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Duncan Smillie, managing director of the mobile computing company Psion Teklogix, believes that the shift towards a greater use of voice technology is probably one of the most significant events in the logistics industry at the moment.

Clearly the faster and more accurately one can capture data during order picking operations, the better. Many companies have now introduced voice recognition as a way of doing just that by freeing the hands of warehouse staff through the means of hearing instructions via a headset and speaking their responses through a microphone. The technology has developed over the last decade into a very reliable solution.

“The major benefits of voice surround the return on investment which comes through significant increases in operator efficiency and accuracy,” he says.

“Voice technology allows warehouse staff to have a terminal on a belt linked to a headset which directs the wearer around the distribution centre and tells them which locations to pick from, the right quantities to pick, etc. Enabling order pickers to have their eyes and hands free during their daily routine has a dramatic impact on their productivity levels as well as significant health and safety benefits.”

Smillie adds: “Voice technology is not only beneficial in an order picking scenario although this is where most productivity gains are made. The system can also be applied to achieve significant efficiencies throughout the entire supply chain operation – from goods-in to put away, replenishment and even dispatch. In fact, one of our clients runs their entire operation on voice technology and the gains they have made have been phenomenal.”

Simon Tomlinson of The Logistics Business agrees that voice can bring real benefits but he points out that the principle benefit comes from the fact that the picker has both hands free.

“Voice is virtually the only technology that allows hands free operation,” he says, pointing out that someone using a RF barcode scanner has to carry around quite a large lump of plastic that inevitably hinders things.

However, that is not the whole story. There is a limit to how far voice can improve productivity – at 300-400 picks an hour the benefits start to tail off, he says, because you are reaching the limit of how fast people can speak.

Systems can be set up to handle 500- 600 picks an hour but pick-by-light is probably a better solution for that, he says.

But Tomlinson reckons that all too often companies are looking to the technology to solve their problems when they should really be focusing on getting the basics of the operation right.

“There is still no substitute for basic good management of the site with a razor sharp focus on detail, organisation and layout.”

There are companies getting pick rates of 400 cases an hour using largely manual systems because they have got the organisational management right, he says.

And he warns that bringing in a high-tech solution in the hope that it can solve all the operational problems can find some unexpected results. It is possible to have too much technology and it can get in the way and reduce productivity.

Voice technology can help improve accuracy because it includes a checking process but again, Tomlinson points out, accuracy can be improved in other ways. And if accuracy is the most critical issue, then a barcode scanner is probably the way go. Combined voice and barcode scanning has been mooted but this inevitably means that the benefits of hands-free operation are lost.

The decision to automate some or all of the picking and packing process can liberate your warehouse from the inaccuracy and expense of a manual system, says Bill Hubacek, director of distribution technologies at FKI Logistex North America.

“The first place to start in evaluating your warehouse for picking or packing automation is to obtain an accurate, current picture of your order profiles and volumes. Automating an operation based on inaccurate data is a recipe for disaster. At the same time, be sure to investigate alternative techniques. Should you pick to order or cluster-pick to multiple orders?”

After this step, he says, the logical process is to evaluate the warehouse layout itself. Is it conducive to the intended order-picking technique and, if so, is it optimal for high-productivity material handling? For an expert opinion on this question, it is probably best to turn to a material handling consultant or systems integrator.

A material handling engineer or specialist will analyse the “slotting,” or where the product is stored, how it’s stored, and its volumes and speeds to gather information on how well the warehouse is laid out. This process normally begins with an ABC analysis, which will determine the items that move the fastest (As), those that are intermediate movers (Bs), and items that are the slowest (Cs).

“Once an expert performs these analyses, your warehouse may require a reconfiguration to optimise product storage prior to picking and, ultimately, to packing. You may also need to rearrange your storage infrastructure, including racking and shelving. The process of reconfiguring your locations is commonly called re-slotting, says Hubacek. “Before reconfiguring an existing layout or equipment, you should begin to consider what role, if any, you want automation to play. Entirely manual picking and packing might require one layout or storage arrangement, but either partially or fully-automated systems would likely require a different arrangement.”

A material handling expert can offer advice when it comes to making these decisions, he says. Do you need conveyors? Is light- or voice-directed picking or putting needed? Is a sophisticated warehouse management or control system in order? A site analysis and risk assessment could help determine whether productivity and accuracy would significantly improve to the extent that automated picking or packing provides a return on your investment. On the other hand, it is possible that the warehouse can benefit enough from a layout and slotting reconfiguration. In this situation, automation technology might not be advantageous.

The first step in the transition from a completely manual system to an automated one involves moving to radio frequency-based (RF) wireless data technology supported by RF mobile computers and hand-scanners. However, says Hubacek, even though RF-based picking and packing will dramatically improve accuracy, RF systems bring a learning curve for workers that have to operate the equipment, and may require extra training when compared to paper systems.

“The results of the ABC analysis will assist in evaluating which technology, if any, suits your warehouse. Depending on the order volume, medium and fast-moving items could be candidates for a “pick-to-light” implementation, and possibly “put-to-light” for replenishment of picked items.”

Voice-directed picking is another option, says Hubacek, particularly where RF-based mobile picking hardware is already in place. With voice-directed systems, computer-generated voice commands give pickers their instructions. Voice-picking is particularly suited for slow-moving items and for facilities where longer walks between picking areas are required.

“Voice devices can also complement light-based systems. Light- and voice-automated systems free pickers from having to carry around their paper pick instructions, and can dramatically improve accuracy and productivity because of how they optimise workflow.

“These types of automation technologies require the underlying software to support them, which might mean upgrading the software. Today’s warehouse-specific systems are built to manage picking and packing as well as to optimise system throughput through order and wave planning. Basic order fulfilment software that is required to use automation may provide additional productivity and functionality,” says Hubacek.

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