Manufacturing & Logistics IT spoke with a number of key spokespeople within the Voice-directed system and Warehouse Management space about a wide range of current talking points and possible future developments.
Voice-directed systems have been in use in warehouses and distribution centres (DCs) since the late ’90s, but since then there have been a raft of further developments and enhancements to the technology, although the basic benefits remain; including providing a paper-free method of managing a range of warehouse functions including goods receiving, put-away, picking, dispatch and replenishment.
And by ensuring warehouse workers are able to operate hands and eyes free, Voice-directed systems can substantially improve levels of efficiency and accuracy. Reflecting on developments in the Voice-directed systems marketplace in recent times, John Harper, sales application manager at Dematic, comments that Voice has served its time as an emerging technology and is now accepted within the logistics industry as one of the most efficient and accurate methods of manual order fulfilment. He points out that Voice can now be used on an ever widening range of host devices. “Some WMS companies ‘saw the light’ many years ago and embraced Voice from the start by incorporating a Voice module into their own WMSs,” said Harper. “This gave their customers the option of fully Voice directed warehousing including putaway, picking, replenishment and counting – all by Voice, in real time and with the Voice terminals communicating directly with the WMS.”
Bread and butter
On the whole, though, Harper adds that most WMS companies did not embrace Voice technology entirely, with just a few supplying an option for picking by Voice if the customer specifically asked for it. “This created a big market for middleware, which became the Voice technology resellers’ bread and butter over the last decade,” he remarked. Middleware, as the name suggests, provides some software functionality that fits between the host WMS and the Voice terminals. Harper comments that it is this method that has been the most popular method of adopting Voice thus far. “It has enabled countless companies to use Voice-directed picking, even though their WMS does not support it,” he said, adding: “It has got to the stage now where nearly all the major businesses, especially in the retail industry, have already adopted Voice for their order fulfilment operations. To the Voice suppliers this means that most of the major Voice opportunities – the ‘low hanging fruit’ – are gone, with just the small-to-medium opportunities remaining.”
With this in mind, Harper observes that over the past year or two the main Voice technology manufacturers have worked towards making it much easier for WMS companies to integrate Voice into their warehouse management systems in the hope of addressing many of these smaller opportunities. “This should result in more Voice choices for the WMS user,” said Harper. “I wouldn’t expect this potential rise in Voice-directed WMS choice to make much difference to the market for Voice-directed middleware in the current financial climate. There will still be many small- to medium-sized order fulfilment operations that would prefer to spend a comparatively small amount on a middleware-based Voice interface to their current WMS in preference to the much higher cost of upgrading their WMS to the latest Voice enabled version (assuming there is one available). We should also bear in mind that traditionally, Voice-directed middleware has provided a much more feature-rich, flexible and low-risk solution than that available as a direct interface from the WMS providers. A direct Voice interface is usually restricted by the functionality that resides within the warehouse management system and therefore not as easy to customise as middleware is.”
Harper adds that, with most of the major players now contented Voice users, the Voice suppliers are also looking at alternative uses for the technology. “Traditionally, most companies adopting Voice have used it for picking only,” he said, “as this is the most costly part of the logistics operation and therefore potentially where the biggest and quickest savings can be made. Suppliers will be offering Voice for other areas of the order fulfilment operation such as pallet movements, stock counting, marshalling, consolidating and packing. Although these parts of the operation will not deliver such a fast payback as picking there are still big benefits to be had from accuracy, ergonomics, transparency and fixed processes. It will be a lot easier to sell Voice to run these other processes if the customer already uses Voice for picking.”
Harper also comments that dedicated Voice terminals – those terminals that can only be used for Voice operations – have remained at a fairly steady price since their inception. “So they are still priced higher than a traditional handheld/wearable terminal with scanner,” he said. “However, over the last year or so, Vocollect has brought out a smaller, lighter dedicated Voice terminal (the T1) for light industrial use that will compete directly with traditional handheld terminals on price. So it can be said that the cost of Voice is starting to come down, but the customer should always consider the ROI rather than the initial cost of the implementation; as the difference in hardware costs won’t increase the time to ROI by much.”
