Equipment Report: Lights, voice, action

A look at what’s new in voice, mobile and pick-to-light technology for today’s warehouses and distribution centers.

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As technology continues to advance at the speed of light, the equipment used to manage warehouse and DC fulfillment is improving and expanding exponentially. Every year, in fact, suppliers churn out an array of new voice, pick-to-light, and related innovations that enable processes and help employees work smarter, better and faster.

Concurrently, historical roadblocks like long implementation periods and the constraints imposed by propriety software are coming down and allowing companies to more effectively combine different technologies, use cloud-based options, and integrate various software platforms. This development helps enable a cohesive, streamlined operation that can effectively handle even the most demanding omni-channel environment.

Thinking out of the box
Much like the world of consumer devices is thinking lighter, smaller and faster, these days the trend in the warehouse is for user-worn or handheld equipment to be small, light and quick.

Add ease of use and affordability to the mix, and you wind up with a real “winner” in the warehouse fulfillment category, says Doug Brown, product management—order fulfillment solutions, Intelligrated. Wearables like glasses are in particularly high demand right now, he adds, due to their ability to provide a “hands-free and safer addition for visual cues that previously may have required looking down at a display.”

Brown sees Apple’s Siri and Google’s speech recognition programs as proof of the “tremendous amount of innovation” that currently exists within the voice realm, where new performance levels can be enabled in a fairly fast and easy way compared to, say, 10 years ago.

“Voice in the warehouse works out of the box without the need for any special training or proprietary technologies,” says Brown, “and all the while still being flexible enough to accommodate those individuals who may speak in an unusual manner.”

More smart phones, please
Last year, Lucas Systems introduced Jennifer Mobile applications for smart phones. Since then, Jeffrey Slevin, COO, says user interest in the applications has grown significantly. “Almost every new customer is interested in using these more powerful devices, and many of our existing customers are considering moving to this new platform,” says Slevin, noting that the devices cost 50% to 90% less than traditional devices used for voice applications.

Also driving interest in these devices is the fact that they are “just plain better than old-style warehouse hardware.” Key improvements include faster processors, expanded memory, better and bigger screens, Bluetooth technology, NFC support and additional accessories.

According to Slevin, rugged smart phones spur the continued evolution of so-called “multi-modal” applications that combine speech, bar code scanning, screens, and other input and output technologies. For example, Lucas has certified a variety of smart watches that can be used with a rugged smart phone, thus “opening up new ways to use text or display information in a voice-directed process,” says Slevin. In addition, while most voice suppliers provide solutions to voice-enable a warehouse management system (WMS), Slevin says Lucas is providing “mobile work execution” solutions that allow companies to quickly implement new workflows (from receiving to shipping to returns) that optimize hands-on processes.

“Within two to four months, a DC can install a solution that delivers transformational operational improvements,” says Slevin, “and that also allows them to break free of inflexible WMS workflows that are difficult, expensive and risky to change. 

Next-gen hardware options
It’s been about 13 years since The Numina Group introduced its first pick-to-light product. Since then, Dan Hanrahan, president, says the product category has grown right along with customer interest in that type of equipment, particularly when bar code scanning is integrated in such packages. Early on, he says, pick-to-light was a better option over voice, which at the time required “weeks of training” to get someone up to speed and using the technology. Working with topVox, Numina integrated its own picking system using topVox’s speaker-independent voice engine. “We wanted something that allowed for easy editing and that helped us be more flexible in how we implement the voice system,” says Hanrahan, adding that Numina’s voice and pick-to-light functionalities reside within the same module. 

In taking advantage of what Hanrahan calls “next-generation hardware,” Numina is now using scanners that are positioned on the back of the wrist in a completely hands-free manner. The scanners integrate 2D cameras that are “much faster than lasers,” according to Hanrahan. “You don’t have to point them, nor are there focusing issues to contend with (due to the camera’s omni-directional, auto-focus capabilities). “This innovation has definitely sped up the validation process when it comes to seamlessly making scanning and voice work faster together,” Hanrahan adds.

Affordability and ruggedness count
As he looks around the warehouse and DC fulfillment environment, Kevin Breutzmann, national account manager at topVox sees an increasing number of consumer-grade devices (i.e., iOS and Android devices) being used on the floor. And, while there’s still much ground to be made in terms of the ruggedness, durability and platform stability of such devices, he sees their use growing over the next few years.

“Our next major release will include both Android and iOS support” says Breutzmann, who points to device affordability as a key driving factor in this movement.

