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Other Voices: Voice Picking is calling. Is your DC listening?

By Chuck Fuerst, Director of Product Strategy, HighJump Software
February 22, 2012

Editor’s Note: The following column by Chuck Fuerst, Director of Product Strategy, HighJump Software 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.

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The global recession still has many businesses reeling and searching for additional cost-cutting projects. In 2011 many businesses turned to their supply chain as an area to achieve greater efficiency with an eye towards cost cutting. As such, voice picking received more attention, but in the end, we still saw lower adoption rates than we were expecting. Could 2012 be the year for voice?

Momentum could be building. More widespread acceptance of speech recognition technology is helping to fuel this momentum. Consumers have grown more comfortable with speech recognition technology, from speech recognition apps on our smart phones or cars with increasing levels of “talking electronics,” speech recognition technology is more widespread than ever. The technology continues to improve as well; including advances in microphones that can filter out background noise and better voice recognition capabilities. Combine technology advancements with strong competitive pressures and thinning margins, it is no wonder that more and more companies are moving voice solutions to the top of their wish lists.

Keeping the customer happy with fast and efficient service has always been a priority, but within today’s distribution center providing great service is paramount. Mistakes in picking can be very costly, both in terms of returns processing as well as the ultimate penalty, customer defection. This is where voice technology shines, enabling warehouse staff to listen and respond to instructions via a headset, freeing their hands to pick more efficiently and accurately. By increasing your worker productivity, voice technology can help you minimize dock-to-shelf times while helping you optimize your inventory-processing capacity.

For companies with a diverse workforce, most speech recognition applications provide supplemental processing or translation of the inputted information before it’s sent to the client from the application. This can provide multilingual capabilities, allowing each worker to listen and respond to commands in their native language, letting them work more comfortably without impeding the process flow.

So why hasn’t voice been implemented in more many distribution centers? The most common misconception is that it’s cost-prohibitive, both as a capital expenditure and operating expense. The first wave of voice implementations were known for being expensive and time consuming investments, leading most to think they were only for large enterprises. Advances in technology, both hardware and software, have led to improved results with most companies recouping their investment in voice within the first year of operation.

Voice is not a standalone system, so for many customers the ease with which it can be integrated into host systems is an important part of deploying the technology. The market has matured beyond early, proprietary solutions. Enterprises now have more choices, with more flexible architectures (multimodal), faster implementations, and additional areas within the four walls where they can apply voice. Most voice solutions can integrate with your existing technology, including major WMS and ERP systems as well as most hardware manufacturers, allowing you to leverage existing investments while driving additional efficiencies.

For enterprises that have already realized significant savings from their WMS implementation, adding voice-enabled logistics could increase productivity by 20% or more, perhaps making voice the next lowest hanging fruit on the efficiency tree.

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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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