Truly configurable applications
Stephen Gerrard, vice president, marketing & strategic planning at Voxware, comments that a major current development within the Voice-directed systems space is the emergence of truly configurable Voice software applications. “Warehouses are dynamic work environments where managers continually look for ways to improve business processes,” he said. “Configurable software enables enterprises to control the cost of change far more effectively, whilst making it possible to evolve the use of Voice within the operation.”
In Gerrard’s view, industry consolidation is another major development, with the acquisition of US-based Vocollect by Intermec earlier this year. “Vocollect was the last boutique manufacturer of Voice-only devices,” he said, “so this sets up a showdown between the major manufacturers for market share in the arena of rugged Voice-capable mobility devices. Naturally this benefits customers because device prices will continue to drop, allowing for wider marketplace adoption.” Gerrard adds that customers also benefit from a clearer playing field of Voice vendors, and can more readily discern between hardware manufacturers, system integrators and software solutions providers who all play in the Voice market.
So what has driven these developments? Gerrard believes they have been driven by the natural evolution common to all high-technology markets. “The pioneering phase of the Voice market, wherein first-mover adoptees paid premium prices for proprietary hardware and custom software, has given way to more open solutions,” he commented. “The next phase will be the increased demand for packaged Voice software products. These developments always accompany the adoption of a helpful technology by the mainstream marketplace.”
Gerrard added that vendors such as Voxware naturally continuing to evolve their product offerings in response to end-user requirements. “In the past, Voice technology has suffered from being too complicated, too expensive, and too difficult to change,” he said. “Voxware has delivered advances in software that successfully attack these issues, and we believe this is enabling a growing number of companies to consider Voice as a cost-effective way to improve their distribution operations.”
Out of reach
Gavin Clark, commercial manager at Synergy Logistics, reflects that, typically‚Voice‘ has historically been for the larger operators. “The costs involved in licensing and implementing the solutions always took Voice out of reach for the majority,” he said. “In recent years, the move towards Software as a Service (SaaS) business models has moved not only WMS but also Voice-directed solutions towards a monthly subscription, which has made the benefits of Voice available to a far wider audience and at a far more cost-effective price point.”
For Richard Adams, vice president of sales at Vocollect EMEA, one of the most striking developments for Voice-directed work is the use of Voice beyond traditional picking applications. “While some Voice customers migrate from paper to Voice across multiple workflows from the outset, others typically begin with Voice in the picking workflow,” he said. “Once they realise double-digit gains in productivity and accuracy in picking, they quickly discover the value of deploying Voice to other workflows for their hands-busy, eyes-busy workers. They soon find increased productivity and accuracy benefits, as well as efficiencies such as a 10 to 20 per cent reduction in warehouse vehicles, which lowers capital expenditures and ongoing maintenance.”
So what’s stimulating such changes? Adams commented that Vocollect‘s customers are constantly looking for new ways to boost performance and cost savings across their supply chains, while coping with fluctuations in demand and the increasing pressure from their own customers to deliver on-time and error-free, every time. “Specifically, companies are particularly pressed to fully exploit their technology investments,” he said. “Major developments in Voice technology have also been driven by the global recession of the past few years. These challenges bring enormous opportunities for the Voice industry as a whole, and Vocollect is at the forefront of this transformation of distribution and logistics processes. Vocollect’s Voice technology is helping companies do more with less and to maximise performance and profitability.”
