Pick of the Crop -Voice Picking report July 2009

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Manufacturing & Logistics IT spoke with end users from a wide range of industry verticals about their choice of Voice-directed system, the benefits gained and future development plans.

The uptake of Voice-directed solutions is growing within a range of already mature vertical sectors as well as a number of fast developing ones. In this report, we speak to a selection of end users located in a number of geographical regions and operating in a diverse range of market to find out about the systems they have in place, the range of benefits they offer, future plans and how they would like to see Voice directed technology and benefits developed further.

We start with Faber Music Distribution. Its Voice system of choice comprises Vocollect hardware and Zetes application software. The companys managing director John Hepworth provides the background: Following our acquisition of Warner Brothers print business in 2005, we doubled in size overnight. We had a pretty slick warehousing system as it was, but it was all fully paperbased. At that time, I had six people in the goods-in department and eight to nine picking staff. We always aimed to get all the orders received until 4pm that day dispatched the same night. However, because we now had a lot more business going through the building I looked at acquiring systems that could speed up operations while reducing manpower. With this in mind, I looked at three or four different solutions providers, and eventually chose SolarSofts Saphire WMS and, by recommendation from SolarSoft, Zetes Voice solution for the order picking and RF infastructure.

Hepworth pointed out that Faber Music Distribution looked at a two-phase implementation. Phase one involved the installation of SolarSofts Saphire WMS, installing the RF infrastructure that Zetes supplied, and moving to handheld terminals for booking-in stock and capturing data related to other the stock movements in the warehouse. Phase one occurred in February 2008. The company then began phase two; which involved the implementation the Voice system. This was delivered by Zetes and comprised Vocollect hardware and Zetes application software.

For the past two years, UK supermarket Waitrose has used a bespoke Voxware solution in all its pick-by-branch chambers in the UK; four ambient locations and one frozen. Patrick Stonehewer, distribution systems manager at Waitrose pointed out that when the company decided to begin using a Voice system, it looked at different solutions in the marketplace and carried-out a trial of the kit from three different companies. We found that Voxwares hardware was the most simple and straightforward to operate and it differentiated itself from others by allowing us to use a human recorded voice rather than one that was entirely synthesised, he said. Waitrose has integrated the Voxware system with its existing WMS via Businessware EAI. This helps with the various interfaces for the pick-by-voice implementations, said Stonehewer.

The Voice system enables us to see where we have got to in a wave of picking once a cage has been completed this information is sent straight back to the WMS, we dont have to wait for someone to manually confirm.

British high street chain Wilkinson, which predominantly retails in FMCG and ranges for the home and garden, used to run an almost completely paper-based system, but sought to improve productivity and accuracy. These were the two main drivers behind our move to a Voice-directed system, explained Simon Lowe, head of supply chain at Wilkinson. The company purchased the Psion Teklogix Workabout Pro about two years ago, which has an integrated Voice solution as part of its functionality. This was a big implementation involving 400 to 500 units, which took the best part of a year before going live, said Lowe. We use the system for picking in both of our regional distribution centres (RDCs) just outside Worksop and in Magor, South East Wales.

Wilkinson then developed the Psion Teklogix TeKSpeech software to power greater productivity. What attracted us to the Workabout Pro was primarily its multifunctional nature, Lowe pointed out. It has Windows CE compatibility, a full-colour screen, it can scan, and it has RF and Bluetooth in fact, everything we could possibly want for our warehouse environment. Wilkinson uses a Bespoke AS400 WMS, which passes the picking task information to Psion Teklogix middleware. The Voice unit then receives the information from here. The beauty from our point of view was that there were no real problems at all during integration, said Lowe. The data is simply handed over to the Workabout Pro software and the pickers do the rest.

