Agility is the watchword

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Manufacturing & Logistics IT senior editor Ed Holden spoke with Dave O'Reilly, sales director at Voxware, about new developments in the Voice-directed solution space.

Voxware has successfully deployed many Voice solutions in the UK over the past 7 years, with major implementations involving hundreds of workers at leading retailers and high street supermarket companies. Over this period of time, Voice systems have evolved from being an innovative new technology into an industry best practice. Voxwares Dave OReilly comments that what is less well known is Voice technology itself has evolved.

Voxwares Dave OReilly notes that Voice in the distribution centre has followed the same path of development as virtually every other high technology. The first solutions were entirely bespoke on the hardware as well as the software levels. Since then, standards have emerged and Voice technology has moved forward. Today, customers have many more options and leverage to reduce the long-term cost of a Voice solution.

Hardware independence is an example of this evolution. In the early days, customers had to invest in proprietary Voice devices, which led many to the erroneous conclusion that Voice technology was primarily a hardware decision, said OReilly. In the past few years, weve worked with major vendors such as Motorola, Intermec, and LXE to Voice-enable a wide range of their devices, many of which can also be used for other purposes. Now there are very large and successful deployments utilising these devices, so the idea that Voice technology requires a specific device has been disproven.

Exactly like other high technologies, OReilly points out that it is software that has defined and shaped the evolution of Voice solutions. He suggests companies that approach Voice as a software acquisition are far ahead of their peers who have not recognised how Voice technology has advanced. Software is at the heart of a key operational business need: agility, he said.

OReilly reflects that logistics is an environment of constant evolution with greater demands on increasing velocity and reducing headcount whilst achieving greater overall performance to meet the demands of a public that expects first time results. Logistics operations that develop the ability to rapidly adapt their processes have a distinct advantage, adding: Voice solutions have become a mainstay component for operations that depend on them. Like any mainstay component, they can be inflexible and therefore inhibit an organisations ability to respond to change, or they can be adaptive and therefore enable agility. Often, when operations executives are told that a change cannot easily be made, they hear that it is a software issue that prevents progress.

OReilly maintains that one example of inflexibility that devolves to the software level is a lack of portability in Voice solutions. Many are bespoke applications that are designed only to work with certain hardware and other operational requirements, he said. So, for example, if a customer wishes to move the solution from one hardware device to another, he may learn that the bespoke application is not readily portable to the desired device. This tends to lock customers into a specific set of choices and raises cost over the long term.

How can the right software mitigate these and other issues? He believes there are several keys. First, customers need to look for software that is based upon commonly recognised industry standards. In the case of Voice technology, this means VoiceXML and associated web-centric standards. Customers need to ask vendors whether their solution is fully portable that is, does the vendor market a single voice product that is portable across all applicable environments?

Portability of the solution is only the beginning, according to OReilly. He makes the point that Voice technology has now evolved beyond its bespoke application roots and, today, customers should expect a fully productised solution. Although the idea of acquiring a Voice solution that is custom-built for their operation is initially attractive to customers, they quickly realise that their operation itself is constantly evolving, he said. This has led the market to ask for Voice software products, not bespoke Voice software solutions.

How can one distinguish between a software product and a bespoke solution? OReilly explains that a software product will have a history of releases and a roadmap of future releases. Customers are able to upgrade from one release to the next of a purchased application (or move to a newly supported hardware device) without having to pay a new software license fee, he pointed out. This enables customers to take advantage of new product features, and also to leverage the community effect whereby a product is made better by the active contribution of ideas from the customer base. This is how all major software technologies have eventually evolved, and Voice is no exception. Today we are at the crossroads between the bespoke systems of the past and the voice software products of the future.

Of course, he continues, a poorly written software product can be just as inflexible as a bespoke solution. The key, in Voxwares case, is to provide a Voice software product that itself is engineered for change. This means providing a set of software building blocks and a graphical means of assembling them and changing their behaviour without resorting to a complete reprogramming exercise.

OReilly comments that Voxware has been privileged to be present at the beginning of the Voice market in the UK, as well as having been involved in the major step changes as Voice technology has evolved. We believe strongly that, in addition to strong customer service and attentiveness, it is quality software that makes the biggest difference and provides our customers with the foundation for agility in their Voice operation, he said. Weve kept in step with customer demand by delivering a true software product offering, and are moving ahead with new innovations.

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