David Stanhope, CEO at VoiteQ, comments thatVoice is increasingly being used for more than just picking; such as goods in, replenishment and inventory. “Although VoiteQ Voice-enabled all warehouse operations almost 13 years ago it only now seems to be being widely talked about taking Voice beyond picking,” he said. “Voice picking continues to provide the ‘quick win’ by producing a rapid ROI, but after that investment has been made users are increasingly looking for other areas in the operation that could also benefit from Voice to maximise their ROI. This has lead to the expansion of Voice ‘tasks’ being created to meet these requirements. Increase in multi-channel retailing lead to different types of pick in the same operation, with typically single picks being used to fulfil individual customer orders, whilst still using standard order pick to fulfil large orders for stores. More functionality has had to be added to Voice solutions to cope with the different ways in which these orders are fulfilled within the operations; sometimes splitting pickers and assigning them to one specific type of order, enabling users to ‘fast track’ priority customer orders within the system, ‘pick and pack’ for individual customer orders yet still use pallets/cages/totes for store orders.”
According to Stanhope, these developments are mostly due to the changing requirements of the end user via multi-channel, and the need to ‘sweat the assets’ to make the most of the initial investment. However, he adds that many of the vendors saw the changes within the industry early and started developing their solutions before there was significant market demand. “VoiteQ has always kept an eye on industry changes and relishes the challenge to create new solutions to stay ‘ahead of the game’,” he remarked.
In the opinion of Steve Binder, senior director, sales & marketing at Zetes, there are two main current developments/talking points. First, he believes customers are looking to move away from proprietary systems and implement open systems. “The industry has matured since 1999 when the first Voice systems operated around batch processes,” he said. “Now customers want real-time, scalable systems based on open systems architectures that are able to support multiple hardware configurations (i.e. combining Voice-only terminals with HHTs or vehicle mounted computers) from different, or mixed, hardware manufacturers.”
Secondly, Binder’s view is that customers want to get the maximum benefit from existing investments in Voice and to broaden the scope of use of the technology. He states that Zetes sees market growth is in two directions. “First, there is horizontal growth – expanding usage within the warehouse to different activities i.e. from picking to stock management and putaway applications,” he said. “Secondly there is vertical expansion across different industry sectors. So Voice implementations began with 3PLs and consumer goods industries and uptake is now broadening to new sectors such as healthcare, pharma and within manufacturing operations.” Binder continued: “Customers investing in Voice today are doing so during a difficult economic environment in which any capital expenditure is carefully scrutinised. It is now taken for granted that Voice delivers a benefit and users want to recoup their investments quickly, ensuring operational processes are automated in the best way possible to benefit the business.”
Demand for ‘plug and play’
Andreas Finken, director of topVOX US and managing director of topVOX UK, explains that the key issue for topVOX customers is the demand for a ‘plug and play’ system for the use of Voice in logistics. “The expenditure for integration into the existing IT structure should be as minimal as possible,” he said. “With our Voice suite topSpeech Lydia, we offer a custom-fit solution. Our standard interfaces allow a quick and easy connection to leading WMS systems. We have already mapped all current work processes related to intralogistics in our Voice system, so that no additional time-consuming adjustments are necessary. Thanks to the speaker-independent speech recogniser, employees can immediately work productively with topSpeech-Lydia without training.”
In addition, Finken believes the issues of workplace safety and ergonomics top the list. “The necessary hardware equipment for Voice picking must optimally support the employees and not hinder them at work,” he said. “Here, topVOX scores with the latest Bluetooth headset that requires no cable connection to the Voice client. We have placed a lot of emphasis on comfort for the wearer and long battery life so that employees can best perform their tasks.”
And, specifically with regard to the WMS space, what have been some of the key developments in recent times? According to Stephan Vennemann, business development manager WMS at Vanderlande, one of these is Performance Management. “We see developments focusing on business process optimisation,” he said. “Warehouses and distribution centres (DCs) face continuous changes, such as changes in order patterns, seasonality, product range, and various peaks (peak days, peak weeks, peak months). As business changes over time, the logistics system needs to support these changes in the best possible way. Is capacity still sufficient? What are the bottle necks? Are the processes still adequate? In an automated DC, these challenges provide an opportunity to implement highly intelligent material handling systems, based on a thorough understanding of the supply chain and DC processes. The result: The DC is becoming a ‘logistics plant’, consisting of machinery, labour, processes, input and output. All these elements need to be optimised to be successful. It requires a significant level of knowledge of the processes, the technology and the people involved.”
