Voice-directed warehousing & distribution report speaks to new heights in accuracy

While much has been done to improve operations in distribution centers and warehouses, there's always room for improvement. In fact, results of a recent study conducted by Boston-based Aberdeen Group find best-in-class companies want to maximize organizational value across their supply chain operations.
By Jim Fulcher, contributing editor (jimfulcher@comcast.net) November 1, 2008

While much has been done to improve operations in distribution centers and warehouses, there’s always room for improvement. In fact, results of a recent study conducted by Boston-based Aberdeen Group find best-in-class companies want to maximize organizational value across their supply chain operations.

Survey participants cite these goals:

  • Make the distribution center/warehouse more flexible and agile;

  • Improve labor efficiency;

  • Gain enhanced visibility to warehouse activities, and inventory and order status; and

  • Increase throughput.

Some companies are applying speech technology to accomplish those goals.

According to Larry Sweeney, founder and chief customer advocate of Vocollect , a voice-directed work solutions supplier, speech technology can talk people through their tasks, replacing traditional data-capture methods with hands-free, personal voice dialogs.

“One result is more labor efficiency because eyes and hands are left free to focus on the task at hand,” Sweeney says. “So while the mobile worker can follow an efficient process directed by voice, the steps also are audited by RFID. That way a company gains visibility to warehouse activities, inventory, and order status to improve throughput.”

For example, a case or pallet is first scanned via RFID. After the system locates information about that case or pallet, a worker is then directed by voice through a task, Sweeney says. Then the material gets scanned via RFID at the next step in the operation.

“Vocollect users see the technology as a means to get closer to the goal of 100-percent accuracy,” Sweeney says.

Vocollect has extended its Voice-Directed Distribution solution to other applications where voice adds value. Now the same people who perform multiple operations can use screen displays for some apps, and add voice for others—choosing the right tool for the job.

Use of speech technology offers the most benefit for warehouse applications, says Steve Banker, a service director with Dedham, Mass.-based ARC Advisory Group . In particular, productivity improvements will be greatest for companies using a pick-to-cart or pick-to-tote on-conveyor process. It also offers strong support for picking mixed cases to a pallet.

“Leadership at many companies grossly underestimates what poor accuracy in order fulfillment costs them, so the business case for speech is stronger than believed to be,” Banker says. “This is particularly true when speech is combined with RF scanning to improve accuracy.”

Spartanburg, S.C.-based Smith Drug , which has two distribution centers in South Carolina and Arkansas serving independent drug stores in 13 states, has achieved that goal.

“Before using Vocollect, we had errors—even after a verification bar-code scan. In a week’s time, we would have thousands of dollars of customer-reported errors,” says Randy McConnell, director of information systems at Smith Drug. “Errors in picking pharmaceuticals are very expensive, running anywhere from a dollar or two up to $10,000, and the profit margin for a distribution center like ours is razor-thin. Consequently, it doesn’t take too many $10,000 mistakes to eat up profits.”

Use of Vocollect’s Voice-Directed Distribution solution at Smith Drug resulted in a QA staff reduction from 17 to five personnel and slashed training time from two weeks to three days.

“Now we average about 80,000 units a day from our warehouses,” McConnell says. “We purchased the system and saw ROI in six months.”