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Thomas R. Cutler

Quality Insider

Voice-Picking Technology Helps Improve Quality in Order Fulfillment

Voice-picking combined with RFID, bar-code, and other technologies helps reduce errors and improve productivity

Published: Tuesday, August 16, 2011 - 12:56

Process requirements for catalog and online fulfillment centers are quite distinguishable from brick-and-mortar retailers. Even catalog companies such as Oriental Trading Co., Cornerstone Brands, and Augusta Sportswear face unique challenges, and each of them has turned to voice-picking technology to address logistical challenges.

The very nature of products sold, defines the requirement of voice systems needed to achieve fulfillment objectives. Oriental Trading sells party supplies, toys, and novelties; Augusta sells apparel; and Cornerstone sells housewares, including indoor and patio furniture.

“Standard order profiles, warehouse systems, and fulfillment processes vary from company to company,” says Jeff Slevin, chief operating officer of Lucas Systems, provider of voice-directed logistics applications for warehouses and fulfillment centers. “At Cornerstone, order fillers use turret trucks to pick large items from high-bay racks, while staff at Augusta walk among shelves in pick modules.”

Voice picking is a method of picking customer orders in warehouses and distribution centers using software applications that combine voice direction with speech recognition. The voice-picking applications use information from warehouse management systems (WMS) to create two-way conversations with warehouse workers, instructing them what to do and verifying and responding to the information associates speak back. Voice-picking software has been in use since the late 1990s as a means to improve productivity, accuracy, and safety in grocery, food and beverage, retail, consumer product goods, and other distribution operations.

In voice picking, a warehouse worker wears a headset connected to a small wearable computer, which tells the worker where to go and what to do using verbal prompts. Workers confirm their tasks by speaking pre-defined commands and reading confirmation codes printed on locations or products throughout the warehouse. The speech recognition software running on the wearable computer understands the workers’ responses. The voice-picking software communicates with WMS or inventory systems via a wireless network.

Typically voice picking has been used to replace paper-based or mobile computer-based systems that required workers to read instructions and scan bar codes or key-enter information to confirm their tasks. The voice software operates hands- and eyes-free, resulting in dramatic improvements in productivity, accuracy, and safety. While voice picking was initially a replacement for bar-code scanning, modern voice-picking systems can incorporate bar-code scanning and other technologies to improve product traceability and enhance process flexibility. In addition to picking, virtually any task in a warehouse can benefit from the use of voice, including receiving, put-away, replenishment, shipping, and returns processing.

Voice technology and applications are mature, reliable, and highly flexible; during the past several years, costs have been significantly reduced for voice technology solutions. In many catalog voice-picking scenarios, companies use the same terminals for bar-code scanning and voice-based processes.

Oriental Trading Co. uses voice recognition and bar-code scanning within a single voice-directed process along with automated conveyors and sorting systems. Depending on process requirements, voice picking may complement radio frequency identification (RFID) and other existing technology tools already in place.

“Rather than solving every fulfillment problem, voice may be only one part of a solution,” Slevin explains.

The volume of transactions in consumer packaged goods (CPG) catalog retailing requires that companies document the fulfillment process to understand results, whether the objective is improving order accuracy or staff productivity.

“Distribution center managers often discover the description of the fulfillment process is quite different from the staff on the floor who follow a different process flow,” says Slevin. “These discrepancies typically point out underlying process, information, or logistical challenges for which workers have improvised a solution that makes their lives easier. Such improvisations lead to inconsistent results, errors, and inefficiency.”

Companies that document fulfillment processes start to envision a new system that will address the needs of shop-floor workers. By receiving associate input early in the process, catalog retailers have an opportunity to generate support for new processes and systems.

The role of distribution center quality managers and floor supervisors and managers is vital in addressing current quality challenges. The quality initiative is often expressed and measured in accurate shipping, fewer reshipments, correct picking selection, customer satisfaction, and reorders. Quality managers must be key members of a system design team, along with voice technology experts.

