"Listen up" - Voice-Directed Picking Technology report - October 2013

Manufacturing & Logistics IT spoke with a number of spokespeople from the Voice-directed picking solutions vendor and systems integration community about a number of current key talking points. These include areas of development that are providing even more compelling benefits for the end user, and possible further innovations that could surface over the next year or two. 

Voice-directed picking solutions continue to become increasingly attractive to end users in a number of vertical sectors such as warehousing and retail. And since its initial introduction a few years ago this technology space has seen a number of notable leaps forward. So, bringing our Voice technology up to date, what are some of the current main points or discussion within the Voice-directed solutions space? Ronan Clinton, CEO of Heavey RF Group, believes the world of Voice logistics over the past couple of years has very much become the solution of choice for busy and growing warehouses. In his view, one of the chief reasons for this is the ongoing developments and production of the recognition components and the ability for operators to use Voice as an effective data inputting tool. "This continues to be a key element in the operation of any application which uses Voice as the medium," said Clinton. "This, coupled with more innovatively developed off-the-shelf software allows customers to choose a less expensive, higher performing solution that deliver all of the benefits that Voice has to offer."

According to Darrel Williams, regional director Northern Europe & South Africa at Vocollect. integration of scanning and Voice technology is a key talking point. "It's no longer an 'either/or' scenario," he says. "We are seeing clear situations where certain tasks are best fulfilled by Voice technology and others through scanning – Voice for all productivity, focus and validation activities (ensuring the correct locations or quantities) and scanning or RFID for data collection (unique batch information)." He adds that the recent acquisition of Vocollect/Intermec by Honeywell illustrates that the AIDC industry recognises that this harmonisation of technologies best meets end-user requirements.

Another main current discussion point, according to Darrel Williams, is about optimising your resources. "In an ideal world one resource should fit every purpose. Voice technology goes some way to achieving this. As well as delivering the expected productivity and accuracy benefits, Voice must address the needs of a multi-national, diverse workforce. It goes without saying that every spoken language and dialect must be accommodated in any and all combinations. Likewise, a company's equipment and people need to be able to fulfil every task, in any environment assigned to them, with a consistently high level of performance. Vocollect's simple, directive Voice solution enables all workers using a single hardware platform to execute every warehouse process, without the need for task-specific training resulting in a flexible multi-skilled workforce."

Anton du Preez, group sales director at VoiteQ, considers that, at a broad market level, some of the key developments are: the expanding number of industries that are adopting Voice-directed work, the application of the technology to process tasks beyond picking and the 'consumerisation' of voice recognition. "We're seeing an upward trend in the use for Voice in stock movement processes such as Putaway and Replenishment," he said. "Voice is also starting to provide value outside the traditional four walls of a warehouse in areas such as inspection. The increasing availability of voice recognition on consumer devices will drive user awareness and further broaden the range of Voice applications in the market."

du Preez adds that it is important to distinguish the requirements for industrial, line-of-business Voice from those of a consumer. "The return on investment of line-of-business applications is based on shaving seconds off a repetitive process and this demands high performance, highly accurate recognition – any repetition or mis-recognition means those saved seconds are lost. Consumer applications need to deal with a far wider vocabulary and are not as time critical. So both approaches to voice recognition have their place and we see consumer-grade voice recognition simply expanding the overall Voice market."

Tim Williams, distribution divisional director at BCP, believes it is now all about having full control of the warehouse with Voice (wall-to-wall Voice) rather than just using Voice for picking, in order that the benefits of Voice can be delivered right across the warehouse operation. "Until recently Voice was virtually synonymous with Voice picking," he remarked, "but now more and more vendors are developing Voice functionality for other warehouse operations – and there's a trend towards full Voice WMS (warehouse management systems) rather than bolting a Voice pick system onto an existing WMS."

Tim Williams also considers that there is increasing awareness that warehouse operations are often more complex than generally perceived, and that a fully integrated WMS designed around Voice can deliver much more functionality and flexibility. "It's something we, at BCP, identified right at the start and, as a result, we've  been delivering wall-to-wall Voice WMS solutions since the beginning, implementing the first UK wall to-wall Voice solution in the UK food & drink industry way back in 2002," he pointed out. Additionally, Tim Williams believes there is an increasing demand for more sophisticated statistics to help effectively manage the warehouse workforce and for systems to be ever more easy and intuitive to use and maintain. This, he maintains, is another driver for a single Voice WMS to manage all operations.