Vennemann maintains that Process Engineering can be the key to logistics process improvement. “Process Engineering focuses on the design, operation, control and optimisation of processes, through the aid of systemic, computer based methods,” he said. “Key steps are monitoring, data collection and information analysis. Computer systems can help to monitor daily processes by giving a direct overview of daily business performance. Process tracking can show trends in relevant performance parameters. Online simulation can show ‘if-then-else’ scenarios to support future planning steps. Vanderlande Industries has significant experience in such process analysis and optimisation. Our Business Process Intelligence System (BPI) enables gathering, storing and analysing process data, providing customers with the information they need to make better decisions.”
Support for multi-channel retail
Vennemann adds that another key talking point in the world of WMS is support for multi-channel retail. “Consumers today want seamless service regardless of the sales channel they are using,” he commented. “They also tend to move between sales channels. Consumers hear about products on the web, go to the shop and then buy. Or they may see a product in a store, check the web to find the best offer and then buy online. So the logistics process has to be able to support this need. Many retailers are facing a big challenge, because their whole logistics process is built around the traditional ‘bricks and mortar’ shop concept. At Vanderlande, we have developed solutions for multi-channel retailers that enable them to improve their service level and handle the strong growth in their online sales.”
Vennemann also cited integration and interfacing as being another area that is often discussed in today’s WMS space. “Customers require more seamless integration between for example their ERP system and the WMS,” he said. Additionally, Vennemann points to integration of WMS and TMS (Transport Management System). “The most important reasons for integration of software in logistics processes are faster and more accurate delivery to customers in combination with possibilities for cost reduction because of better planning of the entire process. The key element is better supply chain visibility that facilitates better decision making.”
Regarding ERP integration, Vanderlande recently strengthened its relationship with SAP and joined SAP’s PartnerEdge programme. Vanderlande has already cooperated intensively with SAP since 2003. As part of the PartnerEdge programme, Vanderlande has optimised the interface between the SAP environment and Vanderlande’s Vision Warehouse Management and Control System (WMS/WCS). “Optimising this interface ensures seamless integration of the SAP ERP system and Vanderlande’s Vision WMS/WCS in automated warehouses and distribution centres,” said Vennemann.
Sudip Masoji, business development manager at DLoG UK, maintains that organisations need to be more agile in today's highly competitive market, which means being able to respond quickly to changes and to deliver exactly what customers want, when they want it. “This has resulted in a demand for integrated real-time systems to help maximise operational efficiency and productivity, and to increase visibility of the movement of goods through the warehousee,” he said. “This is achieved through a closed-loop approach that facilitates the easy flow of data throughout the organisation by being able to electronically distribute and collect essential process data to and from the operator at the point of use.”
According to Masoji, the essential nature of the information exchange process, particularly within wireless and mobile network infrastructures, means that companies must also consider a robust platform that can effectively and reliably support this process. “DLoG industrial computers are designed and built with a high degree of configurability and flexibility to support this flow of information, in even the most extreme environments, ” he said. This, Masoji explains, is achieved by combining industrial capabilities, simple operation, and excellent visualisation all in one. “We offer full screen solutions that enable organisations to deliver greater quantities of information to the operator, ” he said, “empowering them with the knowledge to undertake activities effectively and efficiently. Furthermore, fast communication is the basis for reliable, error-free performance in processes like goods movement. With the addition of our industry standard wireless interfaces (Bluetooth/GPRS/802.11 a/b/g/n) and the DLoG Voice kit DLoG ruggedised computers provide audio and visual support in a single solution – that enables organisations to deliver and maximise the benefits of both Voice-directed solutions and WMS.”
