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Choosing voice technology

12 December 2012

Aldata md Mark Croxton offers a checklist of points for managers to consider when investing in voice directed picking technology Voice directed warehousing is proven as a mechanism for improving productivity, labour

Aldata md Mark Croxton offers a checklist of points for managers to consider when investing in voice directed picking technology

Voice directed warehousing is proven as a mechanism for improving productivity, labour costs and process accuracy - implementing the technology will deliver immediate results to your business. Some organisations have achieved 80 per cent error reduction rates and 30 per cent productivity improvements within a few months followed by full ROI within one year, according to research conducted among pan-European retailers.

But businesses must be sure to consider a number of options prior to investment. Companies must decide whether they want a dedicated voice device or a multi-modal PDA. Dedicated voice devices are single purpose and do not offer the flexibility of PDAs. A good option allows you to use voice, do screen work, barcode/RFID scanning etc.

When choosing a voice picking technology it is essential that it can work with a variety of WMS packages and languages. This will increase the flexibility of the system in the workplace. It's important that businesses conduct a proof of concept before committing to any system. Companies should build their test bed in a real business environment and if they are doing order picking they should test their current system against the prospective voice picking operation and measure the results.

It is also recommended to find a system that can be used throughout the warehouse. It should have the flexibility to be used at the receiving dock, onboard picking vehicles and pick zones, and at the shipping docks. This will reduce maintenance costs where there might otherwise be multiple systems.

Some organisations have a dozen or more different handheld devices, so any investment is an ideal opportunity to standardise on one type of system from warehouse to store shelf. This will help you limit the number of supplier contracts, while reducing costs. It is also advisable to select a voice picking system that enables you to get the most out of your existing investments but also allows you to take advantage of new processes and retail best practices. For example, adding RFID, traceability functions or any new process should be simple.

Businesses also need to consider the users of this technology.

With dedicated voice systems, operators can get fatigued, which can result in errors when using the same system eight to ten hours a day. A PDA system provides different ways to work (screen/voice) and operators are more engaged. This ensures productivity gains are maintained over time. It is important that businesses look for a system that does not require a great deal of training. A good system should be useable by any operator straight out of the box. In a typical warehouse or distribution centre this will help reduce costs associated with seasonal/temporary help training.

Organisations should not be afraid to ask potential vendors to develop a detailed ROI report based on your warehouse and specific requirements. And before you buy a system, be sure to diligently check each vendor's references. Find out what other customers they are working with. See if the system is in production and where? What does it do? How many operators does it service? Poundstretcher is one such retailer which is already reaping the rewards following the introduction of a PDA-based voice directed warehousing system. The system is used by 60 operatives across three shifts and integrates in real-time with the company's warehouse systems. This has given Poundstretcher visibility of stock levels across the warehouse and the status of any pick process.

This implementation has enabled Poundstretcher to run an automatic replenishment process, resulting in a faster turnaround in getting the right product out to its stores and on to its customers.With the retailer's previous paper based system it used to take around 40 minutes for a picker to pick an order, which meant problems were not flagged with a supervisor until the pick was completed. However, the new system allows replenishment to take place as soon as an 'out-of-stock' is flagged up on the PDA. Ultimately, this will allow Poundstretcher to cut costs and support efforts to run a tight, low cost operation so it can pass the best prices on to customers.

As companies look to the future, the issue of voice directed picking will grow in importance. Organisations that fail to see the benefits of implementing this technology can run the risk of putting their long term success on the line.