Andreas Finken, president of topVOX Inc. (US) and managing director of topVOX Ltd. (UK), reflects that Voice picking started in picking sector and has become a reliable solution for other applications in the logistics sector. "New solutions that we provide to other branches, e.g. for check by Voice for the maintenance sector or manufacturing industry, are based on a speech dialogues with an enhanced vocabulary," he said. "As topVox provides a speaker-independent system it is easy to implement new Voice solutions in other business branches. Besides our customers and prospects look for Voice solutions that are hardware independent and that can be used even with iOS and Android based devices."

Tony Hampson, managing director of BEC (Systems Integration) Ltd., considers that there is now more of a requirement for real-time interfaces into systems such as Voice, WMS and ERP etc. "Real-time integration is now the norm and what's expected, rather than offline batching up of information and reporting after the event," he said. Mikael Brorsson, product manager at Consafe Logistics, believes that although traditional picking is the most common methodology, some 'Voice mature' operations now look to utilise Voice in other areas such as put-away, cycle counts and packing etc.

Jon Hall, group operations director at Touchstar Technologies, comments that during these difficult economic times, end users have been put under increased pressure to reduce costs whilst remaining operationally effective. "With budgets constrained it has been difficult to justify implementing any form of technology upgrade," he remarked. "Voice can deliver on average an ROI within 12 months and its business case can be easily built by way of a simple warehouse walkthrough. Whereas Voice-directed solutions were typically applied to picking scenarios, warehouse and logistics operators are now realising productivity improvements of between 10 and 35 per cent, with up to 99.9 per cent operational accuracy across the full spectrum of warehouse processes. An increased awareness of the technology and potential benefits the solutions can bring to the wider warehouse operation has certainly increased the awareness and interest in the technology."

Hall added that the ergonomics of the Voice-directed hardware has also developed tremendously over the years – more specifically, he makes the point that the size and weight of batteries in comparison to their power has allowed Voice terminals to become smaller lighter and work for longer between charges. "Operationally this has contributed significantly to productivity increases and user acceptance of the technology," he said. Also, Hall reminds us that Bluetooth wireless technology has become an integral element of Voice directed solutions, in part due to the reliability of Bluetooth as a Voice-streaming technology.

According to Andrew Southgate, sales director at Zetes, there are five key topics currently being discussed within the Voice technology arena:

  1. "Trained versus untrained systems: Having the ability to choose between speaker-independent (untrained Voice systems) whereby the user does not have to train a voice template profile for the system is a significant development because it is highly beneficial for companies with a highly seasonal workforce.

  2. "Vendor-independence: this is another hot topic and is a strength of Zetes' MCL platform, because it means customers are free to choose any hardware vendor they want and are not tied into a particular brand.

  3. "Voice in the Cloud: The concept of Voice software in the Cloud is another hot topic and this is also totally device-independent – there is no need to purchase a new software licence if you change to a different hardware platform. For instance you may be running an MCL Voice picking application on a Motorola device and then in the future wish to switch to Intermec devices; there is no requirement to buy an additional MCL licence for the Intermec device, since the licence cost is based on a monthly subscription and will continue running as before.

  4. "Financial models: The pay per month/ pay as you go formula for buying Voice is also attractive for people who want to invest in new technology using operating expenditure (opex) rather than capital expenditure (Capex). This makes it possible to react more quickly to requirements and allocate a monthly fee rather than have to embark on a lengthy capex approval process.

    "This model is particularly attractive for 3PLs because it is so flexible and means they can have access to Voice technology and a pool of hardware devices for the duration of a contract in order to make it more profitable. If the contract comes to an end, the 3PL has the option to re-use devices at other sites without being tied in or simply return the devices to Zetes. This is an important marketing innovation for 3PLs because it allows them to invest in technology in a financially efficient way.

  5. "Integration with peripherals: e.g. scanners, printing, RFID, AGVs now also synergy with pick to light modules is another important innovation. For example it is possible to combine Voice picking with a trolley equipped with light modules. This allows the operative to pick multiple assignments simultaneously and identify the correct location on the trolley with a light at each stage. The light is displayed at the relevant location where picked products are dropped and this helps to make the whole process faster and more accurate.

