Picking Speech

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When Fort Smith, Ark.-based Glidewell Distributing bought rival Southern Wholesale in 2005, the family-owned wholesale distributor gained not only new business and employees, but also a bevy of order accuracy problems. Customer complaints grew. If a particularly important order was miscounted, Glidewell would mobilize an extra truck up to 200 miles to complete the shipment—a costly and avoidable hassle if only the order had been correctly processed back at the warehouse. So a year ago Glidewell implemented Voicelink 3.0 from Pittsburgh-based Vocollect to assist the order picking and filling process.

Glidewell warehouse workers wear dedicated voice clients on their belts. Through headsets, workers receive synthesized speech instructions from Glidewell’s central warehouse management system (WMS) directing them to the bay, shelf, and slot where they can find the consumer goods required to fill an order. The worker verbally confirms his location, and Voicelink announces the number of items from that location to be picked, which the worker will also confirm. All of this information is logged into Glidewell’s WMS.

This reciprocal confirmation ensures greater accuracy in stock keeping as well. If the Voicelink system asks the worker to pick five boxes of Crest Whitening Rinse and the worker says that there are only two, the system returns with: Asked for five, you said two. Short product? Following the worker’s verbal confirmation, the system flags a replenisher to rectify the situation.

The previous order picking system was significantly more unwieldy and involved reams of paper. "The orders would come into the computer system, then a pick sheet would be generated, and then the person in the computer room would run a stack of picks out to our warehouse and people would manually grab them out of the tray, walk around and read the slot locations, and pull the quantity on the sheets in that order for each aisle," explains Nick Glidewell, director of sales and information technology. If a product was short, the picks would return manually to the computer room; the person responsible for data processing would flip through each find on the paper pick, scribble in the new quantity, and type it into the computer system.

Streamlining the picking process wasn’t the only reason worker productivity and accuracy increased. The acquisition of Southern Wholesale increased Glidewell’s inventory. The wholesaler had to put in additional storage racks, and those shelves blocked overhead lights. Workers had difficulty reading the paper pick sheets, which affected order accuracy. To compensate, Glidewell installed large, fluorescent lights in the warehouse aisles. But because Voicelink’s directions are in audio format, the lighting is no longer an issue. "And when [workers] start picking with a headset on, they’re in a zone and not talking to other people until it’s break time," adds Vocollect master VAR and systems integrator Ahmed Reza.

Additionally, Voicelink put an end to a nuisance Glidewell calls fishing. Because orders come in different sizes—anywhere from two items to 500 items—pickers working the paper orders stacked the smaller orders first. "They can appear to be a lot busier," he says. "With [Voicelink], they don’t know what they’re getting. It’s just the next order in line, and it’s automatically assigned to them." And because work gets done quicker, the warehouse closes several hours earlier, decreasing labor and utility costs.

In less than nine months, Glidewell achieved solid ROI. The company saved $89,752 on store credit issued for incomplete or inaccurate shipments. Increased worker productivity netted Glidewell $84,240 in labor savings. Glidewell found additional savings of $99,840 after cutting four order checkers’ positions, their jobs obsolete once order accuracy improved to 99.66 percent. The cumulative savings amounted to $273,832.

"One thing we do up front with all our customers is we look very closely at return on investment," says Larry Sweeney, co-founder and vice president of customer advocacy at Vocollect. "When it comes to something like a pilot or first installation, we use that as a benchmark to test. Once you achieve those numbers, which we always do, rolling out voice is easy."

Ultimately, the most challenging aspect of Glidewell’s integration of Voicelink was sociological, not technological. Workers were initially hesitant to adopt the system, which Glidewell believes might have simply been fear of the unknown. "I don’t want to share a headset," one worker announced. "What about germs?" Glidewell told him that everyone would have his own headset.

Reza recalls one particularly resistant woman: "Her specific words to me were, ‘I ain’t talkin’ to no machine.’" While most workers echoed that sentiment,  a few offered to test the system. Simply noticing the early adopters’ increased productivity and the system’s ease of use drained the hesitation of the more reluctant employees. When Reza returned to the site three months after Voicelink went live, he saw the formerly resistant woman operating a headset. "She wasn’t the happiest person when we had to take the voice system down for an hour while we did some software mods," he says.

The employees’ initial reaction was no surprise. When Glidewell began researching a voice solution, he consulted a competitor, Indian Nation Wholesale. Managers there told him the  speech solution had also been met with hesitation. "And we went through the exact same thing," Glidewell says.

"It’s just part of a process," Reza says. "Most of the issues we deal with tend to be things unrelated to the technology."       

Whereas in the 1990s the greatest hurdle was the technical inconsistency of speech recognition, this is not a problem today. The system requires a one-time, 30-minute session to train on each user’s voice. "We have found over the years that speaker-dependent technology is the only reliable technology right now in a noisy environment like a warehouse or manufacturing plant," Reza says.

Current speech technology is robust enough to withstand the noise and clatter of a warehouse environment. This resiliency makes particular sense considering the grocery industry was the first vertical to implement voice technology in distribution centers.

"One thing we found very challenging in the food area was the very cold temperatures in the freezer environment, which gets down to minus-30 degrees Fahrenheit," Sweeney says. "Then when you walk out on a shipping dock, it might be 80 degrees Fahrenheit and humid." The instant condensation on the belt console was easy for developers to work around. Condensation on the headset was not as easy. "All of a sudden," Sweeney says, "you’ve got water all over your microphone and speaker." He emphasizes that building an environmentally stable headset is essential for success in a warehouse. "It has to be waterproof and rugged," Sweeney says. "You have to be able to sit on it and still have it work when you get off of it."

Uptake of speech technologies in distribution centers has been "stunning," according to Sweeney. Besides order picking, voice can be used for replenishments, put-aways, and transfers, and Sweeney also anticipates a surge in retail and manufacturing. "Having voice start at the distribution world and watching it walk up and down the supply chain is very exciting for us," he says.

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