Meeting the demand - WMS/Voice-directed Picking Technology report

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Manufacturing & Logistics IT magazine spoke with key spokespeople from the vendor and analyst communities about current and possible future trends and areas of development within the world of warehouse management systems (WMS) and voice-directed picking solutions. 

Warehousing has experienced a tremendous shift over the past four years. With e-commerce seeing meteoric increase post-COVID-19, the demand for same-day delivery and consequently distributed fulfilment has increased. As Archana Vidyasekar, research director - Visionary Innovation Group, Frost & Sullivan, points out, distributed fulfilment can entail the spreading of inventory across different warehouses or fulfilment locations that are closer to the end customer.

“Stores have emerged as the key warehousing spot given its density and proximity to consumers,” she says. “As a result, dark stores or microwarehouses have emerged wherein freed-up store spaces double as mini fulfilment centres for retailers. In addition to stores, lockers and PUDOs (local pickup and drop-off locations), warehouses, distribution centres and dedicated fulfiment centres all make up the network of distributed inventory.”

Vidyasekar maintains that for the distributed inventory network to operate efficiently, sharing of infrastructure spaces and on-demand access to warehousing would be critical. “To cater to this demand, the market is now currently witnessing the rise of tech-enabled 3PLs which are essentially SaaS companies that are aggregating or crowdsourcing warehousing and fleet services to offer them on an on-demand flexible basis to retailers,” she says. “They can scale the network up or down based on demand and offer highly modular services. ShipBob, Bringg, and Flowspace are all excellent examples of such models.”

In Vidyasekar’s view, the inclination of retailers towards adopting a D2C business model is also another driver for distributed warehousing. “It is estimated that the US would need an additional 1 billion sq ft of warehousing facilities by 2025. Prologis, a real-estate investment company estimates that e-commerce companies require 1.2 million sq ft of distribution space to reach $1 billion in sales. In order to cater to this demand, we can expect to see more consolidation and collaboration between the fragmented SaaS platforms and traditional logistics companies.”

Higher volume of transactions

David Krebs, executive vice president, enterprise mobility & the connected worker, VDC Research, comments that the backdrop to key changes to the WMS space concerns the key pressures impacting warehouse operations: higher volume of transactions/items processed; greater fulfilment speed expectations and growing labour pressures. He adds that while the vision of fully automated/dark warehouses remains a vision, organisations are focusing on augmenting labour with digital solutions – including voice-directed picking – to offset these operational pressures. Krebs is also witnessing a resurgence in demand for various mobile and wearable solutions to streamline warehouse operations. 

In Krebs’ view, voice direction and recognition solutions represent a critical technology to optimise labour-intensive workflows such as picking. According to a recent survey conducted by VDC Research, adoption of voice-directed solutions is expected to grow by over 25% from 2021 through 2023, among the fastest growing warehouse solutions over the next 24 months. Krebs points out that the top three benefits of voice solutions for warehouse operations – according to respondents to a recent VDC survey among warehouse technology decision makers – are, first, worker productivity, secondly, worker accuracy and, thirdly, worker safety. According to VDC’s research, warehouse worker productivity has increased by 15.6% among organisations adopting voice-based solutions to support operations. 

Krebs adds that a shift to voice solutions that directly integrate with an existing WMS – as opposed to middleware solutions or connectors – is further facilitating investment in voice solutions and addressing legacy integration issues. He explains that, according to VDC’s most recent research, 49.6% or organisations leveraging voice solutions for warehouse operations are using solutions that directly integrate with their existing WMS. 

In terms of the key drivers for these trends, Krebs reflects that, fundamentally, voice will always represent the most intuitive interface and when leveraged appropriately can deliver substantial improvements to labour-intensive workflows (such as picking) – not only in terms of overall productivity but also to minimise errors. Krebs adds that, traditionally, most voice solutions have relied on proprietary HW/SW solutions and have been held back by their high cost of adoption and challenges associated with integrating and supporting these solutions. He also makes the point that although the complexity and integration challenges of voice solutions has not been eliminated, options are available for organisations looking to streamline the process. In addition, he explains that many leading WMS vendors are directly integrating voice functionality into their SW stacks, further simplifying the integration and adoption process. 

Pandemic impact

Bryan Ball, vice president, principal analyst supply chain management, Aberdeen Group, considers that the largest shift in warehousing practice from when he provided insight for our 2019 report has been the response to the pandemic. “As more people were locked down, maybe working from home, and with shops closing their doors to the public almost overnight – particularly in retail – almost immediately there was a surge in online buying and the requirement for home delivery fulfilment – shipping directly to the customer often for same-day or next-day delivery. Fast home delivery has become the expectation of many consumers who have become so comfortable with the type of service they receive from Amazon. So, almost overnight, many consumers didn’t want to, or couldn’t, go out. And because many grocery stores offered home delivery more consumers opted for that service, even though the grocery stores remained open.” 

So, as Ball explains, the way people bought things shifted literally in a matter of days. “What that meant, though, for manufacturers, brands or even retailers, was that they somehow had to fulfil that demand. By definition, when you're shipping to individual customers it's an omnichannel model rather than the traditional method of delivering items to stores to sell to consumers. The traditional model entailed bulk orders being delivered to retail outlets through warehouses or distribution centres. Now, in the wake of the pandemic, everyone suddenly ended up with many new individual customers, shipping points and destinations.” 

As Ball points out, whereas warehouses or DCs using warehouse management systems would have mainly shipped boxes or pallets, may be even truckloads, to store, virtually all the demand was suddenly coming from customers wanting home delivery. “So, envisage what happens in a warehouse where I was picking boxes and cartons, and now I'm being asked to pick individual items and a lot of them. Think of the labour involved. And think of the technology required to fulfil this need. Not many warehouses or DCs were anything like as well-equipped as Amazon in terms of all the required systems and solutions in place to deal with omnichannel.

When an order is received online, the goal is to instantly determine the location and availability of the product and the cost to get from point A to point B (the customer). They need to know in an instant where that order is going to be shipped from, then execute the order to be picked – the ultimate goal is ‘zero time to execution’ where there’s no lag time between receiving the order and getting the item out the door. And as anybody who has an Amazon Prime account, you can receive goods the next day virtually no matter where you are.” 

