Speech in the Warehouse

The warehouse, the point of packing and moving business and consumer goods, is one area nearly invisible to the general population. Not glamorous, but necessary, this cog in the wheel of supply chain management is being fine tuned by a handful of companies that have improved many warehouse processes through the addition of speech technologies. These companies use a voice user interface in hardware devices to access software applications to help in the logistics of inventory management – to speed the act and accuracy of order fulfillment.

Traditionally, devising speech applications for challenging physical environment hasn’t been low hanging fruit in the speech industry. Most of the "easy pickings" in this category have been telematics applications sales — speech navigation, information access and cell phone dialing in vehicles just to name a few. Development of these applications and improvements has been driven more by the need to allow access to conventional speech applications from places other than a home or office telephone. Warehouses and distribution centers, on the other hand, provide less obvious payback than traditional IVR applications. Customers don’t typically call into a touch-tone application from a warehouse. With the additional physical challenges in navigating around these supply centers, employees don’t call into touch-tone applications either. Furthermore, it is difficult to input data into a computer without stopping the entire process, which makes receiving data to do the job and coordinating others a challenge. When it comes to work places such as warehouses and distribution centers there isn’t the obvious revenue generating applications typically found in the average IVR or call center implementation. Yet these applications compete mightily with the most sophisticated of IVR and call center grammars. This is because the vocabularies used in warehouse applications are often massive and ever-changing as compared to the often limited vocabularies of an average IVR script. In addition, vendors entering this space encounter the toughest of acoustic environments for a speech recognizer. Warehouses combine the extremes of application environments (and this time the term "environment" really is just that) – dirt and dust, high and variable noise and dry or extremely cool conditions. If employees want to interact with a system, they have to wear a headset or carry a device. A few vendors have stepped into this market and addressed the issue of accessing systems that run these centers by providing bullet-proof hardware, a speech interface and user-friendly software.

A WAREHOUSE PRIMER – JUST WHAT DOES HAPPEN IN THAT BUILDING? Most people probably envision ware-house applications as boxes being moved by forklifts – ala "warehouse grocery out-lets." This is an accurate, but limited view of how warehouses are operated. Much more takes place in both the warehouse and larger distribution centers. Sure trains, trucks and forklifts move goods, shelves are stocked and materials moved, but the fun begins in the tracking of goods and materials, making sure inventory is adequately tracked, order picking is accurately done, shortages noted, items backordered, returns restocked and processed and shelves replenished. To complicate this dance, workers often have to partner up — such as stock replenishers and stock pickers — so that the product is there when needed. There are hundreds of management software packages on the market to assist with the management of warehouse contents. The best of them drive every nuance of supply chain management with great efficiency. Others are not so thorough. Warehouses can be run as simply and inefficiently as printing out lists of items to be pulled from shelves and packed for shipment, sending the picker off to locate and pull the items, then returning the form to be updated in the computer – noting what was successfully picked and what was "short" or missing from the list. However, drawbacks to this simplistic set-up are plentiful, and errors costly. In less sophisticated set-ups, pickers log miles walking back and forth to get updates to the list, have no real-time access to any change in inventory or product relocation and management doesn’t have quick control over any changes they need to delegate to the employee, to cite just a few issues. Imagine this costly chain of events. A warehouse picker pulls the wrong product. The customer gets the wrong item and has to request a replacement and a credit adding administrative costs. The product is re-ordered, the original is received, handled and restocked, all involving shipping and receiving, picking and replenishing, etc. Plus one must consider the overhead and potential for damage to the product. Even if an employee, for example, would be counting numbers of products on a shelf anyway, or adding stock to a shelf, a single item being handled again adds time. Suddenly, it’s not the cost of the product, but the burdened overhead rate of all the people who touched it along the way. Improvements in warehouse management have been made over time to include the addition of scanners and bar code readers, labelers and lately – radio frequency ID tags (RFID), making it easier to update inventory and improve accuracy. But with entries are not entered into the system unless a cross check has been done. This is particularly important because real-time updates ensure that the next person down the line doesn’t find an empty pallet waiting due to slow order entry into the system.