What are some of the main functionality differentiators among the Voice-directed system and WMS vendor community? In Stanhope’s view, all Voice-directed systems should be able to deliver the same level of functionality. However, he adds that it is down to the quality and experience of the Voice provider to deliver functionality that precisely meets the customer needs; including meeting timescales, service level and budget i.e. to deliver on promises. “This needs to be consistently true throughout the partnership, not just at the initial agreement stage, ” he said. “At VoiteQ we always take a partnership approach with our customers, to develop specifically solutions for them, be it Voice picking on a conveyor at Littlehampton Book Services or creating a direct interface to new in-house WMS functionality at Mamas & Papas, it essential to be able to develop solutions that work for the customer.”
Gerrard considers that, from the highest level, all Voice solutions look pretty much the same – workers receive instructions through a headset and they give verbal responses as work progresses. “Under the covers, however, there are big differences that impact ease of use, operational flexibility, and long term cost,” he said. “Smart buyers will probe for these differences to ensure getting a solution that fits their needs both today and tomorrow.
Many Voice solutions are fat client applications built on proprietary scripting languages and thus entail a closed architecture. Other solutions are based on open standards and promise wider flexibility for the future.”
Gerrard reminds us that, traditionally, Voice solutions were bespoke applications. “While companies got a solution crafted for their specific requirements, the downside is a high cost (more programming) every time the solution needs to be modified,” he said. “Today we see configurable software products in the Voice market – and this is the wave of the future. Configurable products enable the Voice solution to be tailored to the company’s unique needs, and the cost to modify such a product is far less than with traditional Voice solutions.”
Gerrard adds that WMS integration capability is becoming a key differentiator for Voice vendors. “At Voxware we now call Voice technology ‘the smart man’s WMS upgrade’,” he said. “In the past, Voice solutions had to be so tightly integrated with the WMS that a ‘deadly embrace’ was created. Often, a specific release of the WMS had to be installed in order for Voice to work – a hugely expensive undertaking for customers who were not on the required release level. Today, with loosely-coupled message-based interfaces, and visual tools to configure them such as Voxware’s VoxConnect, Voice-WMS integration can be accomplished more quickly, and Voice ROI can be achieved which can then pay for the next WMS upgrade – a much better way to go.”
Finken considers that while WMS providers model the logistics work flows of a logistics facility in their systems, the pick by Voice application provides ergonomic and efficient implementation of the commissioning processes as a subsystem. “For Voice providers, what is important is that the customer is supported in the efficient management of employees and that he is able to optimise the quality of the order picking,” he said. “In this way we ensure that our customers increase their business success.”
For Clark, Voice-only systems can sometimes be very role-specific, which, he says, can take away the flexibility and efficiency delivered by an RF operator controlled in real time. “For example, a Voice operator with specific hardware (no barcode scanner) would be far slower if directed to receive at Goods In, than an operator with a barcode scanner,” he commented. “Voice-specific devices often have no screen, which can limit their usefulness outside of picking and make user training slower, which must be taken into account in smaller, more nimble operations.”
In terms of the differentiators among the larger vendors of Voice systems, Adams maintains that the quality of the voice recognition is critical. “It must work with minimal errors or repeats in noisy environments,” he said. “And it must take into account the language and accent of the speaker; i.e., train the system to recognise the worker, not train the worker to speak to the system.” Another key differentiator for Voice-based systems, according to Adams, is their capability to easily integrate with the ERP/WMS. Binder’s view is that there are two main differentiators. First, there are untrained/trained systems, available from Zetes. Secondly there is the thin client approach which aids the Voice dialogues and flow control being completed by the WMS systems. “This creates a very flexible software architecture,” he said.
Masoji highlights the benefits of ruggedised industrial computers designed specifically to operate reliably in harsh environmental conditions. He also makes the point that WLAN/mobile infrastructures can extend the accessibility of these solutions to areas where non-industrialised units can prove less proficient. As an example, he explains that a PC with a fanless design and IP protection rating can be used in a wider range of temperatures – hot and cold – and are suitable for moving between indoor and outdoor conditions.
