Talk is Cheap (Relatively)

Put yourself, for a moment, in the shoes of your warehouse employees. Odds are that you (they) are either still carrying around a paper work order (such as a pick list) or a mobile terminal that tells you what to do next and where to go to do it.

What do these scenarios have in common? Three things: first, you have something in your hands — either the terminal or the pick list. Second, you have to constantly look at the list or terminal to figure out where to go next. Third, neither is the most effective use of your employees' eyes and hands.

What are the alternatives?

There are put/pick-to-light systems that can be useful, but re-equipping your entire warehouse with these systems may not be in your budget. What's more, they're only useful in pick, putaway and possibly inventory situations. They don't provide much help in shipping, receiving or other applications.

For the technology fans out there, there are the heads-up displays being used by the latest generation combat pilots. At the moment, however, this technology is not exactly what you might call "budget-friendly."

You could get really futuristic and look at what designers are planning for the next generation of combat aircraft. Oddly enough, this might be a very good choice. The technology being developed for future combat aircraft has already been in use in warehouses and manufacturing facilities for more than two decades: speech systems.

Speech systems are best deployed where words are the appropriate or most natural inputs. Keep in mind, though, that having employees speak long part numbers may not necessarily result in the best implementations since it's almost as easy to make "speakos" as it is "typos."

Industrial speech systems do require "discrete" speech — that is, words cannot be slurred together. Some systems will, however, recognize a commonly used phrase such as "fifty-five" as "five five" or can be programmed to regard "loading dock" as a single word in order to facilitate recognition.

Speech systems have to be "trained" to recognize the particular pronunciation of every user — even if the user has a cold or other temporary speech problem. Training also helps the system understand workers in noisy environments. Since many words, letters and numbers have a similar sound, very small differences make the difference between a system (or person) hearing "I left" or "five left."

Most current systems do include a preprogrammed vocabulary of common words to reduce the time it takes to train the system. The user's specific pronunciation is used to refine the preprogrammed vocabulary. Words unique to the application will require more training time (repetitions).

Speech systems have to be adaptable to cope with the increased diversity in the workplace. And, with more workers for whom English is not their native language, systems today can recognize non-English inputs as if they were English. Vendors also offer speech software in a number of the more common languages such as French and Spanish.

During training, speakers also learn certain commands that will put the system to "sleep" and "wake it up." This is necessary because there are times when an employee must talk but is not giving inputs to the speech system. Similar commands could be programmed to switch among different applications such as picking, shipping or inventory.

One very important aspect of the latest generation industrial speech systems is that they talk as well as listen — translating binary data in the host applications to verbal instructions.

Given the proper speech-based logistics software, non-standard work situations (such as an aisle being temporarily blocked by equipment) or exceptions (such as material not being in the storage location) can be handled efficiently. Here is where speech systems vendors feel their products shine, insisting that they allow workers to continually interact with the system and be directed to the next task without interruption.

Speech may not be the ultimate solution to all your warehouse problems. But it's certainly something to talk about.

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