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The performance of voice systems, designed to help in stock picking and loading in warehouses and on vehicles, has improved rapidly in recent years, resulting in more accurate recognition of what operators say.

Hands-free voice technology consisting of a microphone and a transmitter on an operator’s belt is now challenging handheld barcode scanners and data entry keypads as the most efficient way of logging what’s going on in warehouses and directing the activities of pickers and loaders.

‘The main trend in data capture is towards voice recognition technology in warehouses,’ confirms Allen Scott managing director of supply chain software firm Manhattan Associates UK. ‘It is a technology that is going to make a big impact over the next year or two.’

France’s Norauto, a car accessory retailer, reports an increase in productivity of 15 per cent after replacing radio frequency scanning with voice recognition systems at five distribution centres across Europe.

Productivity at Norauto has been boosted because there are fewer steps involved in capturing details of product locations and quantities. Operators do not have to walk to scanning points or put their guns down if they have to make a two-handed lift.

With one in one thousand pick errors, accuracy has improved, while Norauto also found that training for voice systems was much quicker. A matter of two hours compared with two weeks for staff operating radio frequency guns.

‘I am certain more and more customers will benefit from a pay back of a year or less,’ says Scott. Manhattan has installed Vocollect Talkman systems at a number of European sites. The system enables voice devices to link wirelessly through local networks and into Manhattan software.

Voice technology is currently available on Manhattan systems for picking, put away and replenishment and the company plans to add counting, consolidation and loading to its voice repertoire in the next release cycle.

The cold facts
Norauto is not alone in switching to voice. Primafrost is the cold storage logistics centre of Gruppo Lombardini, one of the largest retailers in Italy. The company’s frozen food warehouse extends over 10,000 sq m with a refrigerated volume of 70,000 cu m. Inside the store’s refrigerated areas, workers must handle stock in temperatures of -31° C.

The company used paper for stock control because Elisa Savoia, the managing director of Primafrost, wasn’t aware of any alternative that would work in such low temperatures. However, in September 2005, the company implemented Vocollect’s Voice-Directed
Distribution at its warehouse.

‘I followed my instinct, because I understood that this would allow the operators to work hands-free without burdens and improve productivity. It would also enable the non-Italian workers to communicate with the system in their native languages,’ says Savoia.

Paul Croft, general manager, Logistics, at United Coop is another logistics professional who is backing voice in his distribution centres. The UK convenience stores group has 500 outlets, the majority at under 300 sq m.

‘Hand held technology is starting to get a bit old hat,’ explains Croft. ‘We are moving from handhelds for loading to voice. Voice will come into its own more over the next two years.’

Although United Coop scans cages onto trucks and at the back door, the company has recently introduced a voice system from Retalix, again based on Talkman hardware, for picking and inventory. United Coop plans to extend the system to loading next year.

‘Our stores are my customers and I am interested in serving them and keeping them happy,’ says Croft. ‘Most operate with two or three ladies. I sit down and say this is the type of service they need; deliveries twice a week, three times a week, or, say, six times a week.

‘We are not Tesco: we don’t have dock levellers and our stores are down cobbled streets, they have restricted access, they may be next to a school. We add that up and look at the cost of delivery. We have to get that balance right.’

Voice and handheld technology are not necessarily mutually exclusive. There is an emerging trend towards putting voice software onto a hand held device rather than a dedicated hands-free and eyes-free voice terminal.

Voice on a hand-held
‘A voice-enabled hand-held device can add real benefits,’ says David Stanhope, managing director of voice technology firm VoiteQ. ‘For example, one task in the warehouse requires voice picking but for another a screen display is needed, or another task requires a built-in scanner.

‘But voice on a hand-held was never originally intended to be used for high volume, high density picking in a warehouse environment,’ he warns, ‘and in many instances deploying a one-size fits all hand-held RF solution will deliver substandard voice performance with poor accuracy and recognition of voice and slow speed of response.’

In contrast to voice, the more ambitious RFID technology is finding the going slow. After several years of development and a number of high-profile retailer-led initiatives, the technology has yet to come into widespread use. Tesco, the UK supermarket chain, has recently said it would not be extending its RFID pilot, again raising questions about RFID’s future.

Cost is one objection, but technology glitches, lack of standards and the need to develop supporting infrastructures have all helped to damp down enthusiasm. ‘What we see is a bit of a slowdown – not so much hype as there was,’ acknowledges Clive Fearn, supply chain marketing manager at Zebra Technologies.

‘The general consensus among companies is that while the technology doesn’t do a 100 per cent read then why should I move to it,’ says Scott of Manhattan. ‘The Gen 2 standard should help improve things, but cost is also a prohibitor in the minds of logistics managers. I really wish the technology would take off – we have made a big investment in it – but it’s more like a 2010-type technology.’

Typical of the cautious approach to RFID is a project Zebra is involved in at an 80,000 sq m Sony distribution centre at Tilburg in the Netherlands. There the electronics firm has tagged two of its high value TV lines, representing 20 pallets per day, in a trial of RFID’s potential to reduce stock shrinkage. The pilot project involves goods going by truck to a logistics centre run by Burkhardt in Cologne.

