The Future of Voice Technology

INFORMATION: Free information is available on VOCOLLECT voice-directed solutions. Click here to request a copy

Voice of the future

Voice directed technology is already transforming productivity rates and reducing errors within warehousing operations. But now the technology is reaching out into wider areas of the supply chain and into business applications far beyond.

1. Voice of Today
As businesses have come to realise the potential of their supply chains for gaining competitive advantage, logistics directors have been charged with the responsibility of speeding the flow of goods through the warehouse in an efficient a way as
possible. Maintaining inventories at optimum levels and raising customer service performance have become key priorities. But keeping the customer satisfied requires a fast and efficient service with the right product being delivered, in perfect
condition, on time.

The warehouse or distribution centre can no longer afford to be regarded as a dusty repository for inventory, it now has to perform productively so that goods are received, processed and dispatched with the minimum of errors. Mistakes that occur in picking are costly, both in terms of pickup/delivery costs and repackaging, as well as through penalties that come from customer dissatisfaction and loss of business. In recent years, voice technology has been deployed to great advantage in warehouse order picking operations, allowing picking staff to listen and respond to instructions through a headset and leaving their hands free to pick efficiently. Systems typically consist of a headset with a microphone and headphones and a belt with a computer clipped onto it that is linked to back-end systems via a wireless network. High levels of pick accuracy and enhanced productivity have propelled the use of this technology in picking operations across most industry sectors.

But the potential for the technology does not stop at the pick face. In future, companies will increase their already growing use of the technology in many other warehouse applications, from checking in goods received and putting goods away, to orchestrating cross docking operations and directing forklift drivers. As the software for recognising human speech has become sensitive enough to deploy in noisy, fast changing workplace environments managers have introduced voice more widely across the supply chain and other sectors where workers can benefit from voice directed operations that keep their hands and eyes free.

Workers in warehouses or shop floors can receive voice instructions, ask questions and report back without having to carry paper with them or to keep returning to a picking desk. They do not have to un-holster and operate a device with a keyboard whilst looking at the display; they can keep their eyes on what they are doing at all times. Companies have also reported fewer accidents and greater job satisfaction as a result of switching to voice systems.

Health and safety benefits accrue because workers can adopt more appropriate postures that are likely to prevent repetitive strain injuries and reduce the likelihood of injuries caused by dropping goods. With that said, across the world some two million mobile devices are sold every year, but less than 100,000 of them are voice systems. In a recent survey by *Cranfield School of Management, CILT UK and UKWA revealed that less than 10 per cent of all warehouses currently use voice, compared with >50 per cent that are equipped with some kind of handheld terminal. Vocollect looks to target this untapped market through continued product development, geographical expansion and growth into new vertical markets in-and-outside of the warehouse environment.

2. Improving rates of recognition
The technology continues to increase in sophistication. For example, researchers have developed microphones that are capable of filtering out background sounds which makes them better at understanding what workers are saying and results in
improved voice recognition rates. For best results, systems work to a pre-determined, limited vocabulary and are trained to understand the voice and vocabulary of each worker.

Sometimes, where double checking and accuracy is paramount as is the case in pharmaceuticals, customers combine voice with scanning to push accuracy to the highest possible level. The availability of many different languages on voice systems means it is possible to have workers using systems that speak their first language. This enables employers to recruit staff from abroad who have better knowledge of their own language than the language of the country where they are working: an important consideration at a time of increasing labor mobility. However, the biggest advantage of voice as a means of interacting with computers and other devices is its simplicity.

Working with a keypad and monitor, a user has to be focused on a screen and concentrating on manually keying in data. However, juggling with these data entry devices simply gets in the way of work. The classic scanner, keyboard and display setup may be familiar, but in warehouses, factories, stores and other workplaces it simply adds complexity. When using such classic configurations, for instance, operators often have to lay down their handheld devices interrupting their workflow.

Additionally in order to enter data they need to use their keyboard and check their displays, introducing the opportunity for error. By contrast, voice directed workers know what they are going to do next and are not interrupted by keying in of data
or looking at their displays because voice systems have made these actions unnecessary smoothening out the process flow. The performance of recognition systems continues to improve. Systems can already adapt to changes in a users voice caused by a cold, by stress or by other factors, but they will become even easier to train in future as well. Systems will be programmed with baseline recognition that will be expanded as systems learn the speech patterns of an individual user.

INFORMATION: Free information is available on VOCOLLECT voice-directed solutions. Click here to request a copy

3. Boost to accuracy and productivity
Equipping warehouse workers with voice systems allowed early adopters to cut the time it takes to pick and put away items and to improve the accuracy with which workers select stock and locations. Errors have decreased rapidly in recent years. Vocollect systems now run at 99.9% accuracy or one error in every 1,000 operations. It is a significant figure given that it can cost up to 200 to correct an error in terms of telephone calls, administration time and additional delivery costs, not to mention the potential for upsetting customers. An accuracy rate of just 95%, for example, could result in nearly 50 times more costs associated with correcting mistakes than a system operating at 99.9% accuracy.

In the US, some companies supplying the grocery business have cut the number of credits made to stores for wrong shipments by three quarters with the help of voice recognition. One factor in the high accuracy of Voice systems is the ability
for operators to validate what they are doing, enabling them to confirm and check each assignment one step at a time, which also results in greater job satisfaction.

Productivity is another important benefit of using voice. Hands and eyes free working with guidance from voice prompts can increase output by between 10% and 35% because workers are focused on the job in front of them and have both hands free to handle goods: speeding up their natural working pattern.

4. Future headset enhancements
The design of headsets, which workers wear all day, is critical. Vocollect manufactures its own headsets because most units are not intended for rugged use and lack the latest noise cancelling techniques. The company has recently introduced a new behind the head headset.