Cooper Booth Wholesale, based in Mountville, Pennsylvania USA, went live with the topVOX Voice system in April this year. Trevor Martin, VP operations at Cooper Booth Wholesale explained that the the company had initially anticipated problems occurring during the Voice picking implementation due to some issues encountered by the company during the implementation of scanning devices five years ago. We couldnt simply implement the system in one area, and then roll it out in different areas within the warehouse this is because we have seven core areas that are all so tightly linked that they needed simultaneous implementation, Martin explained. We have seven warehouse areas including frozen, refrigerated, ambient, mezzanine and cigarette picking areas so, with our internal management system we could not work through one area at a time with Voice. We had to go live in all the areas, with all pickers, billing and inventory at once.

However, the reality was that the whole implementation process was really painless. In terms of back-office system, Cooper Booth Wholesale uses a basic legacy WMS system that it built functionality onto in-house. In order to track picker productivity, topVOX sends time-stamped information back to the WMS, so we know when a picker picked the items and how long it took, explained Martin, who continued: Another big plus in switching to Voice is that we now know what is in every container we ship. We do business with a large global customer that expects to be able to scan the label and know exactly whats in the container.

Speed and ease of use
International retail and manufacturing business AS Watson began implementation of Vocollects Talkman in 2004, with the assistance of Zetes. Gerrit Jan Steenbergen, global head of store systems at AS Watson, explained that the decision to source Vocollect was made after looking at a number of options for improving the companys productivity and quality of operations in its warehouse. We had used a paper-based system for many years and had also more recently used scanning devices as part of our picking methodology, mainly for box picking and slow-moving or medium speed-moving items, he said. In Holland AS Watson has fast-moving boxes where it pick belts a sorter, while for slow-moving goods the company relies on containers or pallets. In other countries, AS Watson only picks to container or to pallet. We conducted tests on the suitability of scanning devices, but considered that Voice would be the best option, based on speed and ease of use in the warehouse, said Steenbergen. I already had some experience with Voice in a previous company, so proposed to the management that we should conduct >> << a trial, to which they agreed. We were attracted to Vocollect because it offers a Voice recognition solution that is trained to recognise the voice of specific users, and is therefore very accurate.

Zetes was our choice as system integrator because of its track record. The Voice trial at the companys warehouse in Holland which in reality involved using the Vocollect system for real as part of its everyday picking methodology lasted six months and involved 70 pickers. Steenbergen commented: We eventually determined that we attained a productivity gain of 8 per cent, which was impressive enough, but because the Summer of 2004 was very hot and so, without disruptions and issues concerning the heat, I believe the real gain would have been more in the region of 20 per cent. With the Voice system we could skip the checking stage, meaning we didnt need to employ two people for this task. Overall, we determined that ROI would be achieved over a year and a half.

AS Watson is currently using Voice in warehouses in Holland, the UK, Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary. As regards back-office systems, Steenbergen explained that with the more advanced WMS, such as the Infor system used by AS Watson in the UK, there is already dedicated functionality for Voice in the system. This system brings store orders in the form of sections and from sections to terminals, he said. We rely on this type of software to plan, control and release orders to the Voice system. In Holland on the other hand, we have middleware that takes orders from the WMS related to store, item and location, and then data about which items to pick are relayed to the Voice terminals.

Food distribution company Brakes uses a VoiteQ Voice software solution on Vocollect hardware devices, which was installed in approximately 20 of its UK sites during 2004/5. Clive Jackson CEO logistics for Brakes explained that the company moved to Voice direct from a paper-based regime and now uses the technology for on-picking requirements. This has proved very successful, both from a service improvement and productivity perspective, he remarked. At the time of the Voice implementation, Brakes had three systems in active use within its core businesses; SAP, Concerto and Minster. Therefore, explained Jackson, the VoiteQ solution had to be able to interface with these systems, which meant sourcing some middleware. However, once all the interfacing work was completed it worked very successfully from the outset and we didnt experience any detrimental technical issues at all, either during implementation or go-live for the whole system rollout, he said. It was a very smooth process and we achieved ROI within a relatively short period of time.