"When Voice picking is integrated with AGVs this can improve productivity by an additional 25 per cent above and beyond original levels because a new pallet can be automatically commissioned at the same time as the full pallet is dropped off. Previously this stage could waste up to 25 per cent of total picking time."

Drivers for change

What has driven the types of changes and developments cited above? Clinton considers that as Voice becomes a more widely accepted 'must have' for the warehouse, the market is seeing it spread further throughout the supply chain bringing it into more demanding environments. "In doing so, the race is on for solution providers to differentiate themselves from the pack," he said. "The ever increasing demands throughout the supply chain for accuracy, productivity and most importantly, information – has significantly pushed forward the drive for technologies such as Voice and its effectiveness."

According to Tim Williams, a prime motivator has been the failure of some simple Voice picking solutions. "Warehouses are often more complex than generally perceived and solutions need to be sophisticated and flexible enough to deal with the idiosyncrasies of different operations," he said. "On the other hand, the success of Voice in the picking operation has also prompted demand for its use elsewhere – and the demand for one solution across the warehouse rather than bolting on one solution for picking, another for stock, and so one. It's more cost effective, simpler to maintain. Moreover, many warehouses don't have operators dedicated to one task. Rather, they move between different tasks as required. So it's much easier for them to have to just learn one, rather than several, systems."

In du Preez's view, changing end-user requirements are a factor. "For example, retailer demand on consumer goods manufacturers for smaller, more frequent deliveries requires these manufacturers to handle product at the case level rather than just full pallets," he said, "Since Voice is ideal for case picking, this is driving the adoption of Voice in this market." du Preez adds that the maturation of the warehousing Voice market is a factor in the expansion of Voice into other processes. "Companies that have realised the benefits of Voice in their picking operations over a number of years are now seeking to broaden that benefit, particularly when they look to refresh their handheld or vehicle-mounted devices in other areas of the warehouse. Vendors and integrators are also seeking further growth and although there is still a very large portion of the warehousing market that has still to benefit from Voice, investment is being made in taking Voice beyond the warehouse."

Mikael Brorsson of Consafe Logistics sees one of the drivers for deployment as a desire for multimodal user interfaces such as the combination of Voice and mobile devices. Hampson comments that customers have demanded that their systems become more open and accessible. "They don't want to have to go back to their ERP provider for every change and may want to do more themselves or choose who to partner with for different aspects of the solution," he said.

In Hall's view, the maturity of the mobile technology market coupled with the increased competitiveness within the logistics market has continued to drive the requirement for a more cost-effective and streamlined operation. "Logistics professionals are more aware of Voice and better educated in the technological advances available to them," he added. "Logistics professionals continue to drive the evolution of this in order to achieve the productivity, accuracy and competitive advantage they seek."

Hall also considers that poor battery life and length of use has always been a challenge. "Continuous operation is critical in delivering the productivity and ROI Voice promises, therefore battery technology plays a very significant part in ensuring this," he said. "The latest lithium polymer batteries are using powerful processing technology to optimise charging and cell conditioning. This optimises power and prolongs life and keeps the power-to-weight ratio high." Additionally, Hall makes the point that headset cable snagging that resulted in damaged cables was a major headache for a Voice user historically. "The advances in Bluetooth wireless headsets was driven by this need and has a critical part to play in the evolution of the ruggedness overall reliability of Voice," he remarked.

Darrel Williams comments that Vocollect's R&D spend as a percentage of revenue is substantial. "Voice solutions should be simple," he said, "so evolution as opposed to revolution means that we have consistently made small, incremental benefits to ensure continuity of business for our customers. For example, the advanced microphone array on the new Vocollect SRX2 headset." Darrel Williams added that Vocollect's key motivation has been to ensure its technology development is driven by end-user business needs and not vice-versa. "These include taking into account current issues such as economic pressures and the increase of the immigrant workforce, to enable an optimum working experience for all," he pointed out.

According to Southgate, the benefits of Voice are now well understood, so changes have arisen through an interest in sub optimisation; i.e. the optimisation of peripheral processes and activities or a desire to further improve the process using additional technology. He also believes the post downturn economy has had an inevitable effect as companies adapt to the challenges of obtaining finance for technological investment and the need to minimise risk. "Therefore models that support greater flexibility – through having open access to hardware in the future or the ability to scale up and down quickly – are immediately desirable," he said.