Suddenly, as Ball explains, many companies found themselves competing with the Amazon type of service and may well have found themselves ill-equipped to do so. “So, many companies realised changes needed to occur in the warehouse itself. For omnichannel, think about a WMS with order management functionality that can locate the product in a DC nearest to point the order came in from. To do this, it needs visibility across all the DCs involved – it could be the DCs for the brands/manufacturers, the DCs for the distributors as well as your own DCs.”

And, says Ball, it’s all hands on deck for warehouse and DC workers. “Instead of my typical picking waves, I've got to insert individual orders into the queue or there's no hope of dispatching the items today for next-day delivery.” Ball points out that this can be referred to as dynamic scheduling within the warehouse. But how do companies insert the individual orders in with their bulk orders and make sure they get prioritised as opposed to relying on regular picking waves with an opportunity maybe every two hours to add an individual order into the mix? “By using dynamic scheduling I can insert the individual orders, then the schedule changes and new instructions can be sent to the floor very quickly,” explains Ball.

He adds that via voice directed headset, handheld or smart glasses etc, the operators then know what their next picking tasks are – location, rack etc. “In this way, changing picking priorities is more dynamic, quick and efficient. Then, the device can send information back to the WMS to confirm each task has been executed.” Ball explains that this more efficient process means labour is utillised in an efficient way with minimal time wasted.

The need for more resilience 

Johan Pintens, managing director, Priority Software in Europe, points out that one of Priority HQ’s key findings was that even relatively small businesses have been investing in implementing a WMS. “With the COVID-19 pandemic, they had to be, and are, far more resilient,” he says. “Businesses and consumers increasingly ‘went digital’, providing and purchasing more goods and services online.

By implementing a solid WMS, businesses will benefit in terms of operational efficiency for both labour and physical space, enhancing productivity and increasing asset utilisation. Even if it’s not a huge warehouse, there is a huge effect.” The second finding highlighted by Pintens is that warehouses are becoming more automatic, advanced and smart, equipped with robotics, wearables and other new technologies. 

In terms of drivers for change, Pintens believes the COVID-19 pandemic, with the growth of e-commerce, has supercharged many small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs). “Businesses needed to be flexible, had to cope with understaffed operations and managers, and needed to maintain oversight and control even when they were unable to be in the building,” he says. “Warehouse automation became a must in order to remain operational and meet the growing demand of customers. Even for businesses with a very small warehouse like in the electronics industry, which often use very small components stored in small locations or warehouses, they seriously benefit from a system that shows and knows the location of each (small) item.” 

New voice platform trend

Phil Jarrett commercial director, Dakota Integrated Solutions, is seeing the emergence of a new voice platform that enables android devices becoming voice enabled. “In the past, they have been based only on the Windows mobile application, but now we can utilise existing devices or any other platform-agnostic equipment,” he explains. “It just needs the required operating system – android 8. So, companies that have many types of hardware installations can now more easily become voice-enabled with the use of Honeywell’s Dev Kit voice driven platform. This now also applies to Apple’s iOS operating system. Again, iOS equipment can be voice-enabled using Honeywell’s Dev Kit platform.”

Jarrett believes the primary driver for companies to become voice-enabled tends to be cost, speed and accuracy improvements. “In this regard, systems such as Honeywell’s A700X and SRX3 headset have become a ‘go to’ choice of application,” he says, adding that there is also a growing trend for a more multimodal type of voice deployment in that PDAs can be used for voice and also for other areas of a company's operations. “So, users can have one standard platform that can bring in not only voice but also scanning and visual information that can be presented back to the PDA,” explains Jarrett.

“This type of multifunctional operation could involve e-commerce, bulk picking, pick and pack and so on – areas that tend to be driven by a scan-based type devices as well as having a screen available to them. What this omnichannel model can give you is the option to have one estate using one product, and that product can facilitate whichever applications are driven within your supply chain.” 

Gavin Clark, country management UK, Ehrhardt Partner Group (EPG), reflects that throughout 2020 and 2021, COVID-19 was obviously front and centre in most warehouses. “Topics such as how to safely disinfect devices – especially headsets – was a key concern,” he says. “Here at EPG, we found a lot of increased interest in our LYDIA VoiceWear vest, that uses a beamforming microphone and speakers built into the vest to remove the need for a headset. This made for a much safer environment, as the vest could be more effectively cleaned, even washed in a washing machine once the easily separated electronics were removed.” 

Easy working environment 

Clark adds that the hottest topic for 2022 is the challenge for recruitment, with wages rising and the increased use of bonuses, ensuring that the working environment is easy for a new team member to get up to speed and become an ‘expert’ user is key. This, according to Clark, is where LYDIA Voice clearly shows its advantages. “LYDIA voice requires no voice template training and even dialects and accents are easily recognized,” he explains. “This means that new employees can be productive within minutes.” 

In the context of the pandemic, Clark reflects that many warehouse managers were also confronted with taking measures to maintain operations and protect their workforce. “Face masks, for example, became standard items of clothing in many warehouses, as they were in everyday life,” he says. “This had a serious impact on voice-recognition quality when working with voice picking systems. When using a voice system that requires voice template training, the wearing of a face mask of any kind will very likely result in the need for retraining. With an advanced solution that utilised Deep Learning, face masks had no effect on voice recognition.” 

High consumer demand 

Eric Carter, solutions architect, Indigo Software, comments that warehouses are under a lot of pressure. “They are busier than ever as a result of high consumer demand and there are many strains along the supply chain,” he says. “Clients are looking for smaller, leaner and more focused implementations to achieve a rapid ROI and get over the pinch points in their supply chains. This means getting the best out of their WMS software quickly and effectively. Clients may be nervous about their supply chains because of all the issues created by Brexit and Covid 19 so they want to feel confident that a WMS implementation will not be hugely disruptive.” 

Carter adds that gamification is an interesting and emerging trend within WMS development and will become more commonplace within WMS software, whereby performance monitoring and KPI tracking is turned into more of a game helping to increase employee engagement and productivity. “It’s just like having a sales leaderboard dashboard in the office,” he says.

In terms of drivers for change, Carter cites issues with staff shortages and recruitment is a big factor. “It is difficult to find people with the right skills to work in the logistics sector and warehouse managers are having real issues bringing people in and keeping them,” he says. Carter adds that COVID 19 has changed buying habits and consumer demand for certain products. Coupled with this, he makes the point that there are genuine product shortages in some sectors due to a lack of raw materials and manufacturers not being able to keep up with the increased demand. 

