heavily customised functionality, he said. Today, many WMS vendors have recognised the value of integrating best-practice voice functionality directly into their products. The significant customer uptake of these standard, integrated solutions marks them as another key development.
Stanhope remarked that ten years ago almost all voice implementations had to be carried out using middleware because supply chain solution providers did not have direct interface options. Now, all the main tier-1 WMSs have direct interfaces, almost entirely using Vocollect-based voice tasks, he said, adding: Middleware is still very popular and extremely useful where the customer wants to add voice functionality without making significant modifications to the host WMS.
For Gerrard, integration is a very important issue when considering voice technology. One of the most important criteria for putting in a voice system is how is it going to operate with the strategic software applications that the company has already invested in, he said. Voice, like other auto ID technologies, is considered an add-on in one sense; something that offers substantial benefits but needs to fit within the strategic framework. Fortunately, there have been a number of advances in the ERP and WMS space as well as in the voice space, and these are now dovetailing together quite nicely. Perhaps the most significant of these advances is the movement of the vendors towards whats known as a service oriented architecture. This is a software architecture that is based upon open standards and web services and allows disparate systems to intercommunicate without having to resort to the kind of low-level programming effort that was certainly a hallmark of the early years of voice technology.
Gerrard continued: ERP and WMS systems have their own set of interfaces that voice technology has to fit in with, and a big part of the cost of implementing voice in the past has related to all of the programming that needed to be done to connect these systems together. What has happened is the ERP and WMS vendors have moved to more open architectures. For instance, many now use XML to exchange data, and this is a well-recognised industry standard. But this is only of benefit if the voice product itself is based on an open architecture. And this has been, and still is, a big issue. But now, with these technologies, an organisation can, for example, go from one ERP or WMS release to another and not have to have a massive update to their voice system. All you need to do is change an interface mapping layer and away you go.
Continuing the theme of integration, Tony Beales, supply chain director at BCP, pointed out that there will always be situations where a supplier will deliver goods late and pick faces will be empty. A company will naturally not want to hold up the rest of a customers delivery until these deliveries arrive, he said. Beales added that with the right integrated voice and WMS system with efficient scheduling capability, a company can continue picking, skipping items not in stock, then later sending the picker back when they are available.
And do our commentators feel the ADC and voice technology vendor communities have established a growing number of differentiators over the past decade in terms of system functionality, or are solutions providers offering much the same technology, functionality and service provision? Gerrard believes any enquiring analyst would need to probe deeper than surface level to find the true answer to this question. At face value, we all deliver the same benefits, he said. If you use voice, your workers are going to be able to operate hands free and eyes free, they are going to be able to be more productive, more accurate in their tasks, training time will be reduced, and some substantial cost benefits can be delivered to the operation. And this is going to be true frankly no matter which voice vendor youre talking to. So the temptation might be to say vendors are all basically offering the same solution. But this is in fact not the case because there are huge differentiators between the companies. Most are still proprietory systems, not open. And there are purely hardware vendors and purely software vendors. And I think what has happened in the last year to 18 months is the market has begun to recognise that voice technology is actually a software decision more than it is a hardware decision. This is because increasingly you can get voice technology and run it on any one of a variety of hardware platforms; that is, if the software supports multiple platforms. This gives customers flexibility, freedom of choice and eventually helps them to be able to drive costs down.
Hurt maintains that vendors may have standardised on open system technologies, but they are strongly differentiated by product performance and ergonomic design, as well as their market segment specialisation. Customer service and customisation are more important than ever, although the vendors vary in their approach to delivering these key requirements, he said. At Metrologic we have never wavered in our belief that the customer comes first, making every sale a team effort between ourselves, our partners and the end user.
Although all manufacturers are wrapping their mobile terminals around the Microsoft platform, remarked Wolfert, each vendor tries to add specific features and benefits in order to serve a specific target market. For example, form factor, design, technology features are key differentiators for Unitech. Vermeesch and Kars made the point that, whereas the integrators of old were relying on a straightforward distribution model, the challenge today is to make a difference by offering solutions that do much more than simply equipping workers with data-capture devices. The whole understanding of the process, making optimal use of the potential offered by data-capture devices and empowering the user to interact with the host-system to deal with any situation at hand is where solution providers nowadays set themselves apart, they said.