Direct interface
Supply-chain logistics management provider Arvato chose topVOX, which was first installed in July 2008. Russell Richards at Arvato explained that the company had previously relied on paper picking from summary list three orders at a time. However, when Universal Music outsourced its distribution warehouse to Arvato in May 2008, Arvato made the decision to move to Voice as its preferred methodology. The Voice system interfaces directly with the companys in-house bespoke WMS.

Publishing company Harper Collins system of choice was Voxware. Mike Levaggi, supply chain director for Glasgow at Harper Collins, explained that the company implemented Voice in two phases the first being for its batch-picking process, which went live in January 2008. Previously, Harper Collins had relied on paper picking lists. We moved straight from paper to Voice and skipped various other technologies that could have been used in between, said Levaggi. We have a large sortation system and batch-pick books for the sorter.

Obviously, using paper pick lists proved to be more time consuming and less accurate than the Voxware Voice system we now have in place. The company then committed to phase two in September 2008 to satisfy many of its other picking requirements, and went live in April 2009. The Voxware system is directly linked to Harper Collins WMS, with no required middleware. Voxwares server receives the work-file pick lists from the WMS, the Voxware solution then converts these into voice instructions. It receives voice confirmations from the users and, when tasks are completed, returns files to the WMS showing what tasks have been completed and when. When this procedure has been completed, the Voice system receives the next batch for picking.

Pedigree Wholesale began implementing the Accord Voice solution in July 2005. Initially, we were looking to change our WMS and have a more fully integrated software system in  place, said Pedigree Wholesales financial director, Brian Mellors. We also wanted to be able to better verify our order picking process. Mellors added that Pedigree Wholesales WMS was introduced as part of the overall process, although this was fully running before the company had fully implemented the Accord Voice solution. The Accord Voice system is very convenient because it works on natural voice technology, allowing the operator to create his or her own voice profile, said Mellors, who added: BCP was very involved with the implementation process, and provided all the backup and training, and a certain amount of handholding as we went live with various aspects of the system, bit by bit. We did all the basic installation in-house; setting up the data and designing the warehouse layout to make the new solution work as effectively as possible.

Systme U, the French retailers cooperative, installed Aldata GOLD Vocal in 2004 based on a proprietary system. In 2009, this was switched to the second-generation version based on the PDA open platform as part of a system replacement programme. Ronan Le Corre, logistics director at Systme U, explained that the rationale behind the move to PDA was the cost of upgrading the existing proprietary system and the advantages of multi-modal; such as the ability to seamlessly work with Voice and standard data collection methodologies in one environment. He added that this system also afforded Systme U the ability to standardise on hardware used throughout the organisation in the store, in the warehouse and on the road. In addition, the system required no pre-registry for operators; that is, speech rather than Voice recognition means the solution is immediately operational a distinct advantage for supporting Systme Us high percentage of seasonal and temporary employees.
According to Le Corre, the benefits of the system, which has a real-time interface with the companys WMS, include: perpetual inventory management and traceability of all products particularly those that need to be tracked for legislative reasons; meat produce, for example. Le Corre added that the productivity gains from a PDA environment for Voice are similar to a proprietary platform. However, he said, the main differences are that with the PDA there is no operator training, which has presented Systme U with a significant reduction in cost. Also, continued Le Corre, the company can now do more to support additional warehouse operators and standardise on a small number of hardware vendors.

Many beer distributors still rely on paper pick lists for case picking tasks. However, one such distributor that has just made the switch to Voice is Suncoast Beverage Sales (Suncoast). Suncoast distributes more than 17,000 cases of beverages daily and approximately 5 million cases annually. The companys decision to make the change to an automated system was no small one, and it had to be executed with minimal interference to the operation of its distribution centre, which functions 16 hours per day, 6 days a week.

The change involved not only moving to Voice-directed picking technology, but also to utilising a Warehouse Control System (WCS) spanning the entire warehouse environment; including picking, inventory control and shipping. Since going live with PickDirector, designed and installed by Dematic, Suncoast has reportedly seen reduced order errors, faster truck loading and realised a 20 per cent increase in cases-per-labour-hour productivity. It has decreased its employees working in the warehouse because PickDirector is now telling them what to pull and where to load it, significantly reducing pick and load time. We saw a major decrease in our errors in the warehouse going onto the trucks from night loading, commented Tim Mitchell, president of Suncoast. Our latest numbers show a 99.9 per cent accuracy rate.