Multiple benefits with voice

Andrew Briggs, technical director, BEC (Systems Integration) Ltd, points out that voice-directed solutions continue to offer improved accuracy, increased productivity, reduced errors and a safer working environment. He adds that the continuing labour shortage is increasingly relevant in the post-pandemic workplace. “Never has staff retention and workforce wellbeing been so important,” says Briggs. “Workers enjoy using voice technology because it makes their work easier and more efficient, hence they feel more productive and less likely to switch employers. Using voice technology requires minimal training and so workers can begin to make a valuable operational contribution right from the start.” 

Briggs believes the main changes and developments are being driven by the changing needs of end-users. “Traditional voice pick installations are still dominant, but there is a growing need to optimise other complex processes and create an eco-system that is ‘multimodal’ using a combination of technologies and not wholly voice directed,” he says. “Over the past two years, we have seen a growth in the number of our customers using a combination of technologies; for example, pick-by-voice – put-to-light. This means an operator picks a product by voice and puts it in a tote/pallet location that is identified by a light above it. This is especially useful when performing multi-order picks as it speeds up the process and, importantly, improves accuracy.” 

Voice expanding in multiple industries

Darrel Williams, Europe’s sales director for Honeywell Voice, explains Honeywell is seeing that voice solutions are expanding in multiple industries due to ease of use and ability to quickly get new and seasonal hires onboarded. “Within the warehouse and distribution centre, voice technology has helped manage the extra pressures put on by the surge of e-commerce,” he says. “The increase of SKUs in warehouse operations can prove to be challenging as businesses continue to learn about what their customers want in terms of products and how they work to meet those requirements.

Through it all, warehouse operations must maintain their flexibility to manage this growth and accuracy as they pick, pack, ship and receive. Having a flexible solution like voice technology can help to make the transition to larger SKU volume more manageable.”

Williams adds that one of the largest developments is the use of voice technology outside of the warehouse and DC walls. “Voice-directed work is now used by technicians, auditors, operators and individuals tasked with completing a wide variety of reviews on vehicles, machinery, engines and more in a host of environments,” he points out. “Rather than recording findings on paper and manually entering them into a database, the interaction between technicians and the system is carried out by voice while the system is updated automatically.

With a voice-directed, hands-free, eyes-free inspection process, workers eliminate skipped steps, make fewer errors, are more productive and have higher job satisfaction. The voice-directed solution eliminates the post-inspection manual data entry process and facilitates compliance with various inspection processes.”

In terms of current notable areas of innovation, Williams cites the utilisation of voice with other automation technologies. “As an example, mobile workers can interface with cobots to make workflows more efficient, allowing the worker to remain in one place while the robot or other automated technology is constantly traveling to retrieve items and deliver them to the worker at a central location,” he explains. “This workflow makes the work environment safer and more efficient for both the worker and others within the facility.”

To provide a concrete example, Williams explains that Honeywell collaborated with Hyster-Yale on pallet trucks controlled by voice, allowing operators to verbally control the pallet truck’s horizontal movement, saving steps and allowing them to focus on value-added tasks. “Designed primarily for low-level pick activities, the voice-directed pallet trucks will benefit a wide range of applications and industries including retail, e-commerce, food and beverage, general warehousing and distribution,” says Williams, who adds that soon he expects to see voice and automation to have a tighter integration. He also believes the demand for hybrid solutions (ex. voice only, voice on screen) as well as the ability to have a true multi-modal solution – being both device and platform agnostic – will be prevalent.

In terms of key drivers for current voice developments, Williams makes the point that the way we shop has changed. “The accelerated growth of e-commerce since the pandemic has put enormous demand on the warehouse as it becomes the only touchpoint between the goods and the customer,” he says. “If the wrong goods are delivered, or delivery is late, brand image, and even customer loyalty can be affected. Consumers expect a seamless and flawless online shopping experience. Anything less than perfect – from a poor customer experience to a cumbersome returns process – reflects negatively on the business and can prove costly. Expectations of next- or same-day delivery has led to re-organisation of DCs from national to local, or in cases even in-store.”

Williams adds that technology like voice directed work can help attract and retain workers in markets where labour markets are strained. “Voice technology provides an agile solution, which coupled with good processes enables greater accuracy, productivity (still the main drivers), and workforce optimisation,” he says. “This simultaneously allows companies to meet customer demand, relieving warehouse workers of pressure and alleviating the need to worry about making mistakes.”

Strain on supply chains 

Alex Macpherson, director of solution consulting and account management. Manhattan Associates, considers that warehouse management, being absolutely crucial to the supply chain, is very much central in the discussions of many, if not all organisations. “Because the pandemic has put tremendous strain on supply chains, and warehouse management is the engine that drives them, there has been a lot of discussion focused on WMS solutions,” he says. According to Macpherson, these discussions can be summarised around the following:

  • Agility and flexibility have been key buzzwords for many years but have suddenly gained new salience. The changes in order fulfilment over the last 15 years have seemed slow and incremental as compared to the last 18 months. The gradual growth of eCommerce to make up a significant, but still minor, share of overall fulfilment was completely overshadowed by a move to complete eCom fulfilment, with huge growth figures for some businesses.

  • Having a WMS solution that could easily be adapted to manage this was central to an organisation’s survival and any weaknesses in the WMS were cruelly exposed. Therefore retailers, and fulfilment providers, have begun to review all processes in their legacy solutions to identify those areas that need to be refreshed and there is no longer an attitude of ‘good enough’.

  • In a very tight labour market, recruitment and retention of staff in the supply chain has become a huge headache for many organisations. The Christmas peak drives a huge ramp up in numbers recruited in the warehousing sector, and this is across the majority of warehousing at the same time. This annual challenge has been heightened by labour shortage within the UK economy driven by multiple factors. Whether it is sign-on bonuses or highly inflated salaries, there is a highly competitive market to bring in a high number of employees.

  • Linked to the previous point of labour scarcity, the rise of the robots has started. This was a trend that started several years ago and has only accelerated. A picker spends 50% of their working time walking, and so, if you can rapidly deploy a solution that reduces this significantly, then there are huge benefits to be reaped. With the ability to rent robots, and a much lower entry level that automation often offers, the potential deployment of robots is often top of any supply leader’s wish list.