In Tatfords view, the market is very competitive, and differences between vendors are minor; implementation methodologies and strategies used by vendors being largely the same. Offering added value through support can often be a differentiator, he maintains. According to du Preez, vendors share a common focus on the significant benefits offered by voice technology. Nevertheless, with regard to system functionality, he observes that there are, understandably, some differentiators; such as the ease of integration with WMS systems, the simplicity and performance of the voice recognition itself and support for more advanced digital headsets. However these differentiators are not of the scale that they would hinder the growth of the market, he said.
In terms of system functionality, the available voice solutions should all be capable of delivering similar functionality, believes Stanhope. However, the key differentiators are those vendors who have used their skills, knowledge and experience to provide solutions with proven quality as well as those providers who have already implemented the widest range of functionality, he said.
There has certainly been a considerable level of market consolidation, mergers and acquisitions over the past decade. But is this a good or a bad thing for the end customer? In Hurts view, mergers should, in theory, expand product offerings and allow companies to offer more to their customers. However, he maintains, they often result in short-term reorganisations that can create internal confusion and be disconcerting for customers. A number of high profile consolidations have not exhibited true added value for the customer, he said. The current enthusiasm for venture capital investments or buyouts, which has been so prevalent in the retail world, can be a far less disruptive approach to growing your business. It can leave the day-to-day business largely unaffected, allowing the company to continue to focus on its core strategies and its customers requirements. And biggest may not necessarily always be best. Its interesting to note that many of the fastest growing companies in the ADC market over the last five years have been the medium-sized ones.
From Wolferts perspective, each merger from the past has brought its own opportunities for the future and is making the data capture industry more mature. We believe these mergers will continue in the future on a larger scale between traditional auto ID and the mainstream IT industry, he said.
Globalisation has certainly come on leaps and bounds over the past decade. But has this phenomenon impacted on the type of functionality offered by the ADC and voice technology vendor community? For Hurt, this industry has certainly become more global in its approach. Our partners, our customers and ourselves are more international than ever, he said. At Metrologic, our successful relationship with the major integrators encourages us to be truly multi-national. We are learning from our partners how to provide bespoke solutions on a global scale.
According to Tatford, standard functionality offering a common feature set across models and manufacturers is expected as standard as global organisations demand unity across the range. In Wolferts view, relationship remains a key part of successful business. Over the last ten years Unitech has continuously worked on human face-to-face relationships with the partner community, he said. Early in 2006 the company launched its How About U concept to emphasise the priority it places on its partnerships.
From a voice solutions perspective, globalisation has led to a rapid increase in the number of languages available for voice solutions, Stanhope points out. With some of the worlds largest businesses having adopted voice as their standard for warehouse operations, it is important that the same standard solution is available for all divisions, across all the continents of the world, he remarked.
Vermeesch and Kars also recognise that globalisation has had an impact on the ADC and voice technology industry. However, they believe an even greater impact has been the presence of solution providers in multiple markets. In their view, it is the international scope of projects that drives development of solutions providers such as Zetes to new levels that local companies have difficulty attaining. Think about providing solutions that support centralised IT infrastructures and span multi-national installations with multi-language user-interfaces or, in the case of voice solutions, user-dialogues, they said. The robustness and scalability of the solutions provided are of a level that was previously hardly ever seen in local projects.
As du Preez points out, from the USA to Japan and from Norway to South Africa, voice has enjoyed rapid and successful global expansion. Globalisation has meant that customers are looking to replicate their successful systems in new geographies quickly and efficiently, he said, adding that although functionality has not varied significantly, strategic vendors have invested heavily in localising their products. In the case of voice, this is largely focused around support for various languages, both from a user and a system perspective, he said. In addition, vendors have needed to provide software and management tools that can support integrated, global deployments.
For Gerrard, voice is an enabling technology, and he observes that larger organisations are interested in optimising their operations across the globe, not just in one locality or another. Quite frankly, voice technology has taken off in markets where the cost of labour tends to be higher, because the investment for voice technology is such that those are the markets where people are going to have an interest in it first, he said. But we now see interest from large third-party logistics companies and large multi-national organisations organisations that have hundreds of warehouses throughout the world including Asia Pacific, Middle East, Europe and US. What they want is a single way to optimise and get things done because this drives higher quality within their operation as a whole. So were starting to see interest in putting voice technology into warehouses in South East Asia, for example; not just because these companies want to reduce the cost of labour because the cost of labour is not that big a factor there but because they want to have a single process to optimisation that they can leverage across multi-national boundaries.