Vocollect has provided global transport & logistics supplier DSV Solutions Ireland Direct with one unified multi-lingual system. Nigel Devenish, commercial director at DSV Solutions Ireland Direct, commented that when he joined the business some three years ago, its distribution centre in the Republic of Ireland was a fully manual operation. The only technology we used was to scan the pallets at put-away, he said. That meant everything else we did was manually driven and therefore relied heavily on paper and on staff entering the right piece of information on the right piece of paper at the right time.

However, in reality there was quite a high number of mis-picks, largely due to our reliance on paper pick lists. We then had to make a decision to either deploy handheld scanning or use pick by Voice. Both methodologies could give us the required amount of manageable information, but because the average weight of our cartons is 12kg, we considered that the immediate benefit of Voice-directed picking was health & safety-related. Staff could use both hands simultaneously while picking up each carton. Additionally, when you looked at velocity there was clearly an enhancement by moving to a Voice system rather than the handheld scanning option. Thirdly and it wasnt until after implementation that this really hit home we have eight different languages being used on the warehouse floor. DSV Solutions Ireland Direct began discussions with Vocollect reseller and systems integrator Heavey RF in Feburary 2007 and committed to sourcing the Vocollect system by May of the same year.

Implementation began that August and the company went live approximately 13 weeks thereafter. Devenish explained that the Voice system runs off its own server. We send a file to that server containing information for that days pick and dispatch these orders are then released in coordination with the resources we have available at that time, he said. We have also installed two 50-inch monitors in the warehouse and one in the stock control room. By so doing, we have reduced internal phone calls by around 99 per cent. People can just look over their shoulders now and see what store is being picked as a percentage, what the order number is, what country the order is for, etc. The Voice order preparation solution that has recently gone into production in Leclerc Lecasud operates in a PDA environment.

Alain Robeau, support services director at Leclerc Lecasud, pointed out that the company already had experience of a Voice solution with Voice-dedicated terminals, but Aldatas PDA solution appealed to it for a number of reasons. First, GOLD Vocal in a PDA was compatible with Leclerc Lecasuds existing systems, which allowed the company to protect existing investments. Secondly, GOLD Vocal enables the company to be independent in terms of its hardware supplier of choice. Thirdly, it is a system that operates without any Voice pre-registering. This, said Robeau, represents significant gains in time for temporary and seasonal personnel.

Another advantage highlighted by Robeau is the fact that it is a second-generation voice solution. This is a solution for today and tomorrow via the ability to integrate and activate PDA multi-modal applications (for example, screen, pistol, keyboard, voice, scanning, RFID and barcodes), he remarked, adding that in the near future voice technology will be used for operations other than order preparation and inventory. According to Robeau, the key benefits brought by the implementation of the system are: increased quality (the error rate is divided by eight), increased productivity by approximately 12 per cent, better stock management due to increased quality and the ability to integrate perpetual inventory during order preparation. Robeau added that the multi-modal opportunities offered by GOLD Vocal are permitting Leclerc Lecasud to consider redesigning some of its existing processes, such as truck loading. We can certainly envisage additional gains in quality and productivity due to multi-modal processes, something which is not available in a Voice dedicated environment, he said.