Finken considers the general developments of the hardware and software market. "Regarding the hardware, we developed a new solution that can be used on iOS and Android devices," he said. "Moreover we are aware of the development of WMS or ERP systems. When SAP launched the new EWM system topVOX developed a smart Voice solution that directly integrates into the new SAP system." Finken adds that some developments are customer driven. "In our last customer survey we were asked to integrate a wireless telephony function into our Voice solution and so we did. This kind of telephone is used by customers that run large warehouses to save time when they need to contact a single picker or a group of workers."


Looking in more depth at the theme of integration briefly referenced by some of our commentators above, have ways of best integrating Voice-directed systems with other systems (eg. systems such as WMS, ERP, supply chain management, etc.) developed to any notable degree over the past year or two? Hampson believes the requirement for seamless, real-time solutions is on the increase as customers are forever seeking the tighter, integrated seamless solution as opposed to batched/timed uploads – thus providing data transfer dynamically and enabling clients to see updates in up to the second, real-time mode. According to Hampson, BEC is also seeing the uptake of leasing as opposed to Capex requirement within this space. "This is a positive financial step forward for both parties – both the suppliers and customers alike," he said.

Darrel Williams points out that Vocollect Voice integrates with any WMS or ERP, and comes as standard with many leading systems. "However, with the diversity of EU business systems there remains a strong argument for bolt-on middleware solutions," he added. "We apply our I.P. to create IDEs that utilise openly sourced development tools and languages. By offering these to a range of partners around the world, we enable diversity in both architecture and solution type to suit each market and region."

Hall observes that middleware is becoming more sophisticated and ERP vendors are ensuring that they are providing better interfaces for Voice-directed solutions. "There are plug-and-play systems which are brilliant sales tools, however in reality the payback for Voice only comes when the processes are optimised for Voice," he said. "Any attempt to short cut this optimisation results in a poor implementation that is prone to failure (or at best gives little improvement in productivity)."

Clinton comments that Heavey RF has seen a significant amount of pressure placed by customers on the WMS companies to provide simpler integration methods. "Matching this with the latest integration standards has made it considerably easier for customers to avail of the benefits of middleware without sacrificing the functionality of the WMS," he said. "This also enables customers to benefit from both WMS experts and Voice experts, instead of one trying to fulfil the other's shoes – a method which has produced less than optimum results for early adopters."

Continuing the middleware theme, du Preez observes that the vast majority of successful Voice solutions still operate via middleware execution systems or via direct WMS interfaces. He makes the point that one notable development in the integration of Voice with back-end systems has been the introduction of screen-to-Voice solutions where an existing text-based handheld or PC screen is Voice-enabled – speaking the prompts to the user and entering their verbal responses into the screen; as if typed or scanned. "This has the advantage of not requiring any change or integration to the back-end system," he said, "but does limit the Voice workflow to that of the existing screens. These screens can be sub-optimal for Voice and therefore the business benefit would be lower than that of a fully optimised Voice system." du Preez also points out that integration of Voice with back-end systems is a core competency of established Voice providers and that there are a range of open, standards-based integration options available. "Of much greater importance are the operational improvements and the associated business case," he added.

Tim Williams reflects that integrating Voice into WMS is not as easy as it is often represented. "And I believe this underlines the movement towards tightly integrated Voice WMS rather than bolting middleware Voice solutions into existing WMS," he said. "It's less risky, much more robust and delivers more functionality." Brorsson comments that there is a requirement for tighter integrated WMS versus Voice solution for better use and access of existing business logic; not just downloadable pick lists.

Southgate points out that Zetes has not seen any recent significant changes with regard to integration. "There are still two primary ways to integrate Voice – the direct interface and using middleware," he says. "In the latter case, the business logic required for picking is controlled by the Voice system." Andreas Finken explains that topVox provides standard interfaces to all common WMS and ERP systems. "Middleware is only included if the customer requires that," he added. "New is our SAP-certified Voice solution Lydia Connector 7.0 for Voice that integrates directly into SAP business modules like SAP WM or EWM without any middleware. With Lydia Connector 7.0 for Voice the complete application logic of the Voice solution still remains within the SAP business module(s). All standard processes – such as receiving, picking, replenishing, put-to-store, cross-docking, cycle counting and returns management – are supported by Lydia Connector. Even VT-based systems can now benefit from Voice easily with our new Lydia VT Connector."