Harper considers that some Voice manufacturers offer ‘open’ Voice systems where the manufacturer sells the customer the Voice hardware, the software and give them some training on how to create their own Voice ‘task’. This, he says, can be appealing to some companies where the IT department wants to develop all the systems they deploy. However he points out that Dematic doesn’t work this way as it doesn’t see how it can support a system that it has not developed itself. “But we always give the IT department a big input into how the final solution should work and make them as independent from us as is possible,” he added.
Has the Software as a Service (SaaS) model had any notable level of impact on the Voice or WMS software solutions market so far? Harper considers that the SaaS model has not had any great impact on the WMS software solutions market as yet, although he believes many WMS companies are testing the water and saying they can provide it if required. “I think many potential customers are still wary of the ‘all eggs in one basket’ scenario,” he said, “but the increased reliability, increasing quality of the connections required and fast response times are beginning to allay fears. Many users already have remote hosts for their WMS systems so are part of the way there. I believe, though, that if a company decides to go for the SaaS model it should do it across the board and not just for the WMS. There are usually lots of interfaces involved, which may make the decision difficult initially.” Harper added that he believes SaaS will initially be taken up by small businesses and operations that need temporary additional services at peak times such as Christmas.
Gerrard considers that, to date, the SaaS model and Cloud computing have not made much of an impact on the Voice market. However, he adds that this does not mean that they never will. “Part of the issue here is the high degree of customisation that typically occurs with Voice solutions,” he said. “One challenge with SaaS offerings is to balance the need for the vendor to satisfy all customers using a common product offering with the need for customers to have a solution tailored to their requirements. Again, configurability will be the key here, and we can expect to see some movement – although the Voice market will follow the WMS market in this area.”
Adams considers that for small- to medium-sized warehouse operations that may have previously considered an on-premise WMS too costly or too complex to deploy, SaaS is emerging as a new option offered by many of the same leading WMS. “SaaS delivers the financial and operational flexibility that smaller warehouse operations need,” he said. “Vocollect integrates with a wide range of WMS/ERP systems that provide SaaS with both pre-configured connectors for the leading and most widely used WMSs, and a range of integration methods to support connectivity of Vocollect Voice with the broadest range of WMSs/ERPs.”
Best of both worlds
Clark believes the economic climate has not only forced all parties – vendors and buyers – to question how software is funded and deployed, but also the continued rise and growth of e-commerce businesses has created a market of businesses that need to ship products quickly, accurately and in large volumes, yet haven’t had time to gradually develop their operational processes to support their bulging volumes. “This rapid success creates its own problems, which often requires a sophisticated software solution,” said Clark, “but delivered without the enormous initial investment in time and money traditionally required. This difficult question is answered by SaaS solutions in both the WMS and Voice markets. Some SaaS WMS vendors even include Voice in their overall package, bringing the best of both worlds together for their clients.”
Clark added that many traditional WMS vendors and analysts suggest that SaaS WMS solutions cannot support high numbers of transactions quickly enough. However, he maintains this is not the case. “Our largest e-commerce client was shipping up to 50,000 orders per day during their peak Christmas period, from a 30,000 sq ft warehouse, with 30 pickers,” he pointed out. “Each order required upload and confirmation of payment interfaces, so the WMS was handling over 100,000 transactions per day and fast enough to support the picking operation at full speed. This client helps to comprehensively prove that a properly developed, SaaS WMS, that makes use of the latest technologies (and isn’t a cut down on-premise solution sold in a different way) is more than capable of handling a busy warehouse operation.”
Vennemann believes SaaS is an important trend. “The advantage for the user is that the costs are spread in time and are more in line with the expected improvements because of the WMS,” he said. However, Vennemann added that Vanderlande focuses on delivering complete logistics solutions, consisting of material handling systems fully integrated with its Vision Warehouse Management and Control System. “This makes the SaaS concept less applicable,” he said. Stanhope has seen little or no impact of SaaS in the WMS or Voice market as yet, although he expects this to change in the medium- to long-term. “Operationally critical systems such as these need to be ultra-resilient,” he said. “With very few reliable disaster recovery options being available via a SaaS solution if the network should become interrupted, businesses are tending to keep control of their own solutions.”
