Voice-directed technology has come a long way over the past two decades. Philip Jarrett, Director of Sales & Marketing at BEC (Systems Integration) Ltd, considers some of the key developments.
Whether used for the more traditional picking and replenishment tasks in the warehouse or DC or to improve put-away, stock moving and stock accounting in relatively new markets such as manufacturing, servicing & testing and package distribution, voice-directed solutions are becoming increasingly popular and widely deployed.
Since the initial introduction of voice-directed picking technology around two decades or so ago, there have been many improvements; whether subtle enhancements to existing features or a more ‘blue skies’ approach.
Honeywell Vocollect™ voice technology pioneered the field of voice-directed AIDC solutions, and has continued to push the development envelope with regular enhancements to its voice solutions. For example, the company realised that, for a number of customers, there was a need to support workers across multiple workflows and tasks beyond picking, including voice combined with occasional scanning.
With this in mind, Honeywell now offers a voice device with a fully integrated 2D scanner so the DC operator can benefit from both voice and scanning capabilities in the same device. Dual capability devices such as this mean operators can move quickly between workflows such as receiving, put-away, cycle-counting and loading, ensuring the time from dock to stock to loading bay is as efficient as possible.
The hardware and software components comprising a Vocollect voice solution are extremely advanced, having continuously evolved during the past 20 years or so. The company has addressed and dealt with many of the constraints and challenges that could hinder efficient operation in the earlier years; the extraneous noise problem, for example. The Vocollect BlueStreak voice recognizer built in to every headset and wearable device is what truly sets these devices apart in this noisy environment. Able to interpret and filter out-of-vocabulary sounds such as forklift beeps, pallet drops or fan/freezer noise, Vocollect voice recognition is the most accurate voice system in high noise DCs — accuracy being the number one influencer in achieving a business payback on investment. Honeywell voice recognition technology is an important game-changer because ultimately voice-directed devices are deployed in noisy environments. With additional noise cancellation microphones installed within the headsets, background noise is filtered out, so that only the operator’s voice commands and responses are relayed to the WMS. The operator
Over the past few years, an increasing number of language options have been added to voice-directed systems – in the case of Honeywell voice solutions, this has now surpassed 35. This means that if a warehouse or DC employs operators whose native or preferred language is one other than English, these workers can perform just as accurately and quickly by benefiting from hearing and responding to voice commands in their language of choice. The pick sheet methodology has often proved a major obstacle with foreign workers in the past due to the methodology’s lack of flexibility regarding language options. Modern voice solutions completely solve this issue.
And because modern state-of-the-art voice systems lend themselves extremely well to management reports and dashboards these are other things that can be used within the warehouse environment where workers carry out their duties on a daily basis. Often, warehouses have screen monitors placed in different areas of the warehouse so managers can monitor the performance of the operators in real time. Indeed, if the management team is largely KPI-driven they can see how many picks each operator has completed in a day, how many times they have taken a break and for how long, and various other pieces of information required in order to reward staff or determine how their performance can improved.
BEC believes customers should also enquire about what level and quality of pre-implementation guidance the supplier is able to offer. The supplier and integrator of choice should have many years’ experience in not just providing precisely the right voice solution for the customer’s needs, but also in carrying out full site audits before sourcing and implementation commences.
For example, BEC undertakes a full DC walk-through and then presents the customer with a detailed report on the findings and subsequent recommendations in order to ensure the voice system and related software and layout of the warehouse is optimised. We believe it is also essential that the customer receives detailed information regarding an anticipated ROI timeline by quantifying the likely speed, accuracy and productivity gains.
In the case of BEC, we will often video the customer’s warehouse process so we can freeze-frame the activity at any moment and show the company where efficiencies are being challenged and where voice could provide an advantage over its current processes. When we conduct an audit we usually follow some of the pickers around the warehouse as they go about their daily routine. If pickers are using a paper-based picking method they are actually making their own decisions as to where they pick first. They would then have to make notes on their pick sheet etc.
Through our audit, we can recommend an optimum route plan within the warehouse for each picker to take. The potential productivity gains can be demonstrable down to the amount of seconds each pick could take with the use of voice and optimised warehouse routing. If the amount of seconds saved on each pick are then extrapolated over the course of a week, and multiplied by the overall number of pickers using this methodology, it is easy to see that the productivity gains will be very substantial, resulting in a very quick ROI for the voice system.
So, voice technology has certainly come a long way since the early days, providing tangible improved benefits to users in terms of speed, accuracy and investment payback.