Making voice heard

LinkedIn +

Voice Picking is fast becoming the most efficient method of order picking in the warehouse, however the technology has come under fire from claims it has an alleged ‘dehumanising effect’ on employees. Despite pressure from the unions, it is making business sense to many. James Falkner looks at why it’s still good to talk.

In the UK, France and Germany, companies have seen the benefits of voice in the most labour intensive areas of warehouse operations and are now beginning to look at using it in other areas such as; pick by line, cross-docking, multi-order picking, replenishment, split order, cycle counting and inventory counts.

Greg Tanner, managing director of Vocollect Europe, believes this is going to become more and more prevalent in the near future. In general, voice has now gone beyond the point of being just another new technology to being one that companies are seriously thinking about adopting.

“The technology has become very well accepted. Once people get used to working with voice, it becomes the technology that they really value and like to use.”

Gareth Giles-Knopp, Voxware’s London-based director of business development for Europe the Middle East and Africa (EMEA), says the company is seeking to simplify the technology and drive voice forwards using multi-featured handsets able to involve voice, scanning, and touch screen options. He agrees with Tanner, that voice technology is being used more and more in other areas of warehouse operations, expanding on how voice has traditionally been used in the past.

It used to be a technology that was used in the fast-moving consumer goods market (FMCG), but has now moved away from proprietary hardware and to open solutions and expanded to automotive, agriculture and consumer packaged goods industries.

Bibby Distribution has been working with Nisa Today’s to implement voice across its operations and has been able to achieve a 99.9 per cent pick accuracy.

Bibby operations director Alan Paterson says: “Voice has applications, but not in every circumstance.”

In a block-stack pallet warehouse, voice would add little value, however in operations such as FMCG, voice could add considerable benefits.

“Voice picking is very acceptable to the employees. It’s a very natural way to work whereas conventional systems rely almost entirely on someone’s eyes.”

Bibby experienced a number of benefits, some of them unexpected. “There are a lot of benefits that we had not anticipated at the outset. We thought we’d get an improvement in pick performance and accuracy. We got both but the biggest payback was in terms of accuracy.”

“Customer service level was pretty high but improved to 99.9 accuracy. I’ve never worked in a paper environment where you could achieve that.”

With the development of RFID paralleling that of voice technology, it would be easy to see the two as competitive. However, Tanner says it is important not to confuse the capabilities of the two technologies. “Voice is about moving goods. RFID is more akin to barcoding in that its about identification and tracking of goods. They are not technologies that you can particularly compare. Eventually the technology may get to the point where its viable to move into a warehouse for use at the pick face.”

But that assumes you can overcome all the reading challenges at the pick face such as reading through liquids and metals, which can block signals. If that’s done, RFID could complement voice with a built-in RFID reader within the mobile computer, so that as each item is picked, the reader recognises each item and you effectively get a talking tag. It could confirm that all the required products have been picked or it could confirm with an employee that they have not yet picked enough boxes, he says.

“Voice doesn’t really have another technology that it competes with as such…It replaces paper systems that are notoriously inaccurate, it replaces scanning which is notoriously bad for both productivity and although improves accuracy above paper, it’s not as good as a technology that allows you to keep your hands and eyes on what you’re doing.”

Higher plane

Tanner reckons that the Holy Grail of 100 per cent accuracy might be achieved in the future with RFID and voice working together, but if 99.9 per cent is possible with voice, he says, does the investment in further technology at the pick face make business sense?

Tanner says a good application for the talking tag idea is at the back door of retail stores. If an employee is receiving goods and is taking a product off the lorry and then scanning the RFID tag, he or she could be immediately informed where that item was needed. If the shelf was empty it could be taken right to where it was needed.

Giles-Knopp says: “100 per cent is the nirvana for any solution.” However he says “99.9 is practical and reasonable.” Paterson says accuracy was unlikely to go this high. He says Bibby’s results “was 99.9 on 60 million cases a year dispatched. It’s difficult to see it going much further than that.”

There have previously been concerns raised over voice, that it “dehumanises” employees. Tanner says: “I really have a big issue with this ‘dehumanising’ thing. What could be more natural in the delivery of technology than having someone speak to you.”

“The publicity that has been generated has not focused that much on voice but on wearable bar code scanners and things like that.” He says it really depends on how end-users implement the technology in the workplace.

“The GMB have latched on to a number of things where technology has been introduced. Everything from warehouse applications through to call centres. People in sweatshop cubicle farms doing call centre applications and being timed down to the millisecond on how long they deal with an insurance claim.”

He says: “If you’re warehouse picking, you’ve got a load to assemble, your job is to complete that load. If there’s a hundred items on it, that’s what you’ve got to go and pick. But it’s not controlling you, you’re controlling the system yourself.”

“It’ll help organise your time, the most effective way it can, but you are still in control. It’s aiding the workers do their jobs better, it’s not controlling them.”

Tanner says: “Work study is nothing new. The days of the man with the clipboard and stopwatch have been here for decades and decades. Technology provides a quicker way of gathering data and perhaps analysing it.”