Binder considers that the challenge with implementing a SaaS system is that it requires complete standardisation. “The difficulty here is that no two warehouses or their processes are identical, and a level of customisation is always necessary,” he said. “The first step to enabling this is for the most widely used WMS solutions to be available as Cloud-based applications and be standardised for SaaS. Then it will be relatively straightforward for companies like Zetes to follow with a Cloud-based Voice execution system. In the shorter term, Zetes will be adding Cloud-based dashboard solutions that can enhance existing installations.” Finken makes the point that topVOX cooperates with system integrators in the UK to offer SaaS as a service. However, he adds that, currently, neither Cloud computing nor SaaS plays a significant role for topVOX customers in the strictest sense. Nevertheless, topVOX’s Voice solution, topSpeech-Lydia, already technically supports this new approach, and allows the use of centrally held data by the customer's widely scattered locations.
Have ways of best integrating Voice-directed systems with other systems – such as WMS and ERP – developed to any notable degree over the past year or two? Gerrard considers that integration of Voice into the WMS or order fulfilment system has always been a particularly crucial and sometimes difficult aspect of Voice solution deployment, which has the potential to impact project costs. “In just the past couple of years, configuration tools such as Voxware’s VoxConnect have emerged that make WMS-Voice interfacing far more straightforward,” he said. “The existence of these tools, and the increasing embrace of their open technology foundations by the major WMS companies, has reduced the complexity and cost of many Voice implementations.”
Finken reflects that topVOX’s experiences have shown that customers prefer standard interfaces for connecting the Voice system to their WMS. “We naturally offer the appropriate modules for this,” he said. “It is always important for our customers that the actual business logic of the Voice application is still located in their WMS/ERP. This has the distinct advantage that adjustments or changes in the business logic are performed directly by the customer, and the Voice system adopts these changes.” Finken added that what should be highlighted in this context are the solutions that topVOX has developed for SAP or Axapta users, for example. “In this case we have integrated our Voice solution directly into the respective kernel versions,” he said. “For the end customer this means a simple and uncomplicated integration of the Voice application.” Finken also makes the point that, in order to best support its customers in the introduction of the Voice system, topVOX offers a plug and play package including the interface, Voice application and all hardware components. Rounding out the package is the company’s going-live support, which also includes the training of key users. Once the system is live, the customer can independently incorporate new employees into the system.
Binder comments that integration has always been a key area of importance and this can be bewildering for the uninitiated. He adds that Zetes’ level of experience and full range of options makes the company aptly qualified to help. Binder also argued that the selection of how to approach integrating a Voice system should really depend on the type of WMS being used, together with any future plans for WMS/ERP systems. As a general rule, he considers that if the WMS supports the business logic for Voice, then a direct integration approach, using a system such as 3iV Crystal, is preferable. If, however, the existing WMS does not support a Voice execution system and there is no plan to upgrade to one that does, Binder believes a middleware-based solution is the best option. He points out that Zetes’ WES Express is a middleware product that, due to the inclusion of XML configuration, requires very little customisation for individual customer implementations. “As a middleware solution it can never be a completely ‘one size fits all’ system,” he added, “but WES Express comes as close as possible to being a standard product.”
From Stanhope’s perspective, it appears that most of the Voice providers who are struggling to make an impact in the market are promoting ‘open architecture’ as the way forward rather than ‘proprietary systems’. “It seems somewhat disingenuous to promote a system as ‘open architecture’ but then sell their own proprietary middleware solution,” he said, making the point that VoiteQ provides the full range of interface options; whether it be middleware, existing WMS direct interfaces, ERP interfaces or helping users create their own direct interfaces.
