December 27, 2011
technology review | Warehouse Management Systems

Voice made easy

Voice made easy

Outdoor retailer Cabela's wanted the advantages of voice technology but not the costs and hassles of a large-scale implementation. Could it find a system that filled the bill?

By James A. Cooke

When Cabela's Inc. went to upgrade its DC operations last year, choosing the technology was the easy part. After looking at its options for revving up order fulfillment, the outdoor goods retailer quickly homed in on voice. A far bigger concern was the deployment—that is, finding a system that could be implemented without a lot of hassle and expense.

Most of the retailer's concerns had to do with systems integration—that is, the amount of work involved in integrating the voice technology with the warehouse management system (WMS) that coordinates operations at the retailer's DCs. Company managers were well aware that oftentimes, special code has to be written to allow the two systems to exchange data, making integration a time-consuming and costly process.

Their preliminary inquiries only confirmed their fears. Many of the voice systems Cabela's reviewed would indeed have required programming to allow the voice system and the retailer's Manhattan WMS to talk to each other, says Kevin Thompson, the company's senior system manager for distribution.

But then the company heard about a system that sounded like it might fill the bill—a voice solution that offered low-cost setup and easy integration to the retailer's WMS.

Easier listening
Based in Sidney, Neb., Cabela's Inc. sells hunting, fishing, camping, and outdoor merchandise, reporting revenues of $2.6 billion last year. To serve its network of 30-plus stores in 23 states, Cabela's operates three main distribution centers, located in Nebraska, Wisconsin, and West Virginia. The company employs 1,600 workers in those three DCs year-round to handle receiving, packing, and shipping. During peak holiday season, those ranks reach 2,400 employees.

What prompted the retailer to go down the voice road was the technology's reputation for boosting productivity and accuracy. Because voice systems let workers receive picking instructions through headsets, rather than looking at a screen, they free up workers' eyes and hands for picking tasks. Cabela's also felt the technology would help cut down on picking and labeling errors. So when it found a system that offered all the traditional benefits of voice plus hassle-free integration, it decided it was time to act.

The solution Cabela's found was the AccuSpeech Mobile Voice Platform from Vangard Voice Systems Inc. Among other advantages, the Vangard solution offers a simplified "serverless" approach to installation. One of the key differences between the Vangard solution and traditional voice systems is the deployment of the "speech engine"—special software that translates instructions from the WMS into spoken words. With traditional setups, the speech engine resides on a server. Under the Vangard approach, the speech engine is hosted on the mobile computers used by warehouse workers.

In addition, the Vangard devices come with a built-in script for interfacing with the WMS. On top of that, Vangard's software includes customization tools that allow a user to configure the mobile computer to interact directly with the WMS. "We are able to program the device so if we need to make a change, it does not require IT group intervention," Thompson says.

Plans for expansion
After conducting a pilot, Cabela's began rolling out the voice system in the fall of 2010. It completed implementation at all three DCs in the spring of 2011.

Since Cabela's already had some terminals capable of handling voice, installation was often as simple as loading the Vangard software onto existing units. Still, Cabela's ended up purchasing additional Motorola 4090 handhelds, which workers wear on their arms. (The Motorola devices can also scan bar codes, as Cabela's still uses scanning for order verification.)

Right now, the company is only using the Vangard system in its picking operations, either to relay instructions to workers regarding where to go and what items to pick or, in the case of merchandise picked in bulk, providing directions for sorting those items to match orders. In the future, Cabela's plans to expand the use of voice technology to such areas as receiving and cycle counting.

And the results? Although he doesn't have exact numbers, Thompson reports that both productivity and accuracy have jumped since the voice technology was deployed. But in his eyes, one of the key selling points of the new system has been the ease of integration and low costs. "Had we not had to buy any [mobile computer] equipment, our only investment would have been the software," Thompson says.

About the Author

James A. Cooke
James Cooke is a principal analyst with Nucleus Research in Boston, covering supply chain planning software. He was previously the editor of CSCMP’s Supply Chain Quarterly and a staff writer for DC Velocity.

More articles by James A. Cooke

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