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Logistics, in general, has among the highest rate of employee churn of all industries, and warehouse work tends to attract a large number of immigrants. Each new hire brings with him a new dialect and accent that can complicate recognition from a voice-based warehouse system. In some cases, it could take up to two hours or more to train typical systems to recognize each new employee’s voice.

ODW Logistics, a privately held Columbus, Ohio-based third-party logistics provider that offers dedicated and shared warehouse facilities and a trucking service through its Dist-Trans division, found a way around that. A few months ago, it installed a speaker-independent system from Inther Integrated Systems at a 250,000-square-foot fulfillment center in Columbus that it operates for several area home improvement retailers. "It’s an all-forgiving system. As soon as [a new hire] walks in the door, he’s ready to go," says Jon Petticrew, ODW’s vice president of operations.

Inther, a Dutch company with U.S. operations in Cary, Ill., recently added Speaker Independent Recognition (SIR) to its Lydia voice picking solution. SIR, the company says, reduces the training time to a couple of minutes for the basic elements of voice picking.

Speaker-independent systems rely on collected samples of recorded human speech patterns from which they create statistical models based on the overall population. Because performance of these systems is generally poorer than with ones that are speaker-dependent, ODW improved recognition accuracy by keeping the vocabulary rather low. The initial deployment included about 70 words and phrases, and has been expanded only slightly.

Having a system that is speaker-independent also addresses a lot of the other recognition problems that can result from noise in a warehouse. "It’s a very noisy operation, with a lot of forklifts moving around, employees being paged, rail docks, coolers, and trucks," Petticrew says.

Though the speaker-independent system is a new addition, ODW has been using Inther’s voice solutions in its Columbus warehouse since mid-2006. The company first installed voice as a way to improve worker safety and productivity, to streamline operations, and to increase shipping and inventory accuracy. It had considered radio-frequency identification (RFID), a process for tracking and tracing inventory anywhere in the supply chain using special shipping tags and scanning equipment, but decided against it at the time. As Petticrew explains, "RFID hasn’t become mainstream yet."

Beyond that, he determined that voice technology would be simpler to integrate into ODW’s current warehouse management system, the Warehousing and Distribution Logistics System from Codeworks.

Voice had other benefits over RFID as well. For one, voice technologies have far fewer customer impacts. RFID tagging is expensive and requires customers to install special tag-reading equipment at their operations. "Voice takes no involvement from them," Petticrew says.

Voice, he says, "is the big thing in warehousing. It’s really become mainstream within the last five years."

The technology is used most often in warehouses for order picking (pulling products from the storage racks to fill outgoing orders). Other uses include receiving (unloading incoming trucks), put-away (stocking the shelves), cycle counting (taking inventory), and replenishments (refilling empty slots in the racks). Though ODW currently uses its voice system only for order picking and cycle counting, it plans to add replenishments soon. The company also is introducing the system in another facility in California and hopes to roll it out to some of its other facilities in the not-too-distant future. The company operates 12 facilities, totaling more than 4 million square feet, throughout the West and Midwest.

Its Columbus facility runs two shifts from Sunday through Friday, and each shift comprises a staff of about 15 people, most of whom are using voice.

Unlike many other systems that require proprietary hardware and headsets, the Inther system in place at ODW runs on HP handheld PDAs, which workers use to pick 3,500 to 4,500 products a day to fill about 650 orders. Within several months of the implementation, workers were picking 12 percent more orders per hour and 24 percent more lines per hour. "Employees are getting tasks instantaneously," Petticrew explains. "That was important to us because we don’t want our employees waiting around for an assignment."

With the system, picking accuracy has improved to 99.85 percent and inventory accuracy has improved to 99.9 percent. That’s because the system doesn’t allow discrepancies; workers have to confirm pick orders back to the computer. Processed order lines can be confirmed one by one or all at once after finishing the complete order.

Worker safety has improved with voice as well. Because they are listening to pick commands, they are hands- and eyes-free. There are no pick assignment sheets to hold or study while driving a forklift, so the worker is completely focused on the job at hand and getting that job done safely.

Prior to installing voice, ODW did have a few minor safety issues, though Petticrew says the company’s safety record was still far better than the industry average. "We’ve had zero incidents or accidents since we went to voice," he says.

Implementing voice was not a difficult process. "There were a few bumps in the road, but only one of them was major: We had to change our wireless access points around the warehouse," Petticrew says. "It took a short amount of time to put in. Within 60 days we were up and running with voice."

And while employee resistance was something that Petticrew anticipated, it turned out to be of little significance. The warehouse employs a number of younger people who are more in tune with modern technologies, but even more crucial to gaining acceptance was the number of employees who had previous experience with voice applications at other companies. "They were juiced [about voice] and got everyone else on board," Petticrew recalls.

It also helped that ODW involved its employees directly and early on. "We showed them what we were looking at, let them make the decision about the types of headsets, etc., and even let them help in designing our goals," he adds. And during the vendor selection process, Inther came into the warehouse, demonstrated the product using actual shipping and inventory data, and let employees test the system for themselves for a few hours.

That was one of the reasons for ODW to ultimately select Inther as its voice technology vendor. Admittedly, it was a risk, as Petticrew says, because in 2006 Inther hadn’t yet established a U.S. customer base. "We were Inther’s first U.S. customer," he states, "and because we were their first, we got a lot of personal attention from them."

Cost was another reason for ODW to select Inther. "The cost of entry was pretty high, but it was still cheaper with them than with a lot of others," Petticrew recalls.

For ODW, though, it was money well spent. "It has been a great tool that has provided great dividends," says Larry Landtiser, ODW’s operations manager. "It’s saved us a lot of time and work in a lot of our departments."

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