David Stanhope, chief executive officer of VoiteQ, says: “Email was created to be a cheap, quick and highly usable mode of communication and it has revolutionised the way that business and life are conducted in much of the world. Yet as a by-product every email you send leaves an indelible record stating where you were, what you were doing and who you were communicating with at any one particular moment in time.

“Such is the paranoia within industry, standard business practice has now become such that emails must be kept and stored so that in a court of law they are “submitable” as evidence. Yet no-one questions the use of email under the guise that it is a tool for management to watch and monitor the user. Not every technological advance is driven by the desire to push the worker harder and restrict his liberty. Just because the technology has the ability to monitor the actions of a worker doesn’t mean that is its primary purpose.

“In a voice enabled warehouse, the management cannot tell where a picker is at any one time, only where they were when the last pick was conducted. The reality is that workers have been clocking on and off for years, while a variety of measures (often inaccurate) of productivity have traditionally been used for bonuses. Pickers generally prefer using voice, training time for new recruits is cut from days to hours – workers can be picking at full speed in no time at all.

“Typically accuracy of picking in voice enabled warehouses is 99.99 per cent and this cost saving and efficiency is frequently reflected in workers pay packets. Many employers share the benefits of improved productivity and accuracy with their workers and voice allows more pickers to hit their bonus targets, and the ease of use of the system means this can occur from day one.”

Giles-Knopp says questions were being asked about the technology but the negative press really was about how it was being implemented by end-users. He says it was down to: “the way in which a solution is implemented and sold to the workforce that is using it.”

Paterson says the feedback from employees using the technology had been very positive. And that the control they had over the system was not in question. “You can go at the pace you want to go and have control on how you receive the information. You can talk to a lady, you can talk to a bloke, you can even have it talking to you like Mickey Mouse. You can run at something like a 1,000 kilobytes per second or have it talking to you like someone who’s half dead.”

What’s the difference between the voice technology used at the pick face in the warehouse and the voice recognition used in call centres?

Greg Tanner says that the two types of voice recognition are speaker dependent and speaker independent. Call centres tend to use speaker independent voice recognition where as in the warehouse, he says dependent works much better. He says that speaker independent recognisers are very tolerant to a wide range of accents and dialects but can take a great deal of processing power.”

Tanner says Vocollect only uses speaker dependent. A system that recognises an individual’s voice template and is sensitive to the worker’s individual and variable speech pattern. He says an advantage of dependent is that it can be run from a mobile terminal.

He says the advantage of the dependent system is that it can recognise any speech as a response. In a multi-national or multi-lingual workforce, the system would be able to recognise many different languages.

Paterson sees lots of potential for voice in the future. “It’ll go into DIY, it’ll go into apparel, it’ll go into books and magazines because all of these things are relatively intense picking and need significant levels of accuracy.”


Case study

Savoye kits-out has consolidate its operation and re-located to a 280,000 sq ft logistics and office centre in Howden, East Yorkshire,

Savoye was asked to provide a turnkey solution, designing and supplying the total storage and order fulfilment system hardware and software. The Howden facility houses Pallet Racking for large bulky items, CLS (Carton Live Storage) with PBL for the general product range, Static Shelving for the slow moving items and the Commissioner ASRS (Automated Storage & Retrieval System) for high value products. All items are picked using PBL (Pick by Light) or RF Devices into totes that are automatically routed into the sortation, packing and despatch areas. The whole process is managed and controlled by Savoye’s Warehouse Management System LM7.

A key feature of the whole system is the fact that the totes are effectively stored on the conveyor and controlled by the LM7 software which can be launched from anywhere in the system. As such the management software will choose the tote nearest the first item to be picked for the next order and as soon as the order is fulfiled and the tote is emptied it will be introduced back onto the conveyor awaiting allocation for its next order. A major benefit of this is that there is no delay at the start up in the morning with orders picked, packed and ready for dispatch within a few minutes of switching on the system.

The system was commissioned in June and is currently ramping up processing around a 1,000 orders an hour well below its’ total capacity. In order to meet Ebuyer’s growth targets over the coming years the system has been designed by Savoye to handle 2,000 orders an hour.


Psion Teklogix adds voice technology to Workabout

Psion Teklogix and Vocollect have introduced the Workabout Pro Speech, a multi-functional hand-held terminal.

The Workabout Pro Speech is the latest product released under the VIP (Voice Integrated Platform), which integrates voice technologies such as Speech-Recognition, VoIP, Push-to-Talk and Cellular Voice. Duncan Smillie, managing director of Psion Teklogix, said the company had seen a demand for a multi-modal device that could be used for both voice picking and for reading barcodes and RFID tags.

The Workabout has been designed to be robust and easy to use. it is fitted with the standard Vocollect headset. The Workabout is cheaper than the standard Vocollect T5 but is not intended for intensive voice picking applications. Smillie expects the market for the product to grow to several thousand units within a couple of years.

Share this story: