Picking is still the largest area of investment within a warehouse so firms are looking for systems which produce “zero errors and save on productivity”, according to Duncan Smillie, managing director, UK and Ireland, of Psion Teklogix. The company is a global provider of solutions for mobile computing, wireless data collection and RFID. “Picking is where the business sees real benefits in technology and to make a picking error results in a disappointed customer,” says Smillie. “Therefore errors are not an option.”
Smillie claims that voice technology is probably “one of the most impressive returns on investments (ROIs) I can ever remember in our industry”. But changes will come gradually as not everybody in the industry is ready for such a technological switch at the moment, according to Smillie. “We still very much see a role for scanning and keyboard entry in many picking applications – checking digits and product verification are still the norm in picking for many of our customers and even after looking at other options, such us voice, they still feel that the need to scan and/or enter data is required.”
Earlier this year Psion Teklogix supplied 3663 First for Foodservice with its TekSpeech solution. The logistics division of 3663 First for Foodservice distributes products for customers such as Burger King and Pret a Manger. The company previously used a paper and batch driven system to handle a massive 200 million stock transactions and 37 million cases per year across its warehouse operations. And with the additions of Pizza Hut and KFC as customers this caseload was expected to soar to more than 50 million.
According to Psion Teklogix, the results were an increase in accuracy and productivity, shorter training time of the worker, increased worker safety and real-time information.
David Stanhope, chief executive officer at voice reseller VoiteQ, believes that there are a “hell of a lot” of companies using paper-based order picking systems. The company says that accuracy and productivity can both be improved through the move from a paper system to both voice-recognition systems and RF hand-held devices.
“In terms of productivity, voice comes into its own,” says Stanhope. “With RF hand-held devices, staff have to pick it up, press a button then put it down. Having just a headset means that your eyes and hands are free so you can focus more, you are more aware of your surroundings. This also reduces the likelihood of accidents taking place in a warehouse.” Another advantage that voice has over hand-held units is in terms of design and strength – RF hand-held devices can get kicked and knocked and need replacing while VoiteQ’s Talkman product is “extremely robust”, says Stanhope.
Increased pick levels
In terms of return on investment Stanhope points to one of its customers, United Co-op, which has openly used its own figures to reveal a surprising 13-week ROI.
Last year VoiteQ completed a roll-out of the Vocollect Talkman T2T voice-directed distribution system in WH Smith Travel’s Halford warehouse. The voice system integrated with WH Smith’s existing Dataware WMS via VoiteQ’s VoiceMan software solution. The belt-worn voice system, which replaces previous paper lists, allows order pickers to receive instructions via their headsets, confirming picks as they go by reading back the last three digits of the product EAN code to ensure accuracy.
The Talkman system can understand users’ commands, regardless of accent or inflection. A series of words was pre-agreed with WH Smith and users then recorded a template of them before starting to work with the voice system. While only a handful of standard commands, such as ‘ready’ and ‘location’, cover 95% of the required functions for picking, the flexibility of the system allows for additional words to be recorded.
A voice-based method of picking eliminates the need to return to base to collect a new list between jobs; a simple ‘new job’ command being sufficient to load a new order. And if a picker arrives at an empty location, the ‘short’ command advises the system that the shelves need to be replenished. This information is picked up by the warehouse management system (WMS) and passed to the replenishment team. Accuracy has also improved for WH Smith Travel. If a user provides an incorrect barcode the system will not progress until the correct code is given. It also asks for quantity verification, to ensure the correct amount has been collected. During the first month of operation at WH Smith, estimated daily pick levels rose from 561 to 701. Safety is another area where voice scores highly as users do not need to constantly look down at a screen. “With forklifts and employees moving around together, it’s crucial to stay focused,” says site manager Jim McCafferty.
Greg Tanner, managing director of Vocollect Europe, says that moving from a paper-based system to a RF network for barcode scanning enables companies to be more accurate in terms of short picks, over picks or missed picks. However, in some cases productivity can fall. But by using a voice system over barcode scanning both accuracy and productivity can rise, claims Tanner. Vocollect says voice can boost productivity from 15% to 35% while Proteus reports more modest productivity gains of up to 10%, when compared with barcode scanning using hand-held terminals.
Grocery wholesaler James Hall & Co (Southport) can certainly vouch for accuracy improvements. It found that when it introduced a BCP Accord voice picking solution, operating with Vocollect Talkman T2 terminals, picking errors fell by 90% to 0.01%. The company hoped to see a ROI of between 12 to 18 months with the majority of the payback being generated by reductions in the cost of picking errors – fewer financial claims, lower return handling costs and improved wholesale and retail stock accuracy.
Another advantage with voice is that teaching the system is simple and does not depend on reading screens and lists. So it could be useful if companies employ a multi-national workforce where staff may not have English as a first language. “The other positive thing is that voice is so easy to use that it can reduce staff churn and allows companies to take on short-term and seasonal workers which is useful at peak times,” adds Tanner. “With a paper-based system training can take weeks.”
Proteus also points out that speech picking is suited to extreme environments, for example cold stores, where it is difficult to use conventional keyboard entry, and for heavy items where both hands are required for picking, or where it is necessary to capture catch weights. Speech is also ideal for situations that are labour intensive, where tasks are repeated at high frequency or where margins are low.
Meanwhile ATMS is embracing all types of technology to help customers maintain an edge in today’s warehousing environment – that includes voice. Stephen Cross, managing director of ATMS, says: “We need to offer the customer a range of technologies to enable them to have competitive advantage in their chosen fields, speech recognition is now part of that reality.” ATMS has speech integration as part of its WMS offering of StockTrack PLUS.
So what does the future hold in terms of RFID and voice-recognition technology in warehouse operations? Tanner believes that while RFID technology presents some opportunities for the logistics industry, we are still a long way from seeing full RFID applications in the warehouse _ certainly until some of the technical barriers are overcome and until the cost drops to a reasonable level.
“Using RFID at the front end of a retail store to read customers’ products is a relatively easy thing to do but I think we have several years to go before we see it fully in a distribution centre,” says Tanner.
Damian Penney, sales and marketing director of LXE, believes we are moving towards a time when one single unit can “do everything” in terms of voice recognition, scanning and RFID. “We need to be able to mix and match and I think there will be a convergence of all these types of technology,” says Penney. At the moment mistakes can occur if somebody is told to pick five cases but only picks four. But, says Penney, things are developing to a point where this can be checked and a voice will say: ‘You’ve only picked four, you haven’t finished – go back and get another!’