Macpherson has no doubt that the pandemic has been a main driver for many of these concerns, particularly around agility. “The labour shortage is a key issue and has been only expedited by recent events, rather than initiated,” he says. “This concern has led employers to think about interaction with employees, and how areas such as Labour Management solutions could be used as incentive-based solutions rather than purely performance tools. There is a clear interest in vendors that bring capabilities to market that enable employee engagement using gamification techniques; the arms race of increasing pay rates is one that most retailers cannot continue indefinitely.”

Macpherson adds that the ability to onboard employees quickly and efficiently is an area that WMS vendors are wrestling with – often temporary employees are only brought onboard for a few weeks in the Black Friday or Christmas run up. “It is imperative to ramp up these team members to full efficiency,” he says, adding that it also makes employees more engaged if they feel they understand what they are doing to a larger degree. “The ability of vendors to make warehouse solutions as intuitive as possible is important for bringing new employees up to performance levels,” he says. 

TCO brought into the spotlight 

Tony Dobson, CEO. SnapFulfil, comments that the total cost of ownership (TCO) rationale has especially been brought into the spotlight since the outbreak of the pandemic. “Margins are much tighter and warehouses have had to invest in digital technology to meet the switch in buying habits from traditional bricks and mortar to online, whilst controlling expenditure,” he says. “The minimal upfront costs and support expenses of cloud-based WMS comes out way ahead of hard-coded and inflexible, legacy alternatives, where most of the revenue is generated through ongoing and bespoke modification costs.”

Dobson adds that cloud software requires no significant capital investment before it's up and running and is quick and easy to onboard – for rapid ROI – plus ongoing expenses are kept to a minimum because of cloud's renowned agility and configurability. “Software gets implemented faster, for little to no downtime, and upgrading to the latest version is automatic,” he explains, adding that ‘servicing’ a cloud WMS is not applicable either, IT costs are drastically reduced too and this balancing of short- and long-term expenses especially works for high-growth 3PL and e-commerce businesses that can't afford, or evolve with, a rigid on-premise solution.” 

In terms of what has driven changes, Dobson makes the point that tech-savvy WMS providers adapt to pandemic and Brexit-driven challenges by getting creative with processes and improving their service capabilities. “Initiating a distance-based onboarding protocol has created a whole new outlook on understanding customers’ challenges and developing the right solutions,” he says. “Consequently, we’ve adapted our approach to consulting, training and delivering new projects, so they can also meet customer needs virtually – a process that will have lasting effects on all our interaction with clients. Developing the RI programme required SnapFulfil to rethink its approach to service and retrain its project managers with a focus on curiosity and questioning.

“The way we interact today is a lot more inquisitive; we ask why business processes are the way they are. Training and education have changed considerably too, and we’ve revitalised our methodology to give them more flexibility. Adversity breeds better and more resilient solutions. We’re had another highly successful year predominantly closing new business remotely. To do that in these especially challenging times, you have to be increasingly good at the service piece.” 

Three new entrants to the Magic Quadrant

Dwight Klappich, VP analyst, Gartner, and Simon Tunstall, senior principal analyst, Gartner, explain that there have been three new entrants to the Magic Quadrant this year — EPG, Mecalux Software Solutions and SSI Schaefer IT Solutions — with some movement within and across quadrants. “Vendor and product evaluations for this Magic Quadrant have not changed dramatically from 2020, although there has been growth in the need for adaptable solutions, cloud deployments and support for automation given the disruptive events of the last year,” they say. “Requirements for international sales and revenue again impacted certain regional WMS vendors that have good offerings but lacked the appropriate level of international revenue to qualify. Gartner started the process for this research considering over 60 WMS providers, but only the 18 vendors highlighted here provided the evidence that they met the documented inclusion criteria.”

According to Klappich and Tunstall, the WMS market is a long-tail market with six vendors dominating in terms of number of customers and WMS revenue. “Yet there are many other WMS vendors with viable offerings including those that did qualify for this research and others that did not,” they say. “Historically, the WMS market has been dominated by independent, specialist WMS vendors, especially for more complex and sophisticated warehouse environments. While high-end users will continue to gravitate toward ISV offerings, many companies’ needs can be satisfied with less-leading-edge WMSs. This creates market opportunities for other WMS providers.

Specialist WMS vendors continue to dominate the most sophisticated and complex warehouse environments due to the breadth and depth of their current applications, their thought leadership, and their position as the vendors that others look to emulate. They have moved beyond basic WMSs, expanding their portfolios vertically and horizontally. In this Magic Quadrant, Blue Yonder, Körber and Manhattan Associates remain in the Leaders quadrant largely due to their experience serving these large, complex users with functionally broad and deep WMSs.

These vendors tend to differentiate themselves most when extended WMS capabilities are a greater aspect of the functional evaluation because their systems are broader and deeper in these areas. These solutions have been implemented in some of the most complex warehouse environments. Moreover, these vendors have extensive experience in SCE, as well as compelling visions for how WMSs and, more broadly, SCE will evolve over the next five years.”

Klappich and Tunstall point out that Megasuite vendor WMSs (i.e., Infor, Oracle and SAP) continue to evolve, with vendors adding depth to their core WMS capabilities as well as some extended WMS capabilities. “Although these solutions have yet to match the overall depth and breadth of Blue Yonder and Manhattan Associates, they have become viable alternatives for existing customers of the megasuite vendor that are looking for good enough WMS ISV capabilities,” they say. “Infor, Oracle and SAP remain in the Leaders quadrant this year due to several factors.

These include the strength of their market growth, ability to serve global customers, innovation in areas surrounding WMSs, compelling SCE convergence strategies and overall market acceptance. These megasuite vendors have momentum internationally because they are organisationally well-positioned globally.

Furthermore, the majority of companies in emerging geographies lack the process maturity or WMS sophistication to necessitate adoption of the most functionally robust solutions, making the WMS of their suite provider acceptable. This does not mean that other vendors don’t have advantages worth consideration by prospective customers. For example, customer intimacy, time to value, geographical scope or vertical industry expertise could all favor other vendors in certain circumstances.”

