Jerry Johnston had pretty much ruled out voice recognition technology as a non starter. As he considered his options for overhauling operations at the 340,000-square-foot Nature's Best DC complex in Brea, Calif., Johnston, vice president of operations for the natural foods wholesaler, was actually leaning toward scanning. Voice, he felt, was still too experimental. "We thought it was bleeding edge," Johnston says, "not cutting edge."
But that all changed when he and his team got a good look at Vocollect's Talkman system, which lets workers outfitted with a portable computer and headset relay info back and forth with a back-office system. "We realized that the technology had advanced quite a ways," he reports. It wasn't long before Johnston agreed to test the Vocollect system in the DC's case picking operation. The implementation was relatively painless, the technology performed well in testing and Johnston was sold.
Like Johnston, DC managers today are a lot more willing to give voice technology a hearing than they were just a few short years ago. Once met with skepticism—partly because it was considered untried and partly because of its cost—voice tech has been steadily proving its worth by raising picking productivity and accuracy, particularly in food and beverage industry DCs. Now, the more adventuresome users are extending its reach to replenishment, putaway and even returns processing.
Despite the widening array of choices, most voice tech buyers still start with picking. That's not surprising. Because it accounts for the largest slice of the DC labor budget, picking offers the biggest opportunity for returns. "[Picking] represents over 40 percent of the labor dollars in a typical warehousing operation," says Steve Gerrard, vice president of marketing for Voxware, another major provider of voice recognition technology. "Just about all our customers probably implement picking before anything else. It's the area where you're going to see the biggest payback in the shortest time."
In fact, the results are often so impressive that managers immediately start looking around for other applications. Replenishment, putaway, forklift operations and cycle counting are all obvious candidates, says Mike Miller, Vocollect's director of industry marketing and consulting. One Vocollect customer in the United Kingdom (that he was not at liberty to name) uses voice technology for all major activities from receiving through shipping, he says.
That's not to say that voice technology is suitable for every application. Though some facilities do use voice for receiving, Gerrard admits that receiving is usually a better fit for scanning because full pallets must be identified by long strings of numbers on a "license plate." But in areas like returns processing, voice has a definite edge. "With voice technology," he says, "the operator can be working hands free and can describe the item and its condition. It's an ideal mechanism for communicating information that sheds light on the reasons for a return rather than just capturing numeric data."
Gerrard believes that the benefits of voice technology are just beginning to be exploited. "The kinds of things you can do with voice go deeper than picking, replenishment and cycle counting," he argues. "It's a people-centric approach to optimizing the activities of workers."
Hitting the right notes
Of course, the more the word gets out, the higher the expectations. Who hasn't heard the reports of benefits like higher productivity, better profits, enhanced customer service or improved safety? Safety? Yes indeed, says Ken Finkel, strategic accounts group leader for RedPrairie, a WMS provider that works with both Vocollect and Voxware to implement voice technology. "With voice systems, people are not focusing on a screen or a piece of paper," he says. "That's not really something that people looked at during the initial valuation, but it's a benefit that's become readily apparent."
Still, as Miller of Vocollect points out, the benefits don't necessarily come where the users most expect them. "One hundred percent of our prospects come to us thinking that the benefits will be in picking productivity," he says."In fact, the benefits go beyond picking to inventory accuracy, reduced replenishment time and reduction in returns."
Indeed, Johnston reports that at Nature's Best, picking productivity actually declined when the voice system was first installed. Although the installation process—including integration with the company's warehouse management system (WMS)—was surprisingly smooth, Johnston says, "we did suffer a little bit of a performance drop initially." In fact, picking dropped below the expected levels for about three weeks, and although it eventually got back up to speed, it didn't improve over previous levels.
Yet Johnston seems unperturbed. "We did not see a gain," he says. "Others get a gain because they get rid of labels." But eliminating labels wasn't an option for an operation the size of Nature's Best's, which ships between 40,000 and 50,000 cases a day to 1,200 customers in 13 states out of a center with four miles of conveyor belts and two major sortation systems. "We're shipping to so many stores that we have to have a shipping label. The sortation system has to see a bar code. That necessitates using labels, so there are no appreciable productivity gains."
In fact, Johnston isn't at all disappointed by the technology's failure to boost productivity. "That wasn't the reason for installing it," he says. "We were looking for much better accuracy." As it turned out, Nature's Best saw improvements in accuracy right away. "We could see that we immediately had better accuracy at the picking point," Johnston says. He reports the improvements showed up particularly toward the end of work shifts, when fatigue set in and workers tended to make more errors.
The sound and the flurry
Buoyed by the accuracy improvements in picking, the wholesaler has decided to incorporate voice technology into its line loading operations as well. That application was being implemented when Johnston spoke to DC VELOCITY. If all works out as planned, he says, the voice system should correct problems with incomplete pallets. "There's a scramble at the docks to get shipments palletized correctly," he explains. "We were ending up with a lot of shortages and other mistakes that affected customers there."
Once the installation is completed, an application written by Vocollect that integrates RF scanners with its Talkman technology will allow workers to scan a case or tote, hear over the headset which pallet it goes to, then scan the pallet to confirm that the goods are in the correct place. The WMS will be automatically updated, providing managers with information on each pallet and whether it's complete.
Johnston's also been working with his crew to install voice technology in the DC's repack pick-to-tote function—he was about halfway there at press time. "There's a potentially huge productivity gain," he says. "If we can cut pick and pack time in half, we'll see a labor benefit on top of it." The labor savings he envisions would come about through the ability to batch pick—the accuracy inherent in a voice system, which has multiple checks built into it, will allow workers to pick to several totes at once without the risk of errors. "In a paper-based environment, it's difficult to batch pick,"Miller explains. "If a hundred totes are to go through a zone, it means a hundred trips.Now, you can use voice for batch picking. About 60 percent of the time spent in picking is travel time. You can reduce that [substantially]."
In the not too distant future, Johnston intends to make use of voice technology in the DC's putaway process. "Then we'll start thinking about the inventory control aspects of voice," he says. For instance, he believes that pickers, even in the midst of picking, can be instructed by the system to conduct counts on specific inventory when the WMS sees inventory levels drop below a set point—say five cases. That would be akin to cycle counting on the fly. "The worker can just give the count. If the count is off, the system could print a report and inventory control could go out to check."
And that may not be the end. Johnston says he's brainstorming with the company's IT department on other potential uses. "Basically, we're attaching a computer to everybody's hip," he says. "I'm pretty high on the technology."
Calling it in
Nature's Best's experience is hardly an isolated case. Randy Fletcher, vice president of logistics and supply chain management for Associated Grocers, a grocery distributor that operates out of a 544,000-squarefoot facility in Baton Rouge, La., has also reported big gains in accuracy— gains that have actually boosted gross profits for his operation.
Associated Grocers, which has about 260 customers in five states (Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, Arkansas and Alabama), ships about 450 trailer loads of groceries and perishables a week via its private fleet to about 800 locations. The company installed the Vocollect voice system (a good fit with its OMI Triceps warehouse management system) about a year ago, starting, as most adopters do, with the picking process. Fletcher's first goal was to improve accuracy and eliminate mis-pulls among meats, his most expensive products. Starting with meat was a true test of the technology. "We wanted to put it to the toughest test," he says. "If it could perform there, it could perform anywhere."
In particular, he wanted more accurate catch weights. Catch weights must be captured on products such as meat or produce, where package weight varies. "We were manually taking catch weights," Fletcher says. "This allowed us to capture them via voice."
"The old way to record catch weight was on a blank label or tally sheet that was handed off after the selection was completed," explains Miller. "In a relatively cold environment, you not only lose productivity on the floor, but the entries often turn out to be chicken scratches that are illegible to a clerk."
Eliminating chicken scratches may not sound like an enormous technical advance, but for Associated Grocers it had major implications. "We actually increased our gross profit as a result," Fletcher says. "When you're taking weights by hand, errors can occur. Errors in your favor get reported, but those in the retailers' favor don't get reported. So we've had more accurate invoicing, and that was totally unexpected. The voice system gives good, accurate weights, which result in good, accurate invoices."
The meat application was only the first test.After 30 days, Fletcher extended the use of voice into frozen foods, then dairy, produce and finally grocery picking.
Now, Fletcher's considering how the voice technology might work with other DC functions. "We're looking at cycle counting," he says. "There are pros and cons, and the inventory folks are looking at them. They're comfortable with handhelds and scans, and they're not totally convinced that voice is the best application for that function."
He's also looking at putaway, replenishment and forklift operations, but he isn't sure that he'll expand voice into those areas, either. "Keying things in is pretty efficient at this point," he says. "We've got a technology in place that is relatively accurate. If you layer voice on top of that, what do you gain?"
But where he has implemented voice, he's pleased with the results. In addition to the gains in profitability in meats, he's found other indirect benefits from using voice technology. For instance, Fletcher reports that the company has experienced sharply reduced credits, since what's shipped tallies well with what's on the invoice. "That led to a huge reduction in clerical time for the accounting staff," he reports.
Further, it cut losses from returns, which could be substantial, since half of all returned products—and 75 to 80 percent of returned produce—cannot be sold as a result of poor temperature controls during the return process.
Once the system was implemented, mis-pulls dropped by 65 percent—which added up to what Fletcher calls "significant dollars.""The gain in customer satisfaction is substantial," he says. "We don't have many problems with loads anymore—we get occasional calls about shift and damage, but never about accuracy."