The SaaS debate

Has the Software as a Service (SaaS) model had any notable level of impact on the Voice space so far? Not really, reflects Tim Williams. "Several of our Voice WMS customers have been operating private Cloud systems to manage multi-depot operations for years, but our own research/experience shows that customers prefer being able to see their own hardware and control their own data. There's still an inherent discomfort about the data ownership issue which comes with the SaaS/Cloud model." Brorsson doesn't see any real impact of SaaS on Voice per se, but makes the point that during the upcoming year Consafe Logistics will deliver its Voice solutions as Cloud solutions.

Clinton reflects that although Heavey RF has the ability to provide its solutions in a SaaS model, this is not something that has been demanded or is viewed as practical for the company's Voice solution customers. "It is sometimes discussed within the sales process, but as of yet there is no strong drive that we can see to push Voice Solutions into a SaaS model," he added.

Southgate has witnessed that the concept of Voice software in the Cloud is starting to have a significant impact on users who week ways to reduce the risk of investment and avoid any lock-in with hardware manufacturers. "Apart from the scalability and maintenance benefits, Cloud-based Voice systems are totally device independent – there is no need to purchase a new software licence if you change to a different hardware platform – which makes them very cost-efficient and easier to manage the total cost of ownership," he commented. "For instance you may be running an MCL Voice picking application on a Motorola device and then in the future wish to switch to Intermec devices; there is no requirement to buy an additional MCL licence for the Intermec device, since the license cost is based on a monthly subscription and will continue running as before."

du Preez's view is that SaaS and the Cloud has not had a noticeable impact on the Voice market. "External hosting or the centralisation of Voice systems in a customer's network has been in place for many years," he points out. "However, due to the time-critical nature of a warehousing Voice application, many customers remain reluctant to fully outsource this as even minor degradations in performance – that might not be an issue for a PC-based application – can have a significant impact on the performance and business case of a real-time Voice-directed operation. The commercial SaaS model of 'pay as you go' is likely to gain some traction in the market, particularly for those customers for whom a lower up-front capital investment outweighs the longer term subscription costs."

Darrel Williams points out that the term 'SaaS' has been around for many years and its interpretation is somewhat fluid. "To some it means renting licensed software, to others it represents having a hosted system run by someone one else," he said. "Vocollect has been able to provide hosted systems across the airwaves for many years with a variety of licensing models. However in order to maximise returns, Voice solutions often need to be personalised to individual requirements, and as such the astute client will usually invest in a solution that differentiates him in his market, whilst delivering an ROI, typically within a year." Darrel Williams added that SaaS remains an option for Voice that stimulates interest but doesn't always deliver the best results.

Hampson points out that people have been asking about the SaaS deployment model, however he adds that there are two sides to this. "Do they want the hassle of managing the system themselves or do they just want a known cost per month for managing and maintaining that system? Most companies don't want to pay for this upfront; they would rather lease it."

Hall doesn't believe that 'true' Cloud-based technology will have any impact on the Voice-directed systems market in the short term. "Voice-directed solutions are fast moving real-time applications. It is vital that data is accessible locally, as any break in access would be detrimental to the operation. Realistically, a real-time middleware application sitting on a local server to hold this data locally will still be necessary to ensure real-time continuity."

From the technical perspective, Finken explains that topVOX's Voice solution is available as a SaaS and Cloud model, but the company's experiences show that large and even small companies like to keep all software and data in-house. "The small companies even prefer our Plug&Play solution that covers all standard warehouse processes and that comes along with standard interfaces," he said, adding that if these customers face seasonal increase they just rent new devices and licences for this short period.

However, Finken thinks SaaS models will become more and more prevalent over time as they are not a capital-intensive purchase. "And as more e-commerce businesses develop, this is something that can gain them the benefits of the very latest technology very quickly at both a price and payment plan that will suit their needs," he said. "After all, e-commerce companies operate in the Cloud, and as such they have no fear of it." That said, Finken explains that topVOX is currently finding that these companies are still very interested in topVOX's Plug&Play solutions simply due to the fact that this is a low cost, quick and easy to deploy 'out of the box' solution that fulfils their needs. "Two that we deployed recently provided a 50 per cent productivity increase and virtually eliminated all pick errors for just a little over a picker's salary," he added.