Further development plans
With a number of existing benefits secured, are our end users now intending to enhance or expand the use of their Voice-directed systems? Levaggi explains that Harper Collins is planning to upgrade to an Oracle database in the future. Also, over the next six to twelve months the company will be looking at additional functionality from Voxware that will enable it to undertake dual barcode scanning & voice confirmation through the same unit. Steenbergen points out that AS Watson is currently engaged in a pilot Voice, scanning and WMS project in Holland where the organisation is ensuring that the correct containers are loaded on the right trucks. We are using Voice to confirm to the truck loader that when he is picking up a pallet he scans it then hears the Voice system tell him it needs to go into, say, bay 6 to load the truck, said Steenbergen. The truck loader then confirms this has been done by using the Voice system. Were also currently adding online planning for greater truck-load efficiency. Hepworth explains that Faber Music Distribution undertakes picking tasks on its 40 ft narrow isle forklift truck however, he believes this operation could be improved by using Voice. At the moment, were using a truck-mounted terminal, where we scan all the books and scan the location for confirmation and replenishment purposes, he said.
We find Voice picking to be so much quicker. You dont have to pick up a scanner out of a holder and point it at the book. And everything is hands free with Voice; your eyes and voice are doing everything for you, so all thats left is for you to pick the books with nothing else to hold. Hepworth added that he is also looking at rolling out more use of Voice for the companys multi-pick, so we could pick more than ten orders at a time and maybe pick more than ten copies in an order, he commented. We have our own website www.expressprintmusic.com so we receive a lot of singlebook orders, but particularly during the Summer months many of the dealers only buy small top-up orders to we reveive many 10, 15 or 20 book orders during this period. So, I feel we could take these 20 book orders as a multi-pick as well. All this will help us speed our processes up even further.

Mellors comments that Pedigree Wholesale operates out of five sites and has put Voice into its main hub. Implementation of Voice for all its picking requirements took a total of two years because the company has two warehouses on one site. From here Pedigree Wholesale picks for its other depots and dispatches to them overnight. These other depots still rely on paper-based picking, but Mellors reports that the company is now in the process of rolling Accord out across these other sites. BCP is currently involved in this process we are currently at the initial stage of implementation at one of our other depots; with the others to follow shortly after, he explained. The Accord module now also has a Voice application for dealing with goods returned by the customer because they >> << have ordered the wrong product or change their mind, etc. This is something that we are looking to implement soon, and this will certainly improve time saving and accuracy even further.

Jackson points out that Brakes has thought about putting in Voice technology for replenishment, goods-in, loading and perpetual inventory checking. However, this is very much in its infancy at the moment and more of a discussion point than a firm plan, simply because we currently have a number of other priorities that we are concentrating on, he said. Lowe comments that Wilkinson began by using Workabout Pro mainly for Voice-directed picking, but by the end of this year is also looking to add a PI solution to the terminal for stock control. In addition, the company is planning to use the unit for invoicing, whereby it will be utilising its scanning capability. Wilkinson is also looking to add bulk-picking functionality on its trucks in due course.

As for DSV Solutions Ireland, Devenish comments that Voice has made the 3PL service provider commit to moving all its operations of a sufficient size and scale over to a Voice platform in order to use Pick by Voice as the standard picking tool. Martin explains that, although Cooper Booth Wholesale currently only uses Voice for picking, the company would also like to use the system for receiving, put-away and inventory control in the near future. Were really enjoying the benefits of having a hands-free way of working and its really impressing us even more than we had first anticipated, he remarked. At Waitrose, Stonehewer explains that the company is currently Voice picking in its ambient and frozen chambers, and hopes to extend the use of Voxware to its fresh warehouses in the future. Systme U presently uses Aldata GOLD Vocal to support its picking process; however, the company is also looking to use the system to support its pickers in constructing shipment pallets.

Currently, pallet construction is handled by a different team using a different device. Le Corre points out that the change to Voice will enable the same picker to manager the full process from picking through to shipment. This offers us greater utilisation and flexibility in staffing, as well as the ability to use one system across the full process. Steenbergen pointed out that AS Watson is currently creating the budgets for next year to roll Voice out to its warehouses in Malaysia and Taiwan. Historically, in the Far East when extra capacity in the warehouse is required they just add more staff, he said. However, the warehouse management is increasingly realising that Voice is the answer to greater process control in terms of picking accuracy and better traceability knowing that the right goods are on the right pallets. Just adding head count in the warehouse can only make things worse.

