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Other Voices: Conquering the Curse of the Warehouse

By Steve Gerrard
Vice president, marketing & strategic planning, Voxware
May 04, 2011

Editor’s Note: The following column by Steve Gerrard, vice president of marketing & strategic planning, Voxware, is part of Modern’s new Other Voices column. The series, published on Wednesdays, will feature ideas, opinions and insights from end users, analysts, systems integraters and OEMs. Click on the link to learn about submitting a column for consideration.

Many enterprises operate in markets that reward agility in distribution logistics, yet they struggle with warehouse technologies that are rigid and expensive to change.  The paradox is that the very technologies which boosted performance when first implemented can become a boat anchor preventing the operation from evolving to the next level.

Why? The curse of many technology-enabled warehouses is their reliance on highly customized, one-of-a-kind software applications that are specifically crafted for the operation.  While they seem like a great idea when they’re on the drawing board (“our operation is so unique that we must commission a custom-built solution in this area”), such software handcuffs the company to a very high-cost-to-change scenario.

The technology infrastructure of interlocking systems in many warehouses actually discourages change – which can hold an enterprise back.
Voice picking technology is a great example of both the problem and the cure.  Voice systems act as key extensions of the WMS, boosting selector performance and typically delivering fast ROI that cuts operational cost. Yet over time, as business requirements evolve, the workflows followed by the voice users need to evolve too – and that’s when the cost of change comes to the forefront.

Like most other warehouse technologies, voice picking systems began as closed, proprietary, and highly customized solutions. Every time a change was desired, more programming had to be done. But in recent years, voice technology has evolved to better address the issues of change and long-term cost.  Here are two of the biggest developments:

Workflow Configuration via Visual Toolsets.  When voice solutions are configured rather than coded, not only are they deployed sooner but they are far more “change-friendly.”  If they incorporate a rich enough set of configuration choices, these toolsets offer the best of both worlds: the ability to tailor the workflow to your unique business requirements while eliminating an expensive programming exercise.

Loosely-Coupled, Message-Based WMS Interfaces.  The voice system must closely interact with the WMS, but in years past the solutions were hard-coded and so tightly integrated that making changes involved not one but two vendors and huge costs.  New tools now make it possible to define “loosely-coupled” interfaces in which messages are exchanged between the two systems. This often makes it possible to introduce workflow improvements by just changing the voice system without having to open up the WMS – a big savings in time and money.

Bottom line: today’s software offers enterprises the ability to conquer the curse of custom-coded warehousing solutions.  Voice picking is one area where we see it happening.

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About the Author

Bob Trebilcock, executive editor, has covered materials handling, technology and supply chain topics for Modern Materials Handling since 1984. A graduate of Bowling Green State University, Trebilcock lives in Keene, NH. Contact Bob Trebilcock.


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