The pilot involves reading tags as product goes on and off trucks and generating advance shipping notices (ASNs). ‘You’ve got to be absolutely serious about what you want from a project before you go any further. Sony wanted hands on knowledge,’ explains Fearn.

Sony certainly had to attend to fundamental aspects of the technology, such as the read range and the positioning of readers on docks so that they did not pick up signals from adjacent dock levellers. The company also had to contend with tag failures and develop processes that could cope with both RFID tags and bar coding on the same cases. ‘You mustn’t forget about the actual warehouseman on the floor,’ warns Fearn.

The Netherlands is fast becoming Europe’s main centre for RFID applications. Earlier this year book retailer Boekhandels Groep Nederland (BGN) opened the world’s first, fully-automated, item-level RFID tagged store at Almere. Next month BGN will introduce tagging in a second store in Maastricht.

Unlike early generation RFID solutions that tag at the pallet or case-level, BGN is using item-level RFID to track the movement of individual books. This provides BGN with real-time visibility into both its store inventory and the overall supply chain.

The bookseller is deploying technology from four Progress product lines: Progress OpenEdge as the platform for all transactions processed by the stores, Apama ESP for processing the RFID data, Sonic ESB as the integration backbone for the store automation applications, and Progress EasyAsk for natural language access to the application by end users.

‘Our new system implements a process that is now completely automatic and real-time, reducing both the cost and time burden on our finance department associated with reconciliation,’ says Matthijs van der Lely, chief executive officer of BGN.

With the new automated process, orders for books are sent to the Centraal Bookhuis order system directly from BGN’s system. After applying RFID tags, the books are packaged and shipped to the store; an ASN is then generated that lists each book in the shipment and the box in which it is contained.

On arrival at the store, the shipping boxes pass through an RFID-tunnel that compares the shipment with the ASN, noting any discrepancies and allowing employees to immediately reconcile them. According to Brian Hume, president of retail consultancy Martec International, there are typically about 30 per cent of orders that require reconciliation due to pricing or incorrect quantities.

In Europe, companies have been playing a game of catch up with their American counterparts, especially in standardising the radio frequencies to be used by RFID applications. ‘Europe is making solid progress,’ opines Doug Clark, who leads the Sensors and Actuators Solutions, Emerging Business Opportunity for IBM.

‘Where we are seeing enormous traction is in multiple stock keeping units where devises can be reused on beer kegs, roll cages, totes, breadbaskets and high value assets. We’ve never had a scenario where we couldn’t justify a business case because of the tag price.’

Legislation, public safety and anticounterfeiting measures are as likely to drive RFID adoption as supply chain efficiency says Andrew Osborne, chief technology officer of standards body GS1 UK. ‘What’s driving RFID is track and trace and a company’s desire to preserve its reputation,’ he points out.

‘A lot of projects are still in their early stages,’adds Clark. ‘We’ve moved on from proving technology. Two years ago that was the theme. Now we are talking about integrated type testing within a closed loop and we are starting to see more joined up projects.’

The most widely talked about item-level application is in pharmaceutical products. In 2004, the US Federal Drug Administration said it saw RFID as an important technology to address counterfeit and diverted pharmaceutical products.

Purdue Pharmaceutical maintains a 100 per cent tagging on its painkiller OxyContin to fight counterfeiting. Pfizer announced that it is now applying RFID tags to all bottles of Viagra sold in the United States. Other pharmaceutical manufacturers, such as TAP Pharmaceutical, are evaluating RFID on production items.

‘Patient safety is the driving force behind pharmaceutical item-level tagging,’ says Joseph Pearson of TI RFID Systems. ‘Product information on the tag would permit supply chain efficiencies and help fund the cost of the infrastructure.’

There is a lot more interest in RFID upstream in the supply chain when previously most of the interest was among retailers, according to Osborne. ‘Many manufacturers, such as Nestle which is involving its suppliers of raw materials and packaging, are pushing standards back up the supply chain,’ he says.

To ram the message home, GS1 is running a three year EU initiative involving promoting pilots, deployment and developing training materials in the use of RFID in a variety of business sectors. The ?7.5m Building Radio Frequency Identification Solutions for the Global Environment (BRIDGE) project brings together a consortium of 31 global organisations.

Although much of the initial interest in RFID focused on chips and readers, early adopters are now turning their attention to the much bigger question of how to handle the huge volume of data that RFID tracking can generate and above all how to integrate that data with existing systems.

‘There have been lots of recent developments into capturing data using RFID, but many companies still aren’t using this data wisely, leaving it to collect in silos which can’t be accessed by the people who could benefit from the information,’ says Eelco de Jong, RFID domain lead at LogicaCMG.

‘To ensure comprehensive business benefits are reaped from the implementation of an RFID system, it’s vital that the information is used correctly and integrated into existing business systems. This real time information has the potential to increase overall business efficiency and speed up decision making.’

Unilever, the Dutch consumer products group, has recently begun testing standards designed to allow RFID data to be moved more readily between corporate systems than has been the case up to now. Together with IBM and T3Ci, Unilever in the US has begun trailing the EPCIS standard to query RFID data provided by retailers.

While retailers today can provide manufacturers with large amounts of data about RFID-tagged products, until now there has been no simple and standardised way for manufacturers to sort through the volumes of raw data and perform queries to use it to improve product introductions, promotions and distribution of new products.

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