Written by Richard Adams
Today’s manufacturing teams are under mounting pressure for ever-quicker returns from their IT investments which has, in turn, contributed to a growing preference for voice-directed work systems that bring fast and quantifiable return on investment - as well as having the inbuilt flexibility to cope with change.
In the past, voice-directed working was applied almost exclusively to order picking processes. As adoption of the technology has increased, it has been applied to additional warehouse processes such as goods receiving, put-away, replenishment and dispatch with excellent results.
Voice-directed picking brings multiple advantages, not least in industries which are subject to a higher degree of change and unpredictability. In particular, voice makes it easier for fast-moving warehouses to adapt to change, add new warehouse capacity and adjust working patterns quickly.
Manufacturers of high-value, low-volume goods, or distributors of products where mis-picks can seriously impact customer service, often cite the increased accuracy that voice-directed picking brings as being a major advantage. At the same time, for producers and distributors of high-volume, low-value goods searching for capacity, throughput and lower per unit costs, the biggest benefits have been seen in speed and efficiency gains.
The ‘hands-free, eyes-free,’ aspect of voice has been shown to be of high value both as part of the goods-in process and in dealing with more complex workflows such as piece picking. Companies deploying Vocollect’s system typically report productivity improvements of 10-25 percent and reductions in errors of up to 80. These business performance improvements typically deliver an investment payback of less than 18 months and often as low as 6-9 months, compared to hand-held or vehicle mounted computers and bar code scanners.
Voice technology is also helping modern warehouses to increase velocity and satisfy the requirements of changing retail models. Online retail in particular has created new expectations for rapid turnaround times between order and delivery, while at the same time having no tolerance for inaccurate selection. Moreover it has accelerated the need for immediate, real-time information from the warehouse, requiring picking methodologies to be connected to the Warehouse Management System (WMS) and to provide automated updates to stock levels and by-the-minute reports for each order.
As retail supply chains ramp up their operations to cope with increased velocity, voice technology brings a distinct advantage by providing real-time information to the warehouse management system whilst simultaneously giving the warehouse operative an ergonomic and intuitive device with which to talk to the WMS.
The luxury department store Liberty London implemented Vocollect voice technology in its Clipper Logistics warehouse operations in conjunction with Vocollect partner VoiteQ to improve the turnaround time of goods coming in to the warehouse and arriving at the store. Voice technology has now enabled Clipper not only to improve productivity and accuracy within the operation, but also provided greater visibility of activities and stock. This visibility means Clipper now provides real-time feedback to Liberty and, crucially, Liberty can now take advantage of this knowledge in its merchandising.
Another common pain point for the retail supply chain is fluctuation in labour demand and the need for reduced training times, especially for seasonal workforces. Here too, voice technology can bring down costs, as training time for new and seasonal workers is greatly reduced with voice technology. Coping with seasonal demand is far less of a logistical burden - as well as less costly, because voice is intuitive to use and errors are far more difficult to make. Workers can be up and running quickly and reaching acceptable productivity more rapidly than with other methods.
For example, one of the leading book distributors in the UK, Littlehampton Book Services (LBS), implemented VoiteQ’s VoiceMan middleware and Vocollect’s wearable voice computers to replace paper-based picking. The flexibility of the resulting solution has made it much easier to train the 20 additional part-time operators employed during peak trading (approx. 4 months), with the ease of use of voice enabling the additional staff to be trained and productive very quickly.
To maximise the potential offered by voice technology, the recommended approach is to make voice the starting point, rather than the exception, and explore its use in every workflow. Hand-held and vehicle mounted computers, scanners and paper processes will likely find a place in a voice-centric distribution centre, and should be considered once the validity of a voice approach has been assessed.
Once the double-digit gains in productivity and accuracy in picking are realised, many warehouses and distribution centres quickly transition to voice in other workflows to take advantage of their now hands-free, eyes-free workers. Productivity, accuracy, a lowering of overall costs: it’s all part of the daily challenge for today’s supply chain managers.