Earlier this year, topVox introduced the Lydia VoiceWare voice-picking safety vest that includes a mobile computer, two speakers and a directionalized microphone. “It’s easier for the user to manage, with fewer wires and cords to deal with,” says Breutzmann. “It’s an all-in-one package that we’re excited to be able to deploy.”

At Voxware, president and CEO Keith Phillips says the growing affordability of voice-related equipment is making it particularly attractive for companies that are seeking better speed and accuracy in their fulfillment operations.

“There’s a continued pressure to push prices down in the marketplace,” says Phillips, who sees potential in the iOS and Android space, but notes that for the most part companies are hesitant to implement such devices in the warehouse environment. He points to Voxware’s use of Bluetooth headsets “at a fraction of the cost of what they’ve historically sold for,” as one good example of how users can effectively untether themselves and work more freely in the warehouse or DC.

“We’re getting away from the scenarios where Bluetooth headsets are in the $600 to $800 range,” says Phillips, “which is just ridiculous to have to pay for a headset.”

In fact, Phillips says high prices on devices across the board are keeping many companies from investing in such technology. “Manufacturers may be changing form factors and other elements, but they’re still not doing what they should be to provide lower prices, more economical options and more user-friendly devices,” says Phillips. “These challenges limit the choices that a customer has in terms of device technology.”

Look mom, no hands
In today’s fast-moving business world, everyone wants shipments delivered in the fastest and most accurate manner possible. With the 2015-2016 holiday season just a few months away, Jay Blinderman, director of product marketing for Honeywell’s Vocollect Solutions, says now is a good time for warehouse managers and DC directors to start reviewing last year’s performance numbers and coming up with ways to improve upon their stats this year.

Those companies that aren’t already using voice, and that need to do a better job of covering their seasonal shipment peaks, should consider how “voice technology will enable them to reduce training time from days to literally hours and ramp up new teams of employees very quickly,” says Blinderman.

One of the latest innovations that Honeywell’s Vocollect Solutions has introduced is its Talkman A730 mobile device, which contains an integrated short-range scanner. The device incorporates voice direction and scanning in an “ergonomic, wearable form factor that eliminates workers from having to deal with a luggable device,” Blinderman explains. “Using the A730, a worker can even scan hands-free by speaking a voice command to activate the scanner when moving boxes with labels past the scan target while the A730 rests on a worker’s belt.”

Also new this year is the Vocollect SRX2 wireless headset, which can be combined with Vocollect SoundSense voice recognition technology to enhance accuracy levels and worker performance. “There are some other areas within voice where we’ll be launching new solutions as well,” says Blinderman, “including one that will be useable for retail applications.”
Breaking out of traditional “zones”
With an eye on supporting omni-channel operations and other specialized and personalized warehouse operations, Lightning Pick recently introduced the LP Light Sled. According to Joe Pelej, marketing manager, the sled is equipped with lights, positioned on a conveyor, and used in manual picking environments.

Used primarily in warehouses that have pick-to-light systems in place, the sled lets companies effectively “break out of the typical, zoned pick-to-light” setup and allows them to conduct cluster picks, says Pelej, and go beyond just picking orders that are for a specific customers or stores. “When the products arrive at the store, DC or other destination,” he says, “they are already grouped together for easier replenishment.”

With omni-channel exploding, Pelej says he’s seeing more applications and equipment being introduced that support both pick- and put-to-light technology. These innovations support the ongoing trend toward smaller orders, single-line orders and cross-channel orders, he says. “Vendors are creating hardware and software (including those where pick is integrated with conveyor control, motor-driven rollers and lighted conveyors) that lets retailers handle more and different channels as their DCs change,” says Pelej, “and to do a combined pick-and-put to accommodate those various channels.”

Looking ahead, Pelej expects warehouses to become even more flexible to meet the changing demands of their customers, be it related to store replenishment, e-commerce, and/or shipments to single customers. “There’s a lot of active, agile, cross-channel fulfillment going on in the warehouse,” says Pelej, “and much more personalization than we’ve ever seen before.” 

Companies mentioned in this article
• Honeywell—Vocollect Solutions
• Intelligrated
• Lightning Pick
• Lucas Systems
• Numina Group
• topVox
• Voxware

About the Author

Bridget McCrea, Editor
Bridget McCrea is a Contributing Editor for Logistics Management based in Clearwater, Fla. She has covered the transportation and supply chain space since 1996 and has covered all aspects of the industry for Logistics Management and Supply Chain Management Review. She can be reached at [email protected], or on Twitter @BridgetMcCrea

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