The road ahead
And what can we look forward to over the next decade to come? Technology wise, Smillie cites RFID as a technology that will have a major impact on all of our lives, both at a consumer and business level. It has been the next big thing for some time now, but its in the post, he said. Hurt added that whilst RFID adoption continues, barcoding remains compelling as an identification technology because of its extremely low per-label price. The laser technology used for reading the barcodes has likewise achieved a price point now that has made it pervasive. But imaging is heading the same way and becomes increasingly popular because of its ability to read all 1D and 2D variants enabling many new solutions.
For Tatfords part, he envisages new products that will be required to continually meet new industry standards, while at the same time provide enhanced functionality. From Hurts perspective, technology advances and miniaturisation will surely continue. These will enable smaller and more convenient form factors for our data collection devices, he said. Advances in wireless technologies will allow users to capture data in truly mobile environments, with almost full office functionality on the move. Expect to see further consolidation of functionality currently contained in multiple devices and exciting new form factors for these information devices.
Stanhope maintains that over the next ten years the integration of voice and RFID in warehouse and supply chain operations will provide and irresistible combination of productivity, accuracy and traceability. He also pointed out that to achieve near 100 per cent first time recognition for the wide range of accents in UK warehouses, it is currently necessary to have a trained voice-template for each individual operative. Non-trained voice solutions have been tried many times but have failed due to not being able to achieve the required levels of first-time recognition for large numbers of operatives, he said. The voice recognition technology is improving all the time and non-voice trained solutions should be available and scalable in a ten-year timescale.
Vermeesch and Kars anticipate that easy-to-use data-capturing techniques such as voice or possibly RFID will enter into more and more application areas and will become a day-to-day reality in store-applications; even field sales or field service applications. They added that these kinds of applications, supported by more reliable and faster wireless communication possibilities and protocols, will enable companies such as Zetes to introduce solutions that bring the benefits of these new data-capturing techniques outside the warehouse where they exist today. In addition, for warehouse applications, Vermeesch and Kars see the possibility of technology convergence; such as the merging of voice and RFID, so they could be used together, maybe even with Real-Time Location Systems (RTLS). Another future trend, according to Vermeesch and Kars, will be an increased prevalence in the use of biometrics to authenticate users of systems; for instance, when seeking to gain access to Auto-ID equipment.
Wolfert sees further integration of more technologies into mobile devices, as well as merging traditional auto ID equipment with mainstream mobile phone equipment. This will enable the traditional auto ID channel to enter the very large mobile phone communities and it will offer mobile phone operators the opportunity to wrap additional auto ID applications around their airtime, he said. According to du Preez, voice is already showing excellent growth beyond simply picking, and he points out that many customers have deployed end-to-end voice in their distribution centres. This trend will continue, he said, adding: Voice and data capture will continue to converge to enhance existing offerings or to open new application areas. This will include the combination of voice and RFID as complementary hands-free technologies, voice applications beyond the four walls of warehouses and distribution centres and the ongoing evolution of wearable devices.
He also observes that voice-directed work continues to grow at a rapid pace and has already developed beyond purely voice picking. Within distribution centres there are now many examples of voice being used for other business processes, and the market for voice in completely new sectors and applications is beginning to develop, he said. For Bealess part, he observes that voice is now being pushed beyond conventional case groceries and frozen foods into more difficult areas, and software houses such as BCP are able to deliver voice solutions capable of handling the complex processes in this wider market place, he said.
Gerrard splits the issue of future trends into two key areas; voice hardware and voice software. In terms of voice hardware, he sees the trend being towards smaller, lighter lower-cost devices packed with more functionality and that can fit into a shirt pocket as opposed to being worn on a belt. He also foresees the increasing development of universal/multifunctional mobile PDA devices. These developments will increasingly enable voice to operate in combination with other kinds of activities, which has not been the case in the past, he said. On the software side, Gerrard believes users are going to increasingly demand greater flexibility and configurability. They are going to want voice systems that can be configured as opposed to being programmed, and to be configured without foreclosing on them being able to make changes in their operational environment in order to move forward, he said. Companies are going to want software toolkits, they are going to want flexibility and they are certainly going to want voice software that fits within the modern technology stack thats being pretty much universally recognised; worldwide web standards, http, XML So we will see a trend towards more standards-based, configurable and flexible solutions that can be implemented faster and then configured for changes very quickly.
Returning to GPS, Austin believes there are still some advances to be made with the technology in terms of the quality of the mapping data. However he believes that, in the near future, it will be possible for navigation systems to include information on road type; for example, to avoid a low bridge or narrow road but we are not quite there yet, he said. Time will tell.