Thought leaders

The Visionaries quadrant is populated with vendors solidifying their positions as thought leaders while maintaining their Ability to Execute. Klappich and Tunstall explain that they exhibit one or more of the following characteristics – innovative and differentiated solutions, a compelling and unique position in a specific vertical market, or distinctive go-to-market strategies. “Vendors in this quadrant, while innovative and offering intriguing solutions, have yet to solidify their long-term viability and global market positions. Softeon, although small, is an innovator, leveraging a strong service-oriented architecture (SOA) platform to challenge the traditional WMS vendors. It is extending WMS concepts into very unique markets such as digital product logistics. Tecsys continues to exploit its expertise in healthcare, government and other industry-specific warehouse environments. Reply maintains its position in this quadrant, mainly due to its innovative approach to WMS architecture and cloud-first strategy. Several vendors are positioned in the Niche Players quadrant. 

“Niche Players’ solutions are often functionally sufficient or, in some cases, excellent choices for many companies addressing a variety of needs, some of which are outside pure WMS capabilities, such as Vinculum’s ease of integration to marketplaces. However, these offerings might lack the global scale, WMS depth or breadth, number of clients, customer references, or business viability of the leading vendors in the market. Mecalux and EPG are new entrants to the Magic Quadrant in the Niche Players quadrant. Mecalux is notable for its blend of support for the midmarket in both manual and automated environments. EPG is notable for its growth, support for automation and innovation in some extended capabilities such as workforce management.”

Vendors that make it into the Challengers quadrant are mature, functionally solid and proven, with strong track records of customer adoption and successful deployments. According to Klappich and Tunstall, their solutions can scale to support Level 3 or higher warehouse operations, and they have strong core WMS capabilities and some extended WMS capabilities. “Although offerings in the Challengers quadrant are normally functionally robust, the vendor or specific solution is not at the forefront of innovation,” they say.

“The vendor is not typically a WMS market or thought leader, or the early provider of innovation. These vendors might have one (or more than one) strong product, but their overall market position has not yet advanced far enough to move into the Leaders quadrant. Notably, there were no vendors in the Challengers quadrant in 2020. But, this year, SSI SCHAEFER IT Solutions, a new entrant to the Magic Quadrant and the Challengers quadrant, is noteworthy for the increasing demand for its solution and support for automation. Vendors continue to innovate with three new entrants to the Magic Quadrant in 2021. 

“Vendors have increased focus on enhancing the technical architectures. Some vendors like Generix Group have upgraded to model-driven architectures that enable more user adaptability of the WMS during and after implementation. Others, like Manhattan Associates, have rewritten their WMS using a microservices architecture that allows continuous upgrades and extensibility in a multitenant cloud environment. Evidence Gartner used multiple data sources to help analyse and assess each vendor in this Magic Quadrant.

These sources included: Vendor presentations and demonstrations to the Gartner analyst team: Specifically, to support this research, each vendor is allotted time to present information about its company and solutions. Each vendor is allotted the same amount of time for this research, but Gartner also conducts interactions with vendors throughout the year as part of normal and ongoing relationships with user and vendor clients.”

Integration 

Have ways of best integrating WMS and/or voice solutions with other systems developed to any notable degree over the past year or two in your view?

For Pintens, the answer is definitely yes. “First of all, from our side, the fact that the WMS is just an extra module which is already integrated into the ERP is a big advantage,” he says. “This way, you can manage the entire end-to-end process. Not just the warehouse, but you’ll have a smooth process from order to delivery as different interfaces bring all the data to one central ERP platform.”

Specifically, on the WMS side, Pintens sees a lot more options for smart warehouse management, such as robotics, voice command, wearables and automated storage solutions on the inside of the warehouse, and integrations with couriers like ShipEngine and nShift on the outside of the warehouse. She is also seeing the rise of smart automated warehouses experimenting with 5G connectivity adaption, and drones for order picking and warehouse distribution drones. 

Dobson comments that SnapFulfil offers easy integration to ERPs and other systems through Jitterbit, a smart commercial software integration product, via a simple drag and drop capability. “It’s quick and easy and no longer requires the skills of a tech specialist – and the same is even true for direct integration with NetSuite,” he says. “The existing connectors mean you can align systems via simple drag and drop workflows, without expensive IT overheads and delays.” 

Dobson adds that SnapFulfil has a super extensive API that a large number of its clients now use to integrate with SnapFulfil, but also interrogate data to then pass onto their own CRM, or directly to clients E-comm front ends. “I think this self-configuration and ingenious use of the data available to the client is well beyond anything we have seen in the past,” he says. “The unprecedented access to data within the WMS is being rightly exploited by clients to everyone’s advantage.” 

Dobson believes enterprise-level businesses have no choice but to open up micro distribution centres en masse, and explains that SnapFulfil can also seamlessly work in tandem with industrial scale on-premise systems that lack the functionality and configurability of cloud-based WMS and can’t manage the smaller picks that e-commerce and D2C fulfilment demand. Dobson adds that SnapFulfil has also standardised its interfaces to support easily understood and accomplished integrations and come to the table with a library of proven applications to help ease technical sales processes.

Clark makes the point that, with integration, being able to offer a range of different options has always been vital. “Many operators rely on the native integration offered by their chosen WMS, which then limits their choice of voice technology,” he says. “Voice technology – especially around the use of deep learning/AI for voice recognition – is constantly being improved at EPG, with customers such as CONA and InBev reporting 7% to 20% increases in productivity due to these developments, and the removal for the need for any voice template training, over older voice technology. So, ensuring access to these improvements by offering simple and easy to deploy integration options such as accredited SAP integration, Web and flat file options to suit all WMS and ERP platforms is key.” 

Clark also makes the point that allowing the customer’s own IT team to be able to make changes is also very important, to ensure that any changes in operational requirements can be quickly reflected in the voice solution with no need to refer back to the voice provider. “Especially for our 3PL customers, flexibility and independency from the voice provider is a key benefit of LYDIA Voice,” says Clark. “They can adapt the voice process to their customer’s requirements when needed.” 

Jarrett adds that Dakota Integrated Solutions has the tools and knowhow to integrate voice into any WMS or ERP platform irrespective of whether the system is one of the current leading models, a legacy system or a highly bespoke system that has been designed by the user organisation. “There are several different ways to complete an integration, whether that’s through a direct interface using an API or opting for the screen scrape or flat file transfer,” he says. “Many of the leading current platforms have in-built APIs to accommodate a quick, full integration of voice.