Are mobility solutions such as mobile computers and tablet PCs etc. having an impact or influence on Voice systems? Hampson's perception is that people now have an expectation that they can get their enterprise information wherever they are, so they don't have to be at their desk or in the premises. "They can get it at any time of the day, wherever they are," he said. Hampson recognises that data security is a potential issue with regard to mobile devices. However, he makes the point that when people get these devices stolen or they leave them somewhere, systems integrators such as BEC need to integrate services such as geo-fencing into their offering. In this way, devices can be quickly locked down and wiped so that any sensitive information is removed.

Darrel Williams considers that, at its simplest level, Voice is another user interface. "It is the evolution of AIDC, improving on speed, human ease of use and driving better results than more user-intensive interfaces, such as tablets and mobile computing devices. Voice enables end users to do what their business requires of them in the best possible way, rather than their being encumbered by technology."

du Preez explains that the open nature of newer software architectures, such as Vocollect's VoiceArtisan, enables Voice terminals to easily integrate and interact with other mobile devices. "An example of this would be the provision of user training via the user's mobile phone rather than paper or a PC application," he said, adding: "Integration with back-office systems is generally provided by the existing Voice applications, however more sophisticated Voice solutions include web-based dashboards and reports that can be viewed by users and supervisors on phones, tablets and PCs."

Clinton comments that Heavey RF's focus is within the four walls of the warehouse and it has not seen tablets or mobility influence Voice logistics solutions. However, he adds that the company has seen them complement these solutions by providing interfaces that can give performance statistics and alerts via tablet or smartphone to key management personnel. "This is purely complementary and not an influencer," he said.

Finken points out that topVOX is receiving more and more requests to provide tablet PCs that work with its Voice solution. "This poses no issues for us as we provide a hardware-independent solution," he remarked. "We operate on all Windows applications as well as iOS and Android platforms. Providing the device can connect to either a tethered or Bluetooth headset, we can work with it. We have a couple of customers who use such devices for product pictures from the web for final recognition purposes and even for Goods In processes as well as for more visual control over warehouse locations. In a more field-based application we also have them deployed in Switzerland to perform vehicle checks similar to the MoT in the UK."

Tim Williams' observation is that tablet devices are being used at senior levels for management of the warehouse, to quickly identify hotspots, such as empty pick faces, for example. However, he adds that there's no real movement in this direction on a day-to-day operational basis. "Indeed, this would go completely against the whole 'hands-free, eyes-free' ethos that underlines Voice technology in the warehouse," he said.

Having seen a move away from vehicle-mounted terminals in favour of handheld terminals, Hall explains that TouchStar is now witnessing a move back to using vehicle-mounted terminals which, says Hall, is seen as a safer and less damage-prone alternative. He adds that the trend back towards vehicle-mounted technology has also influenced the development of Voice-directed solutions. "Vocollect's vehicle-mount 'Talkman' solution means users are now able to adopt Voice across the full spectrum of warehouse activities," he said.

Hall added that, for data provision, there is always a place for tablet PCs and laptops to facilitate visibility and effective reporting/auditing at management level for Voice. However, a major consideration here, in Hall's view, is the ruggedness of any of the tablet solutions. Hall also made the point that the influx of cost-effective Android tablets into the logistics market may impact on the uptake of Voice systems in the logistics market. "These do not offer any real technical advantage to the end user, but due to budgetary constraints, they are perceived as a cheap alternative when users look to refresh their current hardware estate. These are not suitable for a demanding warehouse logistics application."

Southgate considers that the mobility question relates to two wider trends, which are currently hot topics in the world of enterprise IT – the consumerisation of IT and bring your own device (BYOD). Southgate does not see this having an impact on Voice systems because Voice picking is an industrial process and tends not to be performed using consumer devices. What has changed, according to Southgate, is the expectation of users. "They want software applications that are more intuitive and easy to use, and we have addressed this with the introduction of speaker-independent recognition," he said. Brorsson considers that the world of mobile devices has had no real impact on Voice solutions as yet, but believes this may change in the future.

Big Data within the Voice world

Is the much talked about trend of Big Data having an impact on the world of Voice solutions? Darrel Williams' view is that we should rather ask 'Are Voice solutions having an impact on the world of Big Data?' "Voice technology enables businesses to collate detailed data at an unprecedented level, allowing them to make fully informed decisions from the most comprehensive data-set ever," he comments.