CHALLENGES AND REWARDS Challenges to success using speech in the warehouse go way beyond the basic hardware required to access the application. The biggest challenges include the sophistication of the speech recognizers to compensate for poor acoustics and include the normal challenges the entire industry is forced to handle. Issues such as workers with multiple accents or who speak multiple dialects and languages. Then again, there are the myriad software packages to deal with what takes place on the other end of the microphone. Offsetting these challenges are magic words every business owner yearns to hear including higher accuracy, increased productivity, lower turnover, reduction in accidents and better management of employee. The beauty of the speech interface keeps hands and eyes free of an applications control, leaving the user better able to handle physical work. Using wearable, wireless devices, and no longer constrained by a static list or interrupted by having to gain access to a phone or terminal, a worker gains great efficiencies by speaking what they want and supplying the system in turn with what it needs. The benefit of entering the warehouse market is a strong ROI story through great cost reduction from reduced worker errors, fewer physical inventories, lower costs associated with physical inventory and revenue generation through workforce automation.

ENTER THE WAREHOUSE TRAILBLAZERS Although inventory management applications number in the hundreds, those deploying speech applications to enhance the warehouse are still few. Among them are Vocollect, Voxware and Syvox (recently acquired by Genesta Partnership), along with system integrators and Value Added Resellers (VARS), such as Speech Interface Design, Inc. and Supply Chain Management companies, such as Manhattan Associates, who in turn work with the speech vendors. A tough job, these com-panies create the speech user interface to disparate systems and applications, including warehouse management, workforce and supply chain management or financial services software. They are often forced to be trailblazers, in that often times, as we know is true with speech, creating a user interface is not a one to one change from pressing touchtone keys or strokes on a pc keyboard. And with so many types of systems to work with, with varied capabilities, these folks need to make sure that their interface not only streamlines existing processes, but optimizes the productivity of individual workers in ways that some systems are not equipped to handle. In many instances the user interface contains improvements and new capabilities to streamline processes that are not contained in standard warehouse packages. Additionally, workers can respond better to situations that arise that are not in the standard application. Voxware, for example, has created their VoiceLogistics Suite to allow a workers to constantly interact with the system, not just dump data into it, enabling them to respond not only to the system but to conditions or happenings in the workplace that are not on the work agenda. For example, if someone is going to a specific aisle to pick from a pallet, and suddenly encounters a pile of fallen pallets blocking the way, he can inform the system of the problem, tell the application that they are skipping that particular item and are going somewhere else first. This flexibility is like having the supervisor sitting right there as the worker can be re-assigned to other tasks or skip one item, continue on and return later. Voxware has installed the VoiceLogistics Suite in numerous retail applications for facilitating high speed picking and inventory man-agement in customers ranging from Haggar Clothing Co. and 7-Eleven, to PETCO Animal Supplies, Inc. Another vendor in this space is Vocollect, marketing its Talkman Voice-Directed Systems. Talkman has been installed in many warehouse locations including Dreyers/Edy’s Grand Ice Cream as well as grocery store chains Giant Eagle and Food City. A recent installation of Talkman was completed at the Tractor Supply Company (TSC), one of the leading retail farm and ranch store brands in the United States. TSC selected Vocollect to stream-line its Pendleton, Ind., distribution center supporting 445 stores in 30 states. Live in January 2003, early results showed an eight to 10 percent productivity increase across the entire distribution center with up to 18 percent in some areas. In some instances, such as when Vocollect installed Talkman into Corporate Express’ 22 distribution centers, results were a 50-60 percent increase in productivity through the use of speech technologies combined with scanning technologies. Syvox, a speech company specializing in productivity solutions for the mobile worker, has its SpeechNet Logistics product for the warehousing and logistics market, and has installed speech logistics products for companies such as Atlas Cold Storage.

SUMMARY Although still largely ignored by many purveyors of speech, the ware-house and distribution market is an emerging area that can greatly benefit from improved by speech applications. With a great ROI story that includes improvements in speed, accuracy and worker safety, it is a niche not to be ignored. Further integration of specialized warehouse speech packages with existing systems is also bringing about a new flavor of customer relationship management (CRM) too, with the twist being that this time the customer is the warehouse worker. With more sophisticated voice recognition, a comprehensive focus on all workers activities will be possible and both the "warehouse customer" and the warehouse industry will thrive.

Nancy Jamison is the principal analyst at Jamison Consulting. She can be reached at nsj@jamison.com.

SpeechTek Covers
for qualified subscribers
Subscribe Now Current Issue Past Issues