When employees at Awana don their voice headsets and begin their daily shifts, they're doing much more than simply filling orders. They are experiencing a mature technology that has evolved well beyond its roots in order picking.
Awana is a direct distributor of educational materials and products for church youth groups, serving more than 11,200 churches representing over 100 denominations. The Chicago-area company began its voice journey 11 years ago when it installed the Jennifer voice system from Lucas Systems to direct its order selection activities. Things quickly snowballed from there. "We started with picking and immediately saw that the payback was so significant that we added other functions within six months," recalls Steve Hale, director of distribution. Those functions included receiving, putaway, and returns.
Awana's history with voice mirrors the way the application of these systems has evolved. While picking has always been the sweet spot for voice, many users have successfully expanded the technology into other areas, including replenishment, cycle counting, load building, and shipping. In fact, just about any warehouse function can be voice-enabled, often with little, if any, incremental expense. Once a company has made the initial investment in hardware and software, there is little cost to extend voice to these other tasks.
Awana recently upgraded to new voice software that allows workers to run their mobile voice applications on smartphones and to combine scanning and device displays with voice, leveraging one of the many developments that have taken place in voice-directed technology in recent years. But as game-changing as this and other hardware-related advancements may be, perhaps the biggest change going on in voice is its newfound ability to optimize processes and manage worker performance.NOT YOUR FATHER'S SYSTEM
If you haven't examined the capabilities that voice can offer for a while, it might be worth another look. By all accounts, the technology has come a long way in the last decade and a half.
"In the early days of voice, it was cumbersome and expensive," recalls Keith Phillips, president and CEO of voice system provider Voxware. "I'm not sure the market really understands how much voice has evolved over the past 15 years," he adds. "It's a totally different technology than it was even five years ago."
Both the hardware and software for voice systems have steadily improved. Batteries last longer, the units are smaller and lighter, and the addition of Bluetooth has eliminated the need for a wire to connect the voice terminal to a headset.
During the past few years, voice providers also began moving from systems that worked only on dedicated voice terminals to more flexible software that can run on a variety of devices, many of which feature screens and built-in scanners. This advancement allows users to incorporate scanning into activities prompted by the voice system, allowing them to, say, scan a bar code on an incoming pallet rather than read 16 digits into the system.
Food and pharmaceutical distributors are taking things a step further, combining voice with scanning to gather data on their products-in-process to comply with pedigree laws and to establish chain-of-custody documentation. Lot numbers, expiration dates, and product weights are among the data that can either be scanned or "voiced" into the record.
The trend toward incorporating voice technology into screen-based devices has also helped streamline DC operations. For instance, the screen might display additional instructions or information about the product, including a photo to assure the right item is picked. In some cases, the device might be an electronic tablet that can be mounted onto a lift truck and used with a wireless headset, which allows the worker to hop off the truck to perform a task directed by voice software that's either resident on or relayed through the tablet.
Voice is also being used in conjunction with pick-to-light and put-to-light technologies. As Ken Ruehrdanz, manager of distribution systems market at solutions supplier and integrator Dematic, explains, a put-wall technology can be combined with voice for effective picking of multiple orders. The put-wall consists of stacked cubbies, similar to large mail slots, where products for specific customers can be gathered. "A user can deploy voice-directed technology to batch pick all needed orders and then use the light-directed put-wall to separate the items into individual customer orders," he says.NEW VOICES BEING HEARD
While the expansion of voice to other hardware devices has undoubtedly boosted the technology's flexibility and value, the real breakthroughs have come on the software end. The newest software offerings take data collected from various warehouse functions and process it through analytic algorithms to optimize warehouse workflows and improve labor management.
"What we are seeing now is that voice systems are becoming an information source that can be combined with a warehouse management system (WMS) that then becomes a productivity hub," says Jason Franklin, product manager, labor and business intelligence at Intelligrated, a manufacturer of automated material handling systems. In addition to being integrated with the WMS, voice data can also be exchanged with warehouse control systems and other software to optimize warehouse processes. That means that if, say, a bottleneck develops in packing, the software could redirect workers from picking to the pack area to improve downstream flow. "Voice is a piece of the puzzle that when combined with data from these other systems, can take things to a whole new level," Franklin adds.
One company that now offers optimization tools is Lucas, which includes these capabilities in the latest version of its Mobile Work Execution Software Suite. Among other capabilities, the software can perform smart batching. Typically, a voice system receives pick assignments from a WMS. But if the facility isn't using a WMS or if it's using a WMS that cannot batch, the voice software can "look" at the items needed for orders and perform batching on the fly.
Another capability available in many of the voice software suites is the ability to interleave tasks. With interleaving, an employee who is picking items for orders might be asked to replenish a location before selecting items from that slot. Or he/she could be prompted to count the items at that location for inventory purposes once a pick is completed. Or a worker who has finished picking cartons might be directed to stack them on a pallet and load them onto an outbound trailer. As with batching, these interleaving tasks can also be done independently of a warehouse management system.
Performance management is quickly becoming a "must have" feature in voice systems as well. Supervisors can now dial in and listen to the voice system's prompts to see how a worker is responding. "That allows coaching to build up that individual's performance," Franklin says.
The labor management capabilities also include dashboards that allow supervisors to view individual performance in real time. This monitoring capability can be relayed to a manager's mobile device for on-the-floor adjustments. Key performance indicators (KPIs) and other performance benchmarks can be loaded into the system to provide performance comparisons to establish standards.
Jay Blinderman, director of product marketing for Honeywell's Vocollect Solutions division, says the newest version of his company's Workflow Performance Solution can "help take average performers and help them to excel." Blinderman explains that the system measures time stamps of various activities, such as travel to a pick location and time spent actually picking, and determines if the worker is meeting performance expectations. Along the way, the software can provide voice reminders to the worker to help him or her stay on track.SOUND OF THE FUTURE
As for what's next, given the growing number of mobile platforms now in use, it's probably no surprise that voice companies are looking to make their systems as device-agnostic as possible. For instance, Jeff Slevin, COO of Lucas Systems, says that his company is now delivering its Jennifer applications on smartphones running the Android operating system in addition to traditional warehouse devices running Windows Mobile. "We are working to provide the greatest flexibility possible on the mobile device side," Slevin says.
With some solutions, workers using different operating platforms can run the same systems side by side, which makes upgrades easy and allows users in different parts of the DC to use the best device for the job (for instance, workers in a freezer could use a freezer-rated Windows device while their counterparts in ambient areas could use an Android unit.) Awana, for example, has chosen to run the latest upgrade of its Lucas Jennifer solution on Motorola Luge Android smartphones. The smartphones, which use Bluetooth to connect to the workers' headsets, are used in a protective case that can fit in a pocket or be attached to a belt.
Intelligrated's voice system runs on a server and is not dependent on the software residing internally on the individual device. A worker with a smartphone can actually dial the server on his phone to log into the system. Doug Brown, Intelligrated's head of product strategy for voice solutions, says this means that voice can be used anywhere, as the systems can be deployed independently of an IT infrastructure or Wi-Fi network.
One of the places vendors expect to see voice deployed in the future is the retail store. Nearly all of the major voice vendors have pilot programs under way to use voice for tracking store inventory, replenishing store shelves, and filling orders in an omnichannel retail environment. The same ability to track, monitor performance, and provide productivity and accuracy that voice has traditionally provided to the warehouse can now be available anywhere—anywhere a phone can be used, that is.