First introduced to the supply chain industry two decades ago, Voice technology brought greater efficiency to order picking and selection applications. Over the years, distribution centres (DCs) have evolved and expanded their businesses, reach and operation complexities. Voice systems have also kept pace and are being deployed as the centrepiece technology offering high performance and cost savings facility-wide at these DCs.
A key driver for the expansion of voice has been the increasing pressure to reduce operating costs and improve overall efficiencies, especially in the context of customers expecting accurate orders on time, the increasing numbers of small internet orders, rising regulatory requirements and evolving global competition.
These pressures are being addressed by industry-leading businesses in recent years using voice-enabled workflows across entire DCs. By relying on the real-time snapshots of all operations that voice provides, as what happens in one area of a facility can quickly impact other parts in a cascading manner, managers are able to quickly respond to bottlenecks by diverting workers to where they are needed most to keep product flowing and efficiencies at optimal levels.
Companies can gain the most when voice is coupled with process optimisation in all areas of a facility to reduce time per task, combine tasks between workflows and interleave tasks to eliminate unnecessary dead-time between tasks. The highly-scalable voice system must also be flexible to easily accommodate business growth.
To assess the merits of a voice solution, businesses should consider some of the key challenges that voice can improve upon, including high-cost, perishable or regulated merchandise; high error rates; forklifts idle or traveling without loads; workers who move between workflows; overloaded or disorganised loading or receiving areas; work demanding heavy labour; processes that are not interleaved; bottlenecks or flat productivity improvement in picking; relatively short travel distances and/or dense picking; clustered and idle workers; high number of quality auditors; and workers looking at paper, screens, and keyboards.
Once businesses have realised the benefits of voice in picking, they are ready to take voice into other areas of the DC.
A natural step for further deployment is in ‘receiving’, which typically involves inspection, counting and other manual operations. These tasks can be performed more efficiently if the worker’s hands and eyes are free to perform tasks rather than manipulating paper or scanners. Using Voice, a worker can immediately read into the system an identifying code that alerts the WMS of shipment arrival.
Voice also has the flexibility to gather additional information about the product to assist operations further downstream.
Additionally, voice can prompt workers to measure the temperatures of incoming products or refrigerated truck beds, which is recorded in the WMS to ensure that nothing has been spoiled or damaged during transit. Voice can also record dimension and weight to be used for slotting, cubing and weight verification to help picking, loading and invoicing.
The second complementary section of the facility to deploy Voice is in ‘put-away’. This is because once information is gathered on the shipment, the voice system will typically direct a different worker to pick up and put-away the load using a forklift mounted with a voice device. The device communicates with a head-set wirelessly so the worker can leave the vehicle without a tether.
The system can direct products to be put-away in several destinations including reserve storage racks, automated storage or directly to pick faces if the WMS determines a slot is currently low.
Voice also facilitates greater safety and accuracy, minimising loss. A voice picking solution instructs the driver who provides confirmation while driving, which is safer and faster compared to manipulating a scanner or viewing a vehicle-mounted screen. Improved accuracy comes from the voice system not allowing users to move to the next task until the goods have been placed in the appropriate location. In self-directed DCs, voice directs the user to identify the location for the system, preventing lost pallets.
The third logical area to move Voice into is ‘replenishment’ – here, processes begin with voice directing a worker to the location where the needed pallet is stored. In optimised designs, the WMS will assign the closest driver available to the storage rack. Once there the driver confirms the right amount of product is being collected from the right location. While pulling the product, the worker is instructed on the destination of the load, which is confirmed when deposited.
An operation can expect to see a 20 percent improvement over paper in staff productivity for put-away and replenishment while also increasing accuracy up to 80 per cent. Compared to using handheld devices, voice often shows a 35 per cent increase in productivity. Additionally, there is as much as a 50 percent reduction in training time in using voice for these functions compared to other methods.
Many DCs also see a dramatic flow-on improvement in picking productivity because the WMS can direct replenishment workers to stock slots that are running low on inventory before the pickers arrive, which reduces their downtime.
Voice can also be introduced in other DC workflows such as ‘cycle-counting/inventory control’ for greater speed, simplicity and accuracy by freeing up the worker’s hands and eyes to count products.
Voice integration can help additional facility functions by eliminating periodic inventory audits because of the accuracy of cycle-counts; recording product data for tracking purposes; and weighing grocery products for correct billing, as well as for value-adding functions such as directing clothing to be placed on to hangers or folded.
Voice can also ensure loads are placed on the correct vehicle, minimising the expensive problem of re-shipping pallets left behind in busy facilities with more complicated loading docks.
Voice technology in the DC provides the transformational change needed to address today’s key business challenges cost-effectively while enabling growth. While voice can be used for a wide number of applications within a DC, the real value comes from its use in all or many of these functions as it creates huge gains in accuracy, assures high levels of productivity, reduces overall training time, and promotes safety, all at an attractive return on investment that is typically achieved in less than a year.
Authored by Paul Phillips, Regional Manager, Australia and New Zealand, Vocollect by Honeywell .