Inside Logistics

A bigger say

The use of voice technology has extended beyond picking


June 20, 2011
by Michael Power

MM&D MAGAZINE, MAY/JUNE 2011:

Voice technology has been good to Staples.

The company uses voice for picking in its distribution centres across Canada, including locations in Mississauga, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Vancouver, Dartmouth and Luceville, Quebec, near Montreal. Staples has seen a 10- to 15-percent improvement in productivity after voice technology was put in place, says Rod Gallaway, Staples’s vice-president of global logistics, design, strategy and projects.

“We’ll see a decrease in picking errors of about the same amount on an overall percentage,” Gallaway says, noting the company has used voice technology for about 10 years. “Inventory accuracy at your pick location is higher as well. It’s very reliable, robust technology. We don’t have a bunch of downtime or failures; it just runs, and it runs well.”

Voice in distribution centres—traditionally for picking functions—is seeing use in other areas. Currently, while Staples uses the technology exclusively for picking, Gallaway says the company is looking into deploying it in other areas of its DCs as well.

For example, the company is investigating using voice for truck loading, he notes. When a package is scanned, the technology tells the loader where to put it, allowing him or her to work hands-free.

As well, Gallaway says, Staples is investigating the use of voice for cycle counting. Currently, workers randomly count different locations several times a year within a centre to ensure inventory is accurate—a process the company now performs using paper. Staples is looking at using voice technology for the process—the worker would go to a location within the DC, scan and count inventory, then use voice to report the information to the system.

The voice would direct the worker to the location, where it would tell him or her whether it was the right place, as well as what inventory—and how much—to count. Currently, Staples is looking at whether the technology is feasible.

“It creates less paper in the supply chain,” says Gallaway of the technology’s advantages. “It’s more accurate than paper picking. It’s very economical and cost effective to put it in. The learning curve is two to three weeks; a person that’s learning it for the first time can function very well in it.”

As with Staples, voice has historically been used in picking and selection, says Tom Murray, vice-president of product management and marketing at Vocollect, Inc. Vocollect did a study last year involving DCs greater than 50,000sqft with a warehouse management system (WMS). Roughly 10 percent of those are using voice, he notes, with the majority being for picking or selection. But that’s changing, he adds.

“Voice, over the past eight years or so, has gone beyond picking,” he says. “What we’re seeing now is some warehouse management systems (WMS) that are accelerating the deployment of voice beyond picking by adding it into their workflows from the very beginning. The anticipation is that’s a trend we’ll see from more WMS is that they’re deploying voice into multiple workflows.”

Other DC applications for voice include put-away and replenishment, he says—as a warehouse’s picking efficiency increases, so does the need for on-time replenishment.

“Customers are saying, well, if voice could do A, B and C for us in picking, is there any reason why it couldn’t do something similar for us in the replenishment workflow?” he says. “They start looking at deploying voice on vehicles. Once you’ve got it on a vehicle you’ve got it for replenishment, put-away and potentially loading.”

Voice-directed work in other areas of a DC eliminates or reduces scanning and keyboard use, Murray says. Using voice increases safety, since drivers don’t need to interact with screens or scanners and can focus on driving.

Another voice trend, Murray notes, is the support for multiple applications within a single voice process. Voice software must be smart enough to know when a worker has stopped talking to the WMS and begins talking to the CRM system. From there, it must be able to switch back to the WMS system where the worker dropped off, Murray says.

“It’s what we call multi-application workflows—workflows where you’re talking to multiple enterprise applications concurrently,” he notes.

A fourth voice trend involves real-time interrupts and updates, meaning the WMS’s ability to update a work order in real time, Murray says. For example, a worker may be halfway through picking an order when it becomes necessary—in real time—to change the quantities of the order.

“The real-time updates come from the WMS, where somebody in purchasing has said, for example, the pharmacy that’s asked us to fill out this order actually needs an extra box or two of penicillin; can you change the quantity of that immediately and have it impact the order that’s going out today?” Murray says.

“[That] would give them the new quantities as they’re going through, as opposed to having to create a new order, go back and re-pick the order and so on.”