These APIs are part of the leading ERP solutions by SAP, Oracle, Infor, Microsoft Dynamics etc and a few of the most established WMS/Supply Chain Management providers, including RedPrairie and Manhattan Associates. More leading vendors are looking to add APIs over the short term. With an API interface it can become a lot quicker and more straightforward to integrate voice into the system.”

Jarrett also makes the point that because of the maturity of voice, many ERP and WMS providers have now realised that requirement in the market. “So, they have designed their platforms to be able to accommodate voice by facilitating a very quick integration process,” he says, adding that voice is invaluable for many types of transaction within the warehouse or DC; whether it’s stock move, stock count, stock cycle, loading and more.

Jarrett also explains that in another market segment, voice is fast proving to be a must-have solution within the maintenance & inspection arena. He also points out that sectors such as transportation and aerospace are increasingly deploying voice for these types of operations. Additionally, voice-directed guided workflow (GWF) lends itself nicely to improving efficiencies at the front-end on retail, according to Jarrett. 

Williams explains that Honeywell is seeing companies moving away from more traditional middleware solutions. “Proprietary systems are still the norm as the experience and abilities to create good voice flow are necessary to achieve better solutions rather than simply voice enabling a current process,” he says. 

Carter considers the capability for WMS software to integrate with voice, ERP, TMS for instance is already well-developed in many leading WMS products. “More recently,” he adds, “there is increased interest for seamless integration with other systems like e-commerce front ends, as e-commerce sellers expand and want to automate their warehouse operations. Indigo Software recently announced a partnership with DropStream, a leading provider of automated e-commerce fulfilment integrations. The partnership means e-commerce providers can improve their value proposition to customers by offering the highest possible levels of accuracy with their real-time stock availability data. This is made possible with an innovative automatic connection between warehouses powered by Indigo WMS and e-commerce storefronts using DropStream’s e-commerce integration platform.”

Briggs comments that BEC has a team of highly accredited voice consultants with deep industry knowledge. “BEC has been designing, implementing and supporting voice picking solutions for decades,” he says. “It has first-hand experience of industry trends and common obstacles experienced over the years, and we apply this knowledge and expertise to the benefit of our new and existing customers. Our extensive experience enables us to rapidly identify and deploy voice-guided solutions that deliver a tangiable return on investment and enhance the clients operational performace and control. BEC is a Best-of-breed solution partner with strong core values and a broad range of offerings to maximise operational efficiencies.” 

SaaS/cloud

Has the Software as a Service (SaaS) model and the Cloud concept in general had any notable level of impact on the voice-directed systems market so far?

Clark considers that the move to SaaS has also moved the market towards a payment model with limited capital investment and a monthly payment model, which has meant that forward thinking companies have also had to offer subscription services for voice and the hardware that it requires. He adds it has also meant that integration pathways now have to cater for web services as well as more traditional models. 

Pintens is seeing a significant movement to SaaS models – not only in the WMS area, but also Enterprise Software, logistic companies and solutions, and manufacturing solutions. Indeed, he has no doubt it will soon dominate the market. “Companies that are still using legacy solutions, can profit from a hybrid way of working,” he adds. “Our software solutions in the cloud can easily communicate with legacy systems on-premise. Cloud stands for fast deployment, scalability, remote control. Adopting cloud and SaaS models will enable small manufacturers and retailers to streamline their warehouse operations and drive significant cost savings. They benefit from a high level of security ensuring it’s always safe and available and offering multi-levels of redundancy. This is validated further by the growing number of governments starting to adopt cloud technology.” 

Briggs explains that BEC developed its cloud-hosted eSmart solutions a couple of years ago and has certainly seen more uptake in the past 12 months. “Whereas in the past, customers may have had separate voice and middleware solutions for each division or site, many are now consolidating these into the cloud – e.g. AWS and Azure,” he says. “The advantages are manifold but in particular, the resilience provided by failover servers in different geographical locations, automatic load balancing, and resource up-scaling on demand. Our customers are now able to ‘flex up’ performance, resources and users to meet seasonable demand, then realise cost savings during off-peak/quieter times.” 

Macpherson considers that the adoption of the SaaS model for WMS has historically been slower than other areas such as HR or Finance in organisations, and it was questioned if the deployment of such a mission critical solution moving to the cloud was perceived as too risky. “However, this concern has not been realised, and many companies are very keen to adopt SaaS WMS,” he says. “The ability to have a WMS solution that is constantly updated with innovation is highly attractive. Organisations often delay upgrades of WMS for more than 5 years, so are locked off new capabilities that SaaS vendors are bringing to market.” 

Dobson comments that SnapFulfil WMS is unashamedly forward thinking and is an on-premise style solution, but in an ultra-secure cloud space, and without customers having to make any trade offs for this Software as a Service (SaaS) approach. Plus, what really sets it apart is the robust infrastructure that is behind these solutions. He adds that SnapFulfil can globally adapt to the fast moving and dynamic warehousing requirements of enterprise level retailers, manufacturers and third-party logistics providers. “With flexibility at its core, SnapFulfil delivers cutting-edge systems at a fraction of the cost of traditional installations,” says Dobson. “Indeed, users typically benefit from efficiency improvements in the region of 30%, which translates into the ability to do more with the same or less resources.”

Dobson continues: “World-class uptime provided by the platform that the solution is hosted on should be a given, but SnapFulfil additionally benefits from industry-leading SLAs (Service Level Agreement) that give customers the crucial peace of mind that they are backed up by a highly available and reliable cloud infrastructure. The transactional nature of warehouse management also requires on-demand scalability and reliable performance in the cloud, and this is another area where we deliver outstanding service to our customers. The dynamic nature of our cloud platform and flexible resource-based pricing structure enables SnapFulfil to seamlessly expand in line with customer needs.” 

Carter comments that SaaS and the cloud have both had a big impact and this is now becoming the de facto delivery model for many software companies. “Just two years ago, many clients were still not interested and wanted a more traditional on-premise software solution, but now the cloud as a concept has become completely mainstream,” he says. “This transition has made users more sensitive to implementation timescales as the software is effectively available day 1.” 

Williams maintains that companies are seeking flexible solutions, whether it’s on-premises or in the cloud to meet customer needs. He considers that how they’re receiving the systems really doesn’t matter. Williams adds that there are obvious benefits to the voice SaaS model. “The expense becomes OPEX rather than CAPEX, removing the upfront cost whilst receiving the benefits immediately, the agility afforded by being able to add users when required (such as peak seasonal periods),” he says.