Clinton believes Big Data is crucial to current and future Voice deployments. "It is the manipulation of massive amounts of significant data and simplifying it into formats which enable real business enhancing decisions to be made," he points out. "When you have down-to-the-second analysis of everything that happens in your warehouse, you have to ensure that you manipulate the correct data for the best decisions and not simply get bogged down in massive amounts of data. This fine-tuning process will become more a feature of Voice as we move forward."

Hall explains that TouchStar focuses on provision and presentation of this data, allowing staff at all levels to monitor and manage their operation efficiently and effectively. "One of the benefits derived from a real-time system is real-time data," he said. "It is imperative that we use this real-time feedback to act on issues as they arise."

Southgate considers we have yet to see any real impact of Big Data on Voice systems. However, he believes we can be sure that in the future the data a Voice system provides – inventory information or cycle counting, for example – could be a feed to Big Data systems. "But this has not influenced the design or functionality of Voice system itself," said Southdate. "What is most likely is a scenario in the future where Big Data could help organisations to further refine and optimise their warehouse processes – but this is still a way off."

du Preez considers that while data from the Voice system might be included in an overall collection of corporate data sets appropriate for Big Data analysis, Big Data is really on scale beyond what would typically be required for a Voice-directed application. That being said, he adds that sophisticated Voice applications provide detailed and highly valuable Business Intelligence insights and analytics of warehouse operations in the form of web-based dashboards and tabular reports.


What are some of the main functionality differentiators among the Voice-directed system vendor community? Clinton's view is that one of the key differences between Voice vendors is the focus (or lack thereof) on the physical processes carried out by Voice. "For example, most vendors have multi-transactional solutions," he said, "but the physical execution of these tasks in the warehouse need as much analysis and optimisation as the solution itself. For example, there are many telnet emulation-based Voice replication systems which, while functional, do not deliver the same results as a proper process driven solution. This is the main difference between Voice vendors as I see it."

du Preez believes the broad business processes such as picking, stock movements, cycle counting and so on are generally offered by most vendors. "As is often the case in life, the devil is in the detail," he said. "Anyone who has worked in the warehousing sector will know that the terms 'picking' or 'put-away' are simply too generic to describe the specific processes in any given warehouse. Vendors that don't invest in gaining a thorough grasp of these processes and then optimise them with Voice will not achieve the best result for their customers. So when evaluating vendors, it's important to assess their understanding of, and solution to, your particular processes."

From a technology standpoint, du Preez believes there is certainly differentiation among the vendors with regard to the ergonomics and ruggedness of Voice devices and more recently, the introduction of high-quality wireless headsets and near-field communications has provided additional differentiation.

Tim Williams cites plug-in, middleware Voice picking solutions compared with full wall-to-wall Voice WMS solutions which can cover all operations from goods inward to despatch. "With the latter there's great variation in the breadth, depth and flexibility of offerings," he remarked.

From an integrator perspective, Hall believes a key differentiator for an effective Voice vendor is that it has the tools to facilitate ease of integration into ERP and WMS systems. "The availability of a comprehensive training and support portfolio to accompany this is as important as the solution itself, guaranteeing a successful implementation and business benefits," he said.

Darrel Williams comments that Vocollect has created and driven the Voice market for the past 30 years by understanding the functional needs of businesses and applying technology to enable operators to naturally execute their roles. "Vocollect exceeds and excels in Voice recognition, getting it right the first time, every time, in any language, and without the use of anchor words," he said. "Simply put, it provides the most natural conversational experience available from Voice technology today that is embraced and appreciated by almost a million Vocollect users around the world."

For Southgate, the ability to offer customers the choice between speaker- and vendor-independent is a significant differentiator. In addition, he cites the ability for host system integration, the level of flexibility available to implement an optimised process that is unique to a specific DC and the ability to offer Voice systems on a SaaS basis. Hampson comments that, as a systems integrator, BEC provides door-to-door Voice functionality, as opposed to focusing on a single process such as picking. For Finken, the main differences between the Voice vendors are still the speaker-dependent and independent solution. On the hardware side he believes it is still the proprietary solution versus the open standard solution.

