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Having a Voice (Solution) In Your Future

Aaron Jones | 14 September 2010

Voice-directed warehousing activities have come a long way since they were first introduced. The biggest physical benefit that generally comes to mind is the ability to remove distractions such as scanning guns and pick lists, freeing both of the operator’s hands to perform work. A significant financial benefit, however, is the short amount of time in which a new operator can come up to productive speed using a properly deployed system. Still, voice technology seems to be a tough sell, even in some of the most ideal applications where documented payback is often less than 12 months. There are many myths and misconceptions (and less than satisfactory early experiences) that tend to hurt its acceptance. As a result, it has not been as widely embraced as other technology solutions like radio frequency identification and automation assisted order picking. In the cases where voice has been most successful, there is one set of things in common: voice technology was one part of an overall process engineering review that helped insure:

  1. The change was fully owned by the people who would be using it and affected by it
  2. It was applied where it was the optimal technology to support the long-term behavior of the process being changed
  3. It was deployed in a scalable fashion for the processes it best serves, rather than as a massive “one approach fits all” type of conversion

The first thing that comes to mind when discussing voice is the image of an operator wearing a headset with a microphone, a belt battery pack and computer, and wires to interconnect everything. This isn’t the only way voice can be integrated into the operation, and today’s systems have a diversity of options that can be used to improve nearly any process. For example, ASAP Automation’s Exacta suite of Warehouse Management System products has long supported voice technology as well as light-directed picking and replenishment. More recently, Exacta introduced the Pick to Display (PTD) technology that is designed to give much more information to the order picker that may be performing value added work at the pick face. This PTD product pairs visual cues with voice instructions – in multiple languages – all from the same device. But this device is not worn. Instead, it is located on the picking system infrastructure, allowing the operator the advantage of voice support without the infrastructure traditionally envisioned. The inclusion of modules to support voice directed logistics activity has resulted in an environment that can yield much higher productive throughput because of the ability to communicate with the picker as the process continues, instead of updating the picker at the end of each route. The key to making this technology work is to fully examine the process. Voice is rarely needed in every element of the operation, but when correctly deployed, it can offer some very unique features. Generally, voice technology comes to mind when the operator would truly benefit from having both hands free and clear. Additionally, operations that require a high level of accuracy (as if any don’t) and traceability are good candidates for the solution. Perhaps the most overlooked benefit, however, are in those fulfillment operations that have significant SKU introductions and retirements, or large seasonal labor force variations. Today’s voice solutions can significantly reduce the amount of time it takes to bring a new employee “up to speed” with the rest of the team. One of the things seen in this difficult economy is the attempt to save money by “doing it yourself”. This is not a wrong approach if the team has someone with experience in the approach to help steer the project. But some of the most desired benefits of voice are not intuitive. A preferable approach would be to use the consulting services of an integrator that can observe and counsel the process of change from an outsider’s perspective, bringing the broad knowledge of best practices to the effort. These integrators add value in specific ways on a project like this, but the user team must own the process of implementation. The practice of asking for a turn-key solution has many different meanings, some of which are not altogether complementary to the project effort. One thing that must be avoided is the unintentional practice of giving the consultant/integrator enough position in the project that the success, or failure, of the work can be attributed to him. This tends to defeat the user’s ability to take ownership of the effort and support its continued growth. The Consultant-Integrator should be asked to support the following responsibilities:

  1. Challenge the implementation team to objectively identify and quantify the problem
  2. Help research, document, present, and explain the various solutions that are available
  3. Coach the preparation of a workable action plan and budget for transition to the new process
  4. Assist in presenting the project to management
  5. Conduct and monitor the effectiveness of training and interpretation with the workforce
  6. Assist in maintaining control of the vision and purpose of the system being implemented

The last item on this list is probably the most overlooked value of an outsider’s contribution to the team. As projects move forward, everyone on the team gets smarter and makes assumptions about what they will be able to do with the solution. “Creeping elegance,” or more specifically, “creeping expectations” often breed frustration and, ultimately, dissatisfaction with the end result, diminishing the ability of the technology to fully capture the team’s imagination and ownership. The integrator’s role is to not only support the correct and timely implementation of change, but to help educate, and thus control the expectations of the project team. Today’s voice solutions are significantly different from earlier systems. The most significant change, however, is the methodology behind the way they are implemented, and the support systems that are now being designed to take advantage of the functionality voice solutions offer.

Author: Aaron Jones


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