“Quality control supervisors and managers must interact, implement, and manage the system every day on the warehouse floor, so getting input creates a sense of ownership in the new system,” says Slevin. “Likewise, talking to floor associates informs efficient and quality process flow and technology from a user perspective. These early process improvement strategies in warehouses and distribution centers allow for lean technology solutions that are simple to use and easy to learn for the people on the floor. The result is easing the mental, physical, and psychological barriers to user adoption and improved quality.”

Oriental Trading Co. implemented a batch-picking process that uses a combination of voice and scanning for the hands-on picking process, optimizing accuracy and productivity. Associates use the embedded scanner in their RF terminal to scan the bar code on a carton of product before picking the items and distributing them to totes using a hands-free voice-only process. While this entire process could be done as voice-only or as scan-only, the company found it more efficient and effective combining the two technologies.

Most distribution centers have found that a single voice-based process is not always best for all items, order types, or areas within a fulfillment center. The majority of voice-picking systems require users to speak a check digit affixed to the rack to confirm they are picking the correct item. Both Cornerstone and Augusta use this verification method, while other aspects of their quality processes are different.

A major office products retailer wanted to ensure 100-percent picking accuracy for specific items, so it requires associates to read a check digit as well as a portion of the UPC code on those items as picked from a shelf. This UPC-check confirms the user has the appropriate item, and verifies that it was replenished in the appropriate slot. Quality and operations managers frequently change which items get the additional check or require that only certain pickers do the double-check. Slevin notes, “A double-verification process impacts picking speed so it’s important to weigh the accuracy benefits versus the productivity costs of the additional step. For many catalog operations, absolute picking accuracy on critical items justifies the productivity costs.”

Voice systems today are not limited to WMS-supported workflows. In fact, to get the full productivity and quality improvement benefits of voice, you should look at ways to reengineer the process. In many cases the new process flow needed to meet the business requirements cannot be supported by the WMS. The WMS can be inflexible. In those cases, the voice system can enable the new workflow as an execution system on the front end of the WMS, without change to the WMS.

Hundreds of companies have installed voice systems throughout the last decade to modernize fulfillment systems without modernizing or replacing mainframe-based host systems and legacy WMS packages. There are even some voice users that do not have a WMS, such as Awana Clubs International, a direct fulfillment center for youth groups.

Most voice systems operating today include a voice server that communicates with inventory, order management, or WMS systems on the one side and with voice-enabled RF terminals associates use on the warehouse floor. The voice server includes order, task, and process management capabilities that fill gaps in existing WMS functionality.

Quality metrics are achieved when enabling efficient new hands-on processes for floor associates; the voice system gives supervisors and the WMS real-time data not previously available. When a warehouse floor employee reports an empty pick location using voice, the voice system immediately sends a replenishment request to the WMS, and managers can use the voice server application to “mark out” the item from the primary location. Productivity is quantifiably better because replenishment happens more quickly; other users needing the designated item are directed to an alternative slot to fill orders until the replenishment is completed, also generating improved fulfillment data.

Multi-modal alternatives ensure that process drives technology, whether voice or any other new technology implementation. There is often a temptation to design a process to suit a single technology or method. Assuming that voice is the best tool for every job, or that there is only one methodology to implement and utilize voice picking, many distribution center lean management teams overlook opportunities to maximize continued process improvements.

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About The Author

Thomas R. Cutler’s picture

Thomas R. Cutler

Thomas R. Cutler is the President & CEO of Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based, TR Cutler, Inc., (www.trcutlerinc.com) Cutler is the founder of the Manufacturing Media Consortium including more than 6000 journalists, editors, and economists writing about trends in manufacturing, industry, material handling, and process improvement. Cutler authors more than 500 feature articles annually regarding the manufacturing sector and is the most published freelance industrial journalist worldwide. Cutler can be contacted at trcutler@trcutlerinc.com and followed on Twitter @ThomasRCutler.