Mobile & Wireless: Voice moves into the cloud
One of the hottest technology stories over the last couple of years has been software in the cloud. In our space, that means cloud-based WMS, TMS and ERP systems. Last year at Modex, Voxware told me about a cloud-based voice recognition system.
With lots of questions still swirling about where and when WMS in the cloud is appropriate, it got me to wondering whether a company would trust their voice-based picking system to a hosted solution. The answer, according to Shawn McGhee, president of Hollywood Feed, is: Hey, what’s the big deal?
“We’re really comfortable with cloud operations,” McGhee told me. “We’ve been using an ERP system sitting in the cloud for five years. We have 20 stores in four states and they’re all interconnected via an internet backbone. We even have a cloud-based point of sale system. We didn’t have to come to the cloud and be convinced it will work.”
If you’ve never heard of Hollywood Feed, a little background is in order. Based in Memphis, the company dates back to the 1950’s, but when McGhee bought it in 2006, it was all of 3 stores. Since then, it has grown to 20 stores and McGhee plans to continue growing by 40 to 50% a year. “We’re the Whole Foods of the pet industry,” McGhee told me. “Well, not yet. But that’s who we’re aiming to be.”
The company focuses on natural and holistic pet food and products. “We are bring unique brands of unprocessed food for your canine and feline pets,” McGhee says. “Our employees go through 40 hours of training each year. After a while, they can teach pet nutrition.”
For his part, McGhee brings a background in distribution at AutoZone and Office Depot to the job. For now, the company is operating its distribution out of a 45,000 sq ft conventional warehouse in Memphis.
Prior to implementing the voice system, McGhee says the company was running a bare-bones, paper-based picking operation. Although small – he currently only has four employees in picking – McGhee knew he needed to improve the efficiency and accuracy of his operation. He began investigating voice for hands free picking. “What I found is that few suppliers wanted to talk to us unless I was willing to spend $250,000 or more,” McGhee says. “Any money I invest in distribution is money I don’t have to invest in my retail operations.”
Enter cloud-based voice recognition technology. The model is simple. McGhee pays a monthly per user fee that includes access to the software and rental of the voice recognition hardware. His upfront costs included expanding the wireless network in his warehouse to accommodate more transactions and an implementation fee associated with writing the script that fits his warehouse and training his employees. “In less than a week, we had the system in test mode,” he says. “I expect a payback within 90 days.”
So, how does it work? Hollywood Feed sends order files to Voxware each night. The files, in turn, are converted into packets of work. In the morning, pickers put on their head sets, log into the system and begin picking. Although much of the day’s work is converted over night, McGhee says he has the ability to send new files to the voice provider during the day and receive them back within a few minutes. “Quite frankly, this is the single easiest technology I have ever implemented,” he says. “I’ve had Windows implementations that took longer than this did.”
While the system is limited to four pickers for now, McGhee has plans to move the system into receiving. Thanks to increased efficiency and accuracy, he expects to get through the holiday season without adding space, equipment or temporary workers.
I asked McGhee if he had any issues with lag time between an operator communicating with the system and receiving a response back. McGhee says no. Nor does he see any issues in scaling the system up to add more employees. After the conversation, Voxware sent a note that their cloud-based product is not limitless – the current version is optimized for companies with 20 or fewer voice users. Future releases plan to expand the capabilities of the software.
Having only talked to one user, I have no frame of reference. But it’s another example of how the technologies previously only available to very large materials handling users are becoming available to more and more facilities.