Adams’ experience is that customers have always endeavoured to choose the warehouse technology that best suits their business operations. He adds that Vocollect partners with leading WMS vendors to develop the best possible integration of Voice with existing and impending WMSs in the customer warehouse. “What has developed in the past few years is a much wider range of available integration methods to suit different sizes and types of warehouse operation and the integration preference of customers and WMS/ERP companies,” said Adams. “We see a movement towards increasing control of Voice-directed business processes into the host system. The Vocollect Voice software suite is based on open, standards-based IT interfaces and provides advanced host interface and Voice workflow logic to a variety of host systems. To meet the demand for integration with a wide range of WMS/ERP systems, we offer pre-configured connectors to integrate our Voice technology with the leading and most widely used WMSs.” Adams added that, in addition to the pre-configured connectors, Vocollect offers different integration methods to support rapid development and deployment of Vocollect Voice for the broadest range of WMSs/ERPs.
In Clark’s view, WMS integration is becoming increasingly web-based, even for traditional ‘on premise’ software. He commented: “The ability to carry out Web Service calls, or utilise secure communication methods without compromising transaction speeds has released the deployment of business critical systems away from the site where they are used, to professional and secure, purpose built data centres. This evolution also requires software vendors to provide simpler, faster interface methodologies within their applications to help their clients to do more, with less overhead and cost.”
Make or break
What might be the next innovations/developments to look out for in the world of Voice-directed systems and WMS software in the near future? Harper believes that the next year or two will make or break the SaaS model of warehouse management system delivery. He added that we are likely to see Voice driving more warehouse processes, and the next couple of years should prove whether or not Voice can deliver an acceptable ROI for back-of-store processes in the retail business. Clark makes the point that the number of business-to-consumer shipments is growing in the UK, with an increasing focus on service levels. “Many WMS companies are now offering carrier integration, but this technology will be required much earlier in the buying cycle, even before the checkout, ” he said.
Clark also observes that consumers are being offered later delivery cut-off times, more precise timed deliveries and other delivery options by the major online players. And this, he says, will need to be offered as a standard by anybody wishing to compete in this space. “Just look at services like next-day and free delivery; five years ago these were premium offerings, now they are the expected norm in many verticals,” he said. “All parties – the couriers, websites and WMS vendors – will all need to improve their systems to cater for these requirements, or they may be left behind.”
Vennemann sees further developments taking place in business process optimisation, to support the ever changing and increasingly complex business environment of Vanderlande’s customers. In addition, he believes WMS product development will continue to focus on modular, configurable system solutions, created from standard building blocks. “Vanderlande will continue to develop such solutions,” he said. “For our customers, this means faster implementation, lower costs and best-of-breed solutions.”
Gerrard comments that, increasingly, Voxware is seeing demand for Voice to be integrated with other modes of data collection to maximise worker performance. “This requires software that can easily be used to create Voice and multimodal workflows,” he said. Binder points out that to reduce the level of hardware investment required Zetes sees a trend towards implementing more server driven systems, whereby the role of hardware is more limited than it has been in the past. From topVOX’s perspective, Finken envisages that with its Voice system the entire closed process chain – from order placement and handling in the warehouse site to transportation and delivery – will be accompanied by topSpeech-Lydia.
According to Adams, Vocollect has a bold vision for the warehouse and distribution centre market. This includes the belief that companies will expand their use of Voice-directed solutions beyond picking to workflows such as cycle-counting, receiving, loading, put-away, replenishment, put-to-store and more. “This number is growing, as executives continue to recognise the impact that Voice can bring to their logistics operations,” he said. “While some Voice customers migrate from paper to Voice across multiple workflows from the outset, others typically begin with Voice in the picking workflow. Once they realise double-digit gains in productivity and accuracy in picking, they quickly discover the value of deploying Voice to other workflows. They soon find increased productivity and accuracy benefits, as well as a 10 to 20 per cent reduction in vehicles, which lowers capital expenditures and ongoing maintenance.”
Stanhope observes that complementary functionality is being added to Voice solutions such as barcode scanning, data presentation on screen, and increasingly Voice is being used on a handheld or vehicle mounted terminal. And, like Adams, he foresees a greater move towards the Voice-centric warehouse, with Voice being used not only for picking but also for other disciplines such as goods-in, putaway, picking, replenishment, through to despatch.