Voice and multi-modal technology – the perfect combination

Manufacturing & Logistics IT spoke with Bart Riviere, business development director for speech solutions at Zebra Technologies, about what he believes to be some of the primary reasons why it is time to move to Voice and multi-modal solutions. Zebra Technologies supplies a full range of enterprise solutions including mobile computers, scanners, printers, location solutions, Voice solutions, RFID and WLAN.

Warehouse and storage operations around the world are increasingly looking to Voice technology for efficient, hands-free capabilities in order picking and beyond. They are also embracing multi-modal solutions that offer multiple data-capture capabilities – including using Voice for task direction and confirmation, or barcode scanning for serial number or date code requirements.

As Bart Riviere, business development director for speech solutions at Zebra Technologies, explains, Voice and multi-modal technology is constantly evolving and creating new opportunities. He points out that the proprietary systems that were prevalent for a number of years are now giving way to a more open approach, including more choices in hardware and software and more ways to drive down costs and boost performance.

Open system benefits

Riviere explains one of the key benefits of 'open' systems, like Zebra's TekSpeech Pro Solution, is that they can lead to reduced costs and quicker functional advances for users. "Proprietary systems can be very constraining for the user due to annual licence fees and hardware that can only run on the vendor's Voice software. Also, implementation can be a long process, which can reduce the customer's expected ROI." This is why Zebra subscribes to an open systems approach to Voice and multi-modal solutions. "Our Voice-directed technology combined with our network of software partners provides a wide range of options – including Cloud and client-based solutions – that deliver significant flexibility in costs, capabilities and deployment strategies," said Riviere.

Better matched hardware and software

With a proprietary approach, users can also be limited in terms of the range of hardware and software applications. However, as Riviere explains, Zebra's open systems approach means users can benefit from a wide range of Voice-enabled devices; from handhelds and 'wearables' to truck-mounted terminals. "All these devices have native interfaces for ergonomic barcode scanning. This means customers can choose the best selection of devices for different workflows – such as picking, replenishment and put away – in their warehouse or DC. In addition to a range of hardware options, Zebra's open platform lets customers source applications independently from hardware."

Dynamic picking

Riviere made the point that the key component of multi-modal Voice solutions is, and will remain, the Voice component. "This is because users cannot work faster, more accurately or be more focused by using any system other than Voice technology," he said. "Users are listening to instructions and speaking to confirm tasks have been completed. In so doing they become totally focused. Some 96 to 98 per cent of interaction time in the warehouse will involve the Voice component. However, through the multi-modal approach, we are also ensuring that people who would like to view certain types of information or graphics on screen can do this while still relying on Voice as their main daily working tool in order to work faster, more accurately and more safely."

More application options

Voice technology has been proven to drive productivity improvements of 15 per cent or more in case- and piece-picking applications. Now, Voice is increasing productivity for other applications. Voice can be used effectively for many applications beyond just picking. "Tasks such as replenishment, receiving, quality assurance, put-away, truck loading and more can all benefit from Voice-enablement," said Riviere. "And when your Voice-enabled hardware and software have the flexibility to meet the demands of your facility, you can accelerate the ROI from your technology investments. For example, one shift can use a device for case and piece picking, while the next shift uses that same device for trailer loading or cycle counting. While the ergonomics of these workflows are different, the flexibility of a multi-modal capable terminal lets you get the most from every device."

Compared with the wide range of hardware and software solutions available from Zebra and its extended partner network, Riviere comments that single-source providers cannot offer the same flexibility to address each process within customers' warehouse or distribution centres beyond order picking.

Enhanced labour management

Zebra and its software partners offer many robust reporting applications that can track productivity and other statistics at an individual associate level. With the flexibility to build customised and detailed reports that offer greater employee visibility and help optimise distribution processes, customers can drive to new levels of productivity beyond what Voice alone can offer. "Our customers can deploy labour management and reporting tools along with a Voice and multi-modal solution, but it can be smart to add reporting tools after these processes are well established," said Riviere. "This provides a new source of productivity gains and supports continuous improvement programmes."

Riviere continued: "If users are operating a Voice-directed solution we have a very good view of where they are spending their time: how much time they spend moving, walking or driving throughout the warehouse; how much time they spend collecting empty pallets, how much time they spend fetching a shipment label; or the time required going to the expedition area etc. We can capture all this information as complementary data to what the WMS system can typically provide in order that further operational enhancements can be made to optimise daily activity in the warehouse or DC."

The network effect

With Zebra's TekSpeech Pro Solution, customers have the freedom to use any wireless network to power their mobile terminals and Voice and multi-modal software offerings. However, because engineer partners work to optimise the performance of Zebra mobile terminals on the company's wireless network customers get additional benefits from using Zebra technology together, including up to 20 per cent longer battery life and improved roaming performance. "When your network and mobile terminals work together in perfect harmony, you unlock even greater value in your investments in Voice and multi-modal technologies," said Riviere.

The benefits of a speech-independent system

Riviere also made the point that Voice recognition technology has evolved considerably over the past few years. "Back in the 1990s there were only speaker-dependent Voice systems whereby users needed to train their voice profile for around 45 minutes or so in order to be able to use the technology," he said. "However, over the past four to five years the technology has become much more mature and very robust. Today's best speech-independent Voice solutions are able to understand different accents and dialects perfectly – as well as subtle changes in the user's voice over time or even during different periods of the day – with no prior Voice training. With speech-dependent systems, users often had to re-train the systems to understand their voices every few months. Today's speech-independent systems, such as TekSpeech Pro, doesn't need to look for an individual user's profile, it simply recognises the appropriate language. This provides much greater flexibility for users."

Riviere concluded: "With an open system approach, powerful multi-modal technology, a broad portfolio of wireless solutions and an extensive network of software partners, Zebra is the smart choice for Voice and multi-modal solutions."

TekSpeech Pro – one solution, many options

Zebra Technologies' TekSpeech Pro takes performance and flexibility to the next level for Voice-directed warehouse applications with world-class speaker-independent Voice recognition, high-level Voice quality and the freedom of choice – the customer's choice of mobile computers, accessories, application functions and back-end business systems. Additionally, TekSpeech Pro provides the tools needed to make every step in the development of Voice-directed applications easy – from dialogue scripting to host integration, deployment and solution management.

To complement Zebra's TekSpeech Pro solution, Zebra offers a full range of warehouse solutions including hand-held, wearable and vehicle mount mobile computers, scanners, printers, location solutions, RFID and WLAN.

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