Driving voice through automotive aftermarket logistics

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

Voice technology offers a solution to better manage complicated order picking in the aftermarket parts warehouse. It also can deliver a significant boost to picking accuracy and lays out a foundation for meeting on-demand delivery requirements as well as giving warehouse operatives the ability to deal with fragile goods.

Consumer buying patterns have taken a turn in the last 10 years. In the late 1990s consumer campaigns, such as Rip off Britain, highlighted that UK buyers were paying considerably more for comparable cars than those across Europe. Many consumers started buying vehicles from abroad, shipping them into the UK and still making a saving. As a result, manufacturers were forced to drop their prices to be more in line with those in continental Europe. Since then, manufacturers have seen a decline in new car saleswhich hit an 11 year low in 2005, as stated by The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Tradersyet the industry saw a rise in the used car market. This led to smaller profits for car manufactures, forcing them to capitalise on other avenues such as finance deals and aftermarket sales in order to stay in business.

As a way of increasing profit margins, some car manufacturers have now launched their own aftermarket repair programmes whereby memberssuch as independent repairerscan order parts from franchised dealers. However, even these types of programmes have their flaws. The Car & Accessory Trader (CAT) Parts Distribution Trend Index report, by Brian Taylor, stated: An average daily delivery from a franchised dealer averages 15 hours, whilst the average factor delivery is just over one hour, with 17 per cent of franchised dealers not even offering a delivery service at all.

In addition to franchised dealers there are three other groups within the automotive aftermarket: original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), independent motor factors and major suppliers. Each has its own warehouses full of thousands of stock keeping units (SKUs), all with very different requirements and all should ideally be available on demand and delivered the same day. After all, when a car owner expects their car to be serviced on an agreed day, failure to deliver will result in customer dissatisfaction and poor service levels from the repairer, which ultimately negatively impact turnover and profitability.

The majority of aftermarket parts are sourced from abroad. Car manufacturers supply the entire European market from centralised warehouses. However, this requires dealers to order parts well in advance meaning that the orders have to be fulfilled accurately every time. The need for the aftermarket to deliver complete orders on time is essential to remain competitive in a growing market. By looking at operations within the warehouse, manufacturers can go a long way in ensuring that service levels are met, as well as customer satisfaction and profitability through cost savings made within the warehouse.

In the warehouse

The automotive parts warehouse is characterised by a high volume of small orders with many of the items stored in bulk. The additional complication of differing sizes and awkward shapes impacts on the ease and speed of picking. To further impede operations, certain high-value components, such as car audios, are held in secure areas while other items, such as hazardous materials, require specialised storage. Added to this, many items are multi-branded, bearing different part numbers, brand names or logos yet having the same physical appearance. The complex nature of the warehouse environment makes it ideally suited to voice-enabled technology, which enables warehouse operatives to maintain eye contact while having both hands free.

Keeping an eye on operational problems:

The need for speedy deliveries of fragile and heavy items means that hazards, such as moving vehicles and stock damage, can cause problems and impacts profit margins. Combined with the complicated order picking method, as previously described, the aftermarket warehouse needs a picking and replenishment solution that meets the industrys high demands for accuracy, care with fragile goods and on-demand delivery, as well as improving health and safety and cost-effective operations. One solution that meets these demands with an achievable ROI is Voice-Directed Work solutions.

Voice works by the user (picker/replenishment team) wearing a lightweight, belt worn computer and a robust speech recognition headset, optimised for active, mobile workers and speech recognition. The warehouse management system (WMS)/host computer converts text-to-speech and vice versa, providing the user with verbal commands instructing them on location, product and amount. The picker then confirms each pick as it is made to the WMS.

The verbal impact

Voice technology is already impacting warehouses across the world providing productivity gains of up to 35 per cent (through faster pick rates and no additional manual activity, such as keying and scanning), accuracy up to 99.99 per cent (as each pick is verbally confirmed at the point of action to the WMS) and training time is cut by up to 50 per cent. This is in addition to the many health and safety benefits of a tidier, paper-less warehouse and a hands-free, eyes-free operation. In addition, full ROI can be seen in as little as six months to a year.

Voice also provides the aftermarket warehouse with many additional benefits such as:

Damage control

Warehouses are no stranger to breakages. When pickers are handling heavy, fragile and expensive goods breakages are bound to happen; especially when they have to also operate cumbersome scanners or other objects such as fork-lift trucks. As the use of voice enables operatives to have both hands and eyes free users can focus on the environment around them, as they do not have to constantly have to look down at scanner screens or paper lists, meaning that the risk of breakages and personal injury is reduced, helping automotive aftermarket companies comply with HSE Health and Safety Laws.

Stock management/Real-time visibility

With voice, real-time visibility of the stock situation increases and data from the mobile terminals is taken directly from point of action into the stock management system. This provides management with a more accurate view of the stockholding, allowing the volume of buffer stock to be gradually reduced as error rates drop.

Component traceability

Component traceability is an issue in this market too. In the event of a product recall, OEMs can be faced with significant costs, and the speed of retrieving data detailing which parts were fitted to which car is key to keeping those costs down. In the warehouse, this may mean introducing an additional stepthat of scanning a serial number bar code on an item when pickingbut even here, voice has its benefits, ensuring that this vital action is completed by prompting the picker to make the scan.

There are many gains to be made in the efficiency and productivity of the automotive aftermarket that can be made by improving the way that spare parts and components are handled in the distribution centres and warehouses. If dealers are to really stand out from the crowd and offer complete customer satisfaction the warehouse should speak out!


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

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

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