The company is also developing headsets for different types of applications. Heavy duty warehouse headsets are too intimidating to be deployed in a store when customers are around: less intrusive headgear is called for which can be hung around a wearers neck when not in use. For outside work, such as carrying out repairs to telephone or power lines, waterproof headsets are required. For particularly noisy environments headsets with cups for both ears are available.

Efforts are also being made to ensure headsets are as comfortable as possible: some state of the art units are already held in place with strong, lightweight headbands that can be manually adjusted to fit the individual wearers head comfortably.

5. Benefits across the warehouse
Traditionally, voice has been used for picking operations in distribution centres, but applications are expanding rapidly into other areas: in inbound goods departments staff with voice headsets can be seen putting away inventory, carrying out cross docking maneuvers and driving forklift trucks where there is a big safety dividend.

Voice systems are used in outbound logistics for picking, to help split orders and to consolidate them into one shipment, as well as assisting in loading trucks, administration and stock counts. Some of Vocollects customers assemble orders by building pallets as they pick. Voice is increasingly seen in automatic guided vehicle (AGV) implementations where the fork-lift truck automatically follows the stock picker or replenishment worker around the warehouse and then returns itself to a drop off point where the completed pallet can be wrapped ready for loading onto a carriers transport.

6. Where the future lies
Many of the early adopters of voice were in grocery distribution. In fact one of the milestones for voice suppliers was Wal-Marts decision to install Vocollect voice technology in its distribution facilities. But Vocollect has and continues to develop products and marketing strategies for a range of applications across various sectors including pharmaceuticals and the automotive after sales market.

There is a forest of opportunities, acknowledges Raf Jezierski, Vocollect Marketing Director Vocollect EMEA. We have focused on the distribution centre, but upstream there are manufacturers and downstream there are retail outlets. We expect to see voice expand in both directions. In manufacturing you have got to track goods in stores and on production lines, while in health care and in service industries there are further opportunities to apply voice technology.

Vocollect is already investing heavily in developing uses for voice outside logistics and forging relationships with expert suppliers in these areas. For example, the company has moved into the long-term healthcare industry with its leading AccuNurse product, used by care home nurses to direct patient care routines, administer drugs and capture vital patient readings, as well as the recording and retrieval of patient data. Using Voice in this way also enables careers to page colleagues, which in turn saves on time and improves patient care.

In retail stores, there are two potential areas for applying voice technology. In the front of store it can assist with activities such as marking prices, stock-check, restocking and clearing aisles. In stock rooms, the technology can speed the process of direct store delivery by suppliers. In both situations voice technology provides visibility into these operations that is difficult to achieve any other way, says Jezierski.

Field Service engineers are another group of workers with complex jobs that could benefit from hands free direction. Instructions for repairs, orders for replacement parts and consultations with experts back at head office can all be facilitated by voice systems. Similarly, utility companies supplying telecommunications, electricity, water and gas are considering deploying voice to assist in maintenance work and meter reading.

7. Integration key to wider use
Voice is not a standalone system, so for many potential customers the ease with which it can be integrated into host systems is an important part of deploying the technology. Voice can operate at real time but many older back office or warehouse management systems are not designed to cope with these faster response times.

Vocollect has introduced software to enable organisations to implement the use of voice throughout a distribution centre and across the extended supply chain. The Vocollect VoiceWorld Suite consists of interactive development environments (IDEs), host system interface software, and middleware solutions as well as a device management application and the client software which enables Vocollect and third party mobile devices to run Voice applications. The interfaces, and middleware map work assignments from a variety of systems involved in warehouse management, enterprise resource planning, supply chain management and transport management.

The latest host system interface VoiceWeaver - enables Vocollect systems to interface directly with SAP enterprise resource planning software. The Vocollect VoiceWorld Suite Voice Client software also supports batch or off-line working when a system is temporarily disconnected from its host because it is out of range of wireless networks. Data is stored locally and uploaded once a connection has been reestablished. Device, system and usage Management activities are centralised on Vocollects VoiceConsole, while a VoiceClient module delivers speech output in up to 26 languages to end users and manages end user speech responses back to the warehouse systems. Comprehensive development tools enable customers to create new voice applications and adapt existing ones.

Value added resellers, consultants and developers are key partners in bringing voice to a wider audience. Vocollect has developed an application programming interface (API) known as VoiceInterface Objects designed to speed-up and ease the development process for warehouse management systems (WMS) programmers. We have taken generic pieces of our applications and made them available as high-level voice instructions in VoiceInterface Objects so that developers can put the pieces together themselves, explains Anton du Preez Manager of Vocollect EMEAs WMS Integration Programme. VoiceInterface Objects makes it much easier to swap scanner/display keyboard-based processes for voice directed applications and also provides the tools to enable developers to build voice into completely new applications in healthcare, utilities and supply chain applications.

8. Faster return on investment
The return on investment (ROI) of Vocollect Voice systems results in a very short payback time resulting from reduced errors and increased productivity; the average system pays for itself within a year or less.

Major customers are certainly satisfied with their decisions to invest in voice. In addition to accuracy and productivity increases, there have been significant improvements in quality control, replenishment and store shrink rates, says Jim McCafferty, distribution general manager for WH Smith. But it is the productivity increases that I have been most impressed with and the almost immediate return on investment.

In future, managers in a far wider variety of industries than at present will be in a position to talk about the benefits of moving to voice directed work as they join a growing number of organisations that have made the switch. * Source: UK Warehousing Benchmark

INFORMATION: Free information is available on VOCOLLECT voice-directed solutions. Click here to request a copy

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