Mobility solutions 

Are mobility solutions such as mobile computers and tablet PCs etc. having an impact or influence on voice systems?

Clark comments that, for EPG, the need for the supervisors and management to be able to access voice-driven operations via a mobile computer has always been key. “The EPG Co-Pilot is a tablet driven application that allows a supervisor to listen to a new team member and see what the command should be and hear what is being said,” explains Clark. “This allows faster and more efficient on-boarding of new team members, along with ongoing training and aids performance management.”

In Clark’s view, it also makes perfect sense to integrate mobile display devices directly into the voice application. “Most classic voice applications take place in the warehouse – as a voice-only picking solution, some also supplemented by a scanner for extended data capture (serial numbers, batch numbers etc.),” he says. “Since LYDIA Voice does not require any speech template training and the dialogues can be freely designed, the potential goes way beyond the picking area or the distribution centre. In retail stores, for example, there are many different POS systems and processes that have to mesh smoothly. LYDIA Voice can provide support here as a smart assistant – by voice, but also with additional information that can be called up by employees via a display device as needed.

Staff can manage tasks and reminders, query product data (price, item number, availability), or control the store's internal systems (i.e. baking ovens or reverse vending machines). LYDIA Smart Assistant runs on a smart phone, smart watch or tablet. Visual information and multimodal input options can complement the speech interaction. Information can be accessed digitally so employees get support exactly when they need it. Staff is deployed to the right place at the right time. Systems and resources in the store are perfectly aligned to provide customers with a seamless shopping experience.” 

BEC has seen an increased uptake in the use of tablet PC’s to supplement the functionality provided by pure ‘voice’ systems. The time spent moving between different locations or areas of a large distribution centre can quickly add up to a lot of lost time, and a tablet PC can make sure the time spent between one destination and another can be utilised productively. Tablet PC’s provide a perfect complementary addition to voice systems and allow managers and supervisors to have direct real-time access to custom dashboards, productivity information, process monitors or system alerts.

Williams considers that the growth in demand for voice-enabled Android solutions is an illustration of how mobile computing and voice technology are converging. “The necessity of a multi-functional device – for example taking photos during an inspection – is vital in making workflows fast and efficient,” he says. “As an example, Honeywell Voice updates WMS and MRO systems in real time, allowing managers to track worker progress in real time, giving them the agility to move workers where they are needed the most.” 

Pintens explains that, with Priority, you have one solid system for everything – a strong and flexible ERP platform with WMS as an integral part. “Users can have access to data anywhere, anytime,” he says. “The system manager can decide which data he/she’s able to see, access, and edit via multi-level user rights.” Pintens adds that handheld devices in the warehouse should be very flexible, and with Priority you can put practically any device inside. “There are no limitations on devices – a mix of tablets, hand scanners, PDAs, mobile, and hands-free devices like smart glasses,” he points out. “You can easily walk around and don’t need a specific or fixed workstation. So, all of your employees work with the same app, with the same business logic, same workflow automation, and the data they can see and access will simply depend on their user rights and the size of their screen.” 

Carter stresses that mobility solutions are nothing new in the WMS world and have effectively been mainstream now for over 20 years. However, he points out that what is interesting is the way Android has become the market leader for mobile operating systems used within warehouse environments. “This makes it easier to write new complementary applications, providing additional features that have allowed them to become very sophisticated, multi-purpose devices,” he says. “They are able to very accurately track device locations, and can also offer health and safety tracking to ensure workers are safe e.g. software can alert managers if a field based or lone worker stops using their device potentially indicating a more serious issue.” 

Developments in data

Are developments in data capture and usage having an impact on the world of voice solutions?

Clark makes the point that 50% of distribution costs are linked to warehouse operations, and 50% of these relate to order picking. “Logistics, especially order picking, therefore offers the greatest potential for cost reduction,” he says. “In the age of Logistics 4.0, data is the capital for remaining competitive and getting the most out of the technologies used.” He adds that collected data needs to be visualied and evaluated with the aim of discovering not only errors but also optimisation potential. “Warehouse managers who efficiently control internal processes and therefore need to be informed at all times about the current status of the most important warehouse KPIs benefit from accurate and timely data,” says Clark. 

In Williams’ view, Big data – or data analysis systems – is what voice technology has been waiting for. He explains that Honeywell Voice updates the system in real-time, showing worker progress. “This allows managers to move workers to where they’re needed most, ensuring optimisation of warehouse operations. Honeywell Voice technology continues to focus on areas such as processor speed, operating system, ‘pick- up and go’ as well as trained speech recognition technology, and also built-in sensors for better data capturing. These features are designed for faster start-up times, more reliable performance and greater accuracy – directly impacting the day-to-day success of the mobile worker. Features such as heat mapping, congestion analysis and process analysis allow managers to see where improvements within the warehouse itself – for example, in the distribution of products. Process improvements together with voice technology enables greater productivity and better service to customers.” 

Pintens believes we will see more and more AI features that will help us improve the behaviour in the warehouse. For example: A big warehouse with many orders coming in and the systems need to learn from types of order, keeping in mind seasonal periods like Christmas and summer, and then recommend where to store the goods, while making sure they are easily accessible. “It’s a process of continuous learning to adapt the warehouse management and improve efficiencies,” he says. “We provide analytics data on people related to labour performances. We record how much time it takes to do any transaction in the warehouse. We have stats about employee x completing average number of picks per day, can do x number of lines per day and how much time it takes as an average. We can see many targets raised around this area for warehouse employees leading to a shift in how you measure performances in the warehouse.” 

Briggs comments that with the consolidation of multiple businesses into the single cloud instance, we now see Big Data analytics playing an influential role in improving supply chain management. “We can run Business Intelligence (BI) analytics across all the warehouses and manufacturing plants in one place, via the same management console,” he explains. “It addresses pain points at multiple levels; allowing decision-makers to monitor performance and make dynamic adjustments to processes.” 

Dobson maintains that Big Data presents supply chain and warehouse managers with an unprecedented opportunity to acquire real-time visibility of goods in transit and part of inventory. “Lots of new metric dashboards present the figures, but information overload is happening,” he says. “The future – especially coming out of lockdown – is all about exception management. The intelligence of the software will determine the priority of information. In the past, the picture has been historical in nature, but what we’re looking at now are highly accurate and granular reports around the likes of shipping schedules, warehouse heat maps, operator tracking and picking performance.

Collectively they provide a holistic overview of the operations inventory and resources and allow decision makers to create and display bespoke KPIs – but it can only be done in real time. This way the data can be minutely mined and managed, to control the little nuances that go on in a warehouse. Plus, making decisions based on solid data is essential with margins tighter than ever. This all translates into quick ROI and tangible improvements, because a technologically advanced WMS can help warehouse operators keep goods and processes flowing, while managing staff and resource allocation, through the targeted data it collects and delivers.” 

Carter highlights the importance of having access to real-time data and its ability to provide insights into all areas of the business. “Warehouse operations are very focused on the real-time nature of data in a WMS, e.g. having up to date stock figures and the ability to exchange data with parcel carriers and online web shops for inventory tracking and delivery notifications,” he says. 

The future

What might be the next innovations/developments to look out for in the world of Voice-directed systems over the next year or two?

Clark explains that voice technology represents an interface to digitalised logistics through which users can control all supply chain elements. “This is how a ‘smart’ logistics world is gradually established,” he says. “Users are able to retrieve all data via the voice technology interface. KPIs and statistics, for example, are quickly available. The potential for optimisation thus becomes immediately apparent and can be implemented efficiently. Pick by voice is a sustainable technology that actively supports process optimisation and digitalisation. Controlling the networked world of logistics by voice will be one of the communications channels of the future. Voice-assisted logistics solutions are a success story that is far from over. 

Clark adds that AI is set to play an even greater role in this field. “The technological potential of voice solutions in the logistics sector is far from being fully exploited,” he says. “Alongside the use of deep neural network technology, applications based on the use of artificial intelligence (AI) components are conceivable. The voice system would thus be capable of learning and only respond to the speaker it has been assigned to. When work begins, the solution would then automatically adopt personalised system settings. AI also offers a great deal of potential in terms of data evaluation and reporting. The evaluation of data is ultimately essential for ensuring the voice installation as a whole delivers consistently high performance. With the aid of AI, for example, company-specific thresholds can be monitored more effectively.” 

Briggs explains that BEC continues to expand its eSmart Voice solution expertise into new market verticals and leverages the benefits of voice-directed working both inside and outside the four walls and into less traditional business sectors. He adds that one particular area embracing voice is the Facilities & Plant Machinery Maintenance & Inspection sector, due to voice being ideally situated for harsh external environments, whilst providing the ability to streamline existing processes and improve documentation compliance.

In Krebs’ view, voice is here to stay, and is a key digital interface to support warehouse operations. “Although the technology has not scaled as predictably as initially expected, cost of adoption, ease of integration and ease of use barriers are being overcome,” he says, adding: “Although significant performance improvements for voice solutions for warehouse operations exist – especially around audio quality in noisy environments and low latency network performance, the leading value add will come from ease of integration and support. The technology remains too challenging to deploy, train users on and support for many organisations.”

Williams sees the application of technology as an opportunity to impact DC operations while supporting the day-to-day responsibilities of mobile workers and the tasks that they do best. “So, while we will continue to see innovations including a deeper and more seamless integration of technology throughout the DC, we will be focusing the application of that technology to complement the mobile workforce – for example, pairing robotics with voice technology to help eliminate travel time,” he says.

The ‘New Normal’ effect

Dobson comments that the ‘New Normal’ has sped up the digital shift in fulfilment, and, as workers grow more comfortable with advanced warehouse solutions, he believes it is becoming clear that automation and robotics are transforming the role of the warehouse worker, not supplanting it. “For us, though, it’s still a case of ‘machine helps man’ rather than ‘man versus machine’,” he says, “and in SnapCart (an extension of the SnapFulfil WMS) we’re finalising a robotic fulfilment cart that works side by side with manual carts and operates under a cellular picking model.

Pickers are serviced by an autonomous cart working on a pick-to-light system, which allows the carts to do the majority of aisle movement, reducing pickers’ daily walking distance significantly, from as much as 15 miles to 1 mile. Designed with multichannel in mind and to help e-commerce fulfilment centres streamline their high volume, small parts picking operations, it’s an area of increasing importance given the ongoing labour quantity and quality issues globally. It is non-disruptive too and allows retailers to incorporate AMRs into their fulfilment operations at their own pace.” 

Macpherson thinks the theme of robotics is going to be extended in the warehouse, and the ability for WMS solutions to integrate with these will increase. “I envision that this will be in the sense of ‘co-bots’ working in harmony with people and not replacing them completely,” he says. “The current global labour shortage will also have a dramatic effect on warehousing with anything that can make warehouses more efficient. And, with better planning and more engaged employees, robotics will gain traction very quickly.” 

Carter believes we can expect a lot more automation and more advanced use of technology during the movement of goods to people. “Overall, the end goal is to remove operators from the process to help lower costs and also to mitigate labour shortages,” he says. Adding: “WMS software still controls daily operations but is also becoming much more of an analytical tool to facilitate better decision mailing, faster reordering, and more efficient placement of stock. We can expect greater use of warehousing virtual simulation technology like digital twins so companies can explore outcomes before they make significant investments.”

Carter also makes the point that net zero warehousing is going to become more important and there will be a greater emphasis on WMS supporting users by helping them achieve net zero. “There are lots of ways a WMS can help to minimise wastage, improve asset and space utilisation, reduce energy consumption and eliminate any unnecessary stages in processes,” he says. “All this contributes to reducing carbon footprints.” Carter adds that more companies are taking the strategic decision to onshore their manufacturing due to overseas supply chain issues and increasing costs as a result of Brexit and COVID 19. “The UK already does a lot of manufacturing assembly, and this will expand further now with the arrival of freeports and special trade zones,” he says. “These companies will need a good WMS and so we expect the market to further grow in size.” 

Pintens reiterates that he expects to see more AI features that will help users to improve all behaviours within in the warehouse. He also anticipates a future of self-maintained warehouses, with full automation and robotics. Pintens adds that, in the UK, Priority Software is seeing a shift towards more local warehouse locations and domestic supply chain partners. “Companies are searching closer to home for materials and services, minimising the risk of supply chain disruptions in the future.”

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