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Tips on implementing voice systems

01 November 2019

Renovotec technical services director Lance Bennett provides some practical advice on Voice systems implementation and optimisation.

Voice is not a panacea, but where it is the right solution for the job it can produce dramatic improvements in performance and accuracy. Increases in worker productivity of up to 35% and a reduction in picking errors to near-zero are common, with rapid payback as a result.

Where are voice solutions best deployed? Simply put, wherever its users benefit from working hands-free. A good example is high volume, small item picking (for example in an Internet sales fulfilment operation) where a voice-driven, hands-free system can deliver a significant increase in performance with optimum accuracy, reducing costly processing time.

Voice is also beneficial in lower volume environments where accuracy is essential such as the maintenance and inspection of high value assets (think aircraft, industrial plant equipment) and for complex component picking such as automotive assembly kits where there can be no room for error.

Once installed a voice system can be used for any transaction that is hands-free; for example in the warehouse a voice terminal can be used to manage forklift-enabled, hands-free pallet movements, freeing up space in the cab and obviating the need for drivers to look at in-cab computers.

But while voice has many uses its technology is not ideal for large data collection or non-numeric data handling. Care should be taken to understand what your voice inputs are to ensure they don’t slow down the process.

Be prepared

Getting the best out of a voice system requires careful preparation. After all this is no common or garden scanning system; voice is far more sophisticated. Voice systems are complex solutions that can easily fail if badly implemented. A consultative approach is essential, in which the supplier and their client focus on the workflows that have been identified as ideal candidates for voice support, analysing and optimising them in readiness for voice systems implementation.

We frequently recommend running a voice systems trial to ‘prove the benefits’.

As voice is sometimes accompanied by major changes in working practices it is best to avoid a ‘big bang’ approach in favour of (say) team-by-team voice adoption. This enables staff to participate in identifying any minor adoption difficulties and help address them – all of which eases the transition from old to new, and the introduction of improved methods.

There are basically three ways to install a voice system. One approach is to implement a point solution onto the client company’s WMS, usually via a direct connector to the warehouse management system. Beware however that direct connection can result in a more rigid implementation and a poorly matched workflow, depending on the WMS. Direct Voice-WMS integration can be a very good option when the WMS has open APIs that enable tailored voice workflows to be designed that reflect the optimum process flows.

Work at AO.com

Following a trial at online-only retailer AO.com, Renovotec’s voice-picking project has now gone live across the company’s extensive UK logistics operation, where 120 voice-picking devices are being used. AO.com specialises in household appliances and electricals: conservative cost-benefit analysis shows that the new voice technology will achieve payback “well within a year” say Renovotec. The new voice-driven solution updates AO.com’s approach and ensures that the right goods are picked and loaded in the right sequence, delivering higher levels of speed, accuracy and performance.

Another approach is via screen-scraping, maybe used when an organisation’s WMS is remotely hosted and lacks voice or integration facilities. While it is viable, any screen scraping application will be restricted by the data that is presented by the underlying data screens.

Middleware - the third option for voice implementation – requires data integration between the host and the middleware. This solution normally gives far greater control and flexibility of workflow design and optimisation (without requiring changes to the host system/WMS). However, care should be taken to ensure that the chosen middleware does not restrict the functionality of the WMS by poorly duplicating functions or data.

Here an independent advisor can support the user by selecting and deploying the right solution for your operation.

Too often a voice system is implemented as a static solution and left to operate as it was installed, year after year – even though the business is continually changing. Once installed, keep your voice system optimised with an annual process review in line with business and process changes.

Voice has an exciting future, not only for the consumer but also for supply chain drivers such as robotics. It is a sophisticated and powerful technology that always rewards a respectful adopter.

The author can be contacted at: lbennett@renovotec.com

 
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