Future innovation

What might be the next innovations/developments to look out for in the world of Voice-directed systems over the next year or two? Tim Williams believes we will see a reduction in the cost of the hardware element of Voice solutions as the market grows and demand increases, while Southgate considers companies should watch out for greater support for other warehouse processes and Voice playing larger role going beyond picking functions. "For example, we are expecting greater use of Voice for inventory management functions; i.e. cycle counting, replenishment, Voice-directed put away and also directing reverse logistics processes," said Southgate. "We also anticipate greater variety of bespoke applications, maybe even new 'servicing' applications which are guided by Voice technology – but there is also still a lot of untapped potential in the logistics market."

Brorsson maintains that multimodal technology will become more prevalent to manage more complex processes. Southgate agrees that true multimodal functionality will become more widespread. However he also observes there is currently a misconception in the marketplace between multimodal and multipurpose. "Multimodal applications using Voice are quite distinct," he said. "They enhance the process using additional devices. For example, they use a touch screen to introduce an additional verification stage showing the picker that they have selected the right type of item (colour of apples for instance, or unit of measurement) which is very different to multipurpose, whereby the user can select a variety of devices for a task. Multimodal working could also be used to help guide a worker through the ideal path in a warehouse, according to the combination of items to be picked." Additionally, Southgate expects much greater adoption of the Cloud model because he believes it offers so many cost reduction advantages.

Clinton believes that Voice as an input medium will become much more widespread across many different technologies and disciplines over the next two to three years. "Be it Voice-dedicated devices, multi-modal handheld and vehicle mount solutions, tablets, PCs etc., the ease of use on many applications will improve resulting in even wider adoption," he remarked. "I expect to see voice used in more retail applications as well as much heavier industrial and manufacturing environments for productivity and accuracy, as well as health and safety benefits."

Hall believes the awareness of the real business benefits that Voice can derive will be applied to new business processes and continue to drive innovation. He adds that the use of pen/paper and keyboard as a medium for communication, command and feedback will become a thing of the past. "Voice will continue to advance and improve with more natural speech synthesis, more accurate speech recognition with a wider vocabulary and intelligent interpretation," he commented.

Darrel Williams comments that Voice technology is about being simple, so making small, incremental changes. "Up until recently I would have said that developments for the future would have been the integration of other functionalities, such as scanning, screens and RFID, into a Voice-led device," reflected Darrel Williams. However he adds that this is no longer a futuristic vision since as of this month (October 2013) this concept has become reality with Vocollect's A700, a hands-free Voice and scanning device. In terms of other future developments, Darrel Williams sees clients pushing the application of Voice into areas such as Voice-operated machines and field service.

In the next year or two, du Preez expects to see examples of current Voice technology being applied to applications outside the four walls of the warehouse – in areas such field service, inspection and in-store. He also expects headset technology to continue to evolve with wireless headsets becoming the norm and headset ergonomics continuing to improve. And for existing Voice customers, du Preez expects to see continuous improvement in user training, ease-of-use, asset management and operational analytics.

Finken's view is that mobile devices will be more compact, smaller and easier to handle, while Voice systems will support new operating systems such as next-generation Windows. Finken also believes we will see speaker-independent solutions being requested and deployed. "We only ever use the latest Voice recognition technology in our solutions and when people get to use it they realise the power of it," he said. "They soon come to the conclusion that a trained Voice solution is just so out of date and massively limits flexibility as temporary staff spend the first half a day trying to get used to it after training and then the next week retraining their Voice template."

According to Finken, one of topVOX's customers hosted a reference site visit for the company recently where topVOX had two prospective customers looking at the solution. "They had both been told how 'unreliable a speaker-independent solution was' by another provider and had reservations until they realised that the operator they were following on the day, who was operating at full operational speed, had only started in the business two hours before they turned up. They have both implemented our solution since."

Clinton reflects that despite the initial impression that there are a lack of options within the Voice industry, the reality is that there are many and varied options and methodologies. "It is important that a business looking to adopt a Voice solution thoroughly investigate – and validate – the different choices and options available to ensure the best outcome possible," he said. "For example, a 10 per cent increase in productivity may be hailed as a success by some companies; however they may be missing out on much greater gains and shorter returns on investment by selecting a better paired solution."

Darrel Williams believes Voice is all about improving what we do today and providing a vehicle for future innovation in process execution. "It is imperative that Voice technology fits the needs of businesses but does not try to dictate or limit the direction in which to go," he said, concluding: "Nobody should be constrained by technology. Any operation can benefit from the use of a Voice application."

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