What matters
What do our commentators feel differentiates the growing number of Voice and associated offerings currently available? Levaggi believes Voice systems that are relatively open and configurable are the way forward. He also believes it is important for the systems to be flexible enough to fit a range of different work processes. Some vendors design their systems to work with very specific business process models and workflows, but I think they will increasingly have to adopt a more flexible approach, he said, adding: In the case of Voxware, they have broken new ground with us in processing some truck-based case picking and replenishment work. They have put extra development work in to meet our business requirements to increase accuracy and become increasingly hands free in our operational processes. Levaggi continued: Basically, we believe that limitations in terms of workflow shouldnt be due to the limitations of the systems that the company relies on. First, you need to think about whats best for the business, and then consider the best technology to assist this. In Hepworths view, it boils down to the service offered by the vendor and systems integrator. If a piece of kit goes down or we have error messages, you have to be confident that your supplier is able to fix the problem quickly and efficiently, he said. This is because if we go down for only five minutes were losing productivity and this is expensive for Faber and inconvenient for our customers.

Price is also important. Hepworth added that the proposal to source a Voice-directed system was a substantial figure to present to the board, but with a payback of around 13 months it has proved to have been a sound investment, he said. From Stonehewers perspective, the best Voice systems are those that are able to fit easily within a companys existing technology roadmap, as is the case with the Voxware installation at Waitrose. Nolte points out some of the more fundamental differences: A choice of Voice output natural voice output (all words must be defined and recorded) or computer generated. In terms of Voice recognition, he points to the choice between speaker-independent voice recognition (without training/learning) and speaker dependent voice recognition. As regards hardware, Nolte comments that some systems require special vendor hardware, while more open systems that run on every hardware fulfils the basic requirements.

Economic climate
Working within a challenging economic climate for many vertical sectors, are our commentators gaining certain business benefits throughout using a Voice-directed system that they might not otherwise have? Lowe points out that Wilkinson is currently showing between a 5 and 10 per cent productivity improvement since going live with Voice. There have also reportedly been significant improvements in terms of picking accuracy. Weve probably closed down around 75 per cent of all the errors that used to occur with the paper-based methodology, he remarked.

Levaggi reflects that, although the book market is not immune to recession, it has not been as badly affected as some other sectors. Nevertheless, he comments that cost saving is still at the forefront and the biggest benefit of Voice for Harper Collins is in helping it to improve its picking and data accuracy. Our error and shortage rate was acceptable before we implemented Voice around 0.4 per cent however with Voice this has been reduced to less than 0.2 per cent, he said, adding: This may not sound like a huge difference, but if you consider that we distribute over 100 million books a year you can see that this is a very welcome improvement. For Jackson, Voice technology has certainly given Brakes greater efficiency and better management control, while also driving significant service benefits for customers. In these tough economic times these certainly act to give us a competitive advantage, he said.

Mellors comments that in the current market climate, Pedigree Wholesale is fortunate to have witnessed an upturn in sales rather than a downturn. And with the Accord Voice solution we have been able to accommodate this additional work without increasing staff levels on the whole, he remarked, adding: It is good to know that we are now generally more efficient in our picking regime with Voice. Were operating with fewer staff than we were when we were totally paper-based, and can complete the days work schedule far more accurately and efficiently. Its now much more transparent as to what work needs to be done on a daily basis. The main benefit is the picking accuracy. With the verification of each picking stage through the Voice system, we have managed to eliminate picking errors in our main hub and our customers notice this. Martin states that Cooper Booth Wholesale continues to have sustained market growth despite the downturn, but our topVOX Voice solution only adds to our overall profitability through improved productivity and greater picking accuracy, he remarked, adding: We could literally pull someone off the street and after a few minutes training have them up and running.

