Listen To The Warehouse

March 21, 2005
Voice-directed work spreads in warehouses.

If your warehouse order pickers could work unencumbered by hand-held equipment, how much more productive could they become? That's one way to begin analyzing the unique potential of voice-directed work solutions, says Don Lazzari, director of marketing, Vocollect Inc., Pittsburgh.

With voice systems, hands are free with each worker's assignments (generated by a warehouse management system) wirelessly arriving via headsets. Tiny belt-worn computers help translate worker responses into data that is sent to the host computer via a wireless network.

To dramatize the need for a productivity answer, consider the labor allocation typical to warehouses. Order picking can account for as much as 60% of the direct labor budget in a warehouse, says consultant Aaron Miller, principal, Tompkins Associates, Raleigh, N.C.

Further compelling the need for thorough analysis is the customer-sensitive nature of order picking, adds Miller. The activity is central to the point where receiving, put-away, storage, packing, shipping, order processing and customer requirements converge.

Lazzari says Vocollect's strategy is to evolve voice-directed applications throughout the scope of warehouse operations. "Order picking is just the beginning," he says. Historically, voice-directed solutions cut error rates in half and increase productivity up to 35% with an ROI of a year or less, adds Vocollect's Brad Wyland, software product manager.

In one example cited by Miller, a voice-directed warehouse system achieved a 50% reduction in returns. That resulted in almost $1.3 million savings in the first year. After converting to voice, shortages dropped by 11% and mis-picks decreased by over 25%, Miller adds.

O'Reilly Automotive Inc., a new Vocollect customer, expects its voice-directed warehouse applications to dramatically boost productivity and accuracy, says David McCready, vice president of distribution operations. The hands-free, eyes-free, voice- directed solution replaces the use of pick labels and pick tickets, thereby reducing errors and increasing velocity within the selection process. The company also considered options such as RF-directed picking, says McCready.

But don't conclude that RF scanning and voice-directed solutions are mutually exclusive, says Vocollect's Lazzari. His example: "Consider a warehouse receiving situation where part or serial numbers are so prohibitively long as to discourage verbally inputting them into the warehouse management system via a voice-directed system." He suggests that a better solution might be for the voice system to direct the employee to scan the bar coded number into the system.

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