Overall, weve seen an increase in productivity by around 14 per cent. We track errors in terms of one per thousand, and since using topVOX our errors have gone down by around 7 to 8 per cent. Indeed, performance is so good that we expect an ROI inside of our estimation. For Devenish, the key component for ware - housing in the supply chain is the ability to access critical information related to most of its core functions. This allows a company to see both efficiencies and inefficiencies, he said. So, whether in a downturn or an upturn, this allows the operational management team to effect changes that ensure further cost efficiencies within the business. It also allows a company to know straight away whether it has surplus resources or not enough resources for any given task.

This is where a Voice solution such as Vocollect excels. Hepworth comments that Faber Music Distributions Vocollect hardware and Zetes Voice application software system has helped the company recession-proof itself by becoming leaner and slicker. Our biggest company cost is labour, but we have been both able to streamline our staffing levels while also being more efficient through deploying the Voice system, he said. This has really helped us in the downturn. In addition, Hepworth points out that since 9 January Faber has spent nothing on staff overtime, whereas before using Voice we were probably spending around 30,000 per year on overtime alone, he pointed out. Im not saying we will never need staff to work overtime every again, but up to now Voice has really made the difference. Stonehewer comments that the two main benefits Voice has brought to Waitrose, not just during the downturn, but in general, are improvements in productivity and accuracy, while Steenbergen highlights the fact that Voice can help companies to not only benefit now, but also afford advantages in terms of preparation for future downturns as and when they occur. Le Corre points out that due to Systme Us focus on cost and customer proximity, the current market downturn has enabled it to attract new customers and retain existing ones. Our focus remains the same quality, customer service and a key focus on the community in which we operate, he said.

Notable developments
What do end users consider to have been some of the most notable technological developments in the Voice solutions space in the recent past? From Noltes point of view voice solutions have made a big step forward, which has been caused by the further development of handheld terminals and WLAN. These developments provided the platform to increase the quality of the speech recognition, he said, adding: Furthermore, the Voice solution suppliers have enhanced the functionality of the speech recognition software and integrated/interfaced peripheral devices (such as barcode scanner via Bluetooth) to their voice systems. From Le Corres perspective, Voice should no longer be seen as a stand-alone solution. The challenge with Voice is that user fatigue is common due to the single mode of operation, he said. By integrating Voice into a multimodal system, operators can use the best mode of data capture suited to the task. Le Corre added that this common environment, supporting Voice and mixed data collection methodologies, has enabled Systme U to incorporate hearing-impaired employees as part of its picking team. This would not have been an option with a proprietary Voice-only system and is very important to us as we have a clear personnel and inclusive policy, Le Corre remarked.

Round the corner
What do end users anticipate as some of the next key developments in the world of Voice-directed solutions? Steenbergen foresees Voice solutions becoming cheaper, particularly in terms of hardware. He adds that the market is also seeing an increasing number of traditional scanning system vendors entering the Voice technology market. Stonehewer points out that there is more flexibility in Voice-directed solutions now than there was even three or four years ago. Some of the software thats currently available makes it even easier to integrate inventory management and stock counting with picking procedures, he said.

Devenish observes Voice systems have up to now largely been designed and sold as a unique aid to picking. This has now been well and truly proven and, in my view, it could be extended as maybe part of the receipt process, certainly the putting away process, and even allied to the stock control process, he commented. Mellors agrees. Although an increasing number of users are implementing Voice within the warehouse, there may be opportunities for Voice implementation within other aspects of a business, such as accounts or order entry, he said. And, the word or number vocabulary I suspect wouldnt have to be increased dramatically, because companies like ours can take orders by code number. We, like many companies, take orders through telesales, but as Voice systems develop further we could see a time when we dont actually need an operator to answer a call.

The customer could ring in and log an order and quantity by code straight into the order entry. We and many other companies have a web-ordering facility and other ways of taking orders electronically, but we still have a large number of customers that do phone. For Levaggi, the key is increased flexibility, covering more of the operational processes within the business in order to increase picking and data accuracy as well as save time and money. While Le Corre maintains that, just as mobility solutions are now operational in the warehouse and store, the next step is clearly to have them everywhere including on the road Voice will become a standard data capture and execution method that is ubiquitous.

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