5 Key Enablers for Voice-Based Warehouse Execution

May 13, 2009
Voice technology offers the potential for greater productivity accuracy in the DC.

Voiced-based warehouse executions is making inroads in today’s evolving global marketplace by helping companies better manage their warehouse and distribution operations while increasing the effectiveness of their workforce. The rapid adoption of voice technology in the warehouse is due to the potential productivity and accuracy gains when using voice-enabled material handling. These workforce efficiency improvements can have a substantial positive impact on a company’s financial performance. And these gains do not come at the detriment of the workforce, as workers can to do their jobs better and in safer conditions.

Voice is most often applied in labor-intensive activities in the warehouse, such as picking, put-away, replenishment, crossdocking and cycle counting. Voicebased warehousing technology relies on prompts and responses that are communicated through a headset connected to a mobility device, which is certified to run voice, which then allows workers to perform their tasks hands free and heads up.

These wearable mobility devices communicate wirelessly with a warehouse management system (WMS) over the facility’s WiFi network, enabling workers to receive work instructions in their native language and have two-way (prompt and response), real-time communications. Workers can concentrate on the work at hand without the distractions of paper pick lists, labels, or RF scanners.

The potential ergonomic and intuitive productivity gains achievable from voice include improved accuracy rates, increased productivity rates, safer working conditions, reduced training cycles and increased worker morale.

The type of software an organization selects can be critical when it comes to ease of integration, cost reduction and promoting long-term growth. From Voxware’s perspective, there are five key enablers that material handling managers need to keep in mind when considering a new voice implementation, expanding upon current voice applications or contemplating switching voice vendors. These factors play critical roles in the optimization of voice-based warehouse solutions and ultimately help deliver the lowest total cost of ownership for a voice solution. They are:

1. Open and 100% SOA based. Across the warehousing and distribution landscape, there is a technological shift from proprietary, closed software to standards-based service-oriented architecture (SOA) software. Open software adheres to publicly documented, widely accepted standards. With voice technology, this means the adoption of the VoiceXML (VXML) standard to create application packages and enable real-time communications between the client mobility devices and the host system.

The big idea behind SOA-based software is that services can be independent of each other and also combined to accomplish a business objective. SOA is basically a collection of services that communicate with each other to address specific business or technical problems.

In the warehouse, standards-based software offers maximum independence and flexibility. The same voice services can be assembled in different ways to voice-enable various processes in the distribution center.

This means that these standards give the warehouse independence from a specific vendor’s voice application, enabling the warehouse to choose devices and operate on varying platforms as business needs dictate.

2. Flexible and configurable. Among the big players in voice, there exists a growing philosophical difference and divergence in approach when it comes to voice software and hardware. One class of voice vendor offers proprietary voice hardware solutions, based on the assumption that it is more reliable and can be customized to fit the needs of each warehouse. The other class (which includes Voxware) offers standards-based voice software solutions based on a multimodal open hardware platform.

Flexible and configurable standardsbased voice software solutions allow new requirements to be built into the existing architecture. This allows voice to be tailored to each customer’s specific needs and requirements at the operational level, but without the needs of traditional programming. In addition, the rise of multi-modal voice technology has made it easier to use voice across all warehouse processes and has further enabled voice to be readily adapted to changing workflows and business processes.

3. Easily integrated. The interface with the host system is an integral part of a voice-based solution. Most WMS vendors have embraced SOA in their product design. With the WMS, SOA allows business processes to be easily changed without wholesale rewrites of the WMS source code.

Multi-vendor product integration has become far easier with the use of enterprise application integration (EAI) software, and this includes WMS and voice technology. However, it is important that an EAI solution includes a graphical tool that easily defines the messages exchanged between the voice interface and the back-end system, no matter what it is, i.e., WMS, ERP, or a home-grown proprietary solution. This is a graphical message mapping tool that at once isolates the voice interface from the ERP/WMS system yet permits rapid integration with these disparate applications. Within the back-end system, message definition occurs once, and the details are saved in the system and available for future use.

4. Platform-independent. For any voice solution to achieve long-term success, it must support best-of-breed, standards-based, open systems technology that offers users platform-independence. This approach enables users to leverage their existing IT investments, and choose the right components that support their long-term IT road map.

Open and flexible voice technology is all about the business process. Voice solutions built on an open SOAbased platform afford the flexibility to work on virtually any system and are compatible with any software or hardware solution. This enables customers to select the optimal combination of price and performance for mobile hardware, server components, database software and back-end host integration.

5. Hardware agnostic. Traditional voice solutions often relied on the specific voice vendor’s hardware product and required proprietary software. Today, voice solutions need to take advantage of advancements in browser-based technology, Internet protocols and publicly documented standards, such as VXML.

VXML is the industry standard specification for creating audio dialogs that feature synthesized speech, digitized audio, recognition of spoken and keypad input, recording of spoken input and mixed initiative conversations. VXML enables certified logistics- grade Windows CE devices to become voice enabled, including single purpose and multi-modal mobile voice hardware.

VXML-based browser software that runs on the client device allows any unit to be used by any user, anywhere, at any time. A browser-based hardware approach allows voice-enabled workers to log in and begin work without having to navigate to their voice profiles.

Furthermore, a VXML browser-based voice solution enables workers to work on any device and in varying zones without having to switch devices. A hardware-agnostic approach enables greater flexibility and choice for voice-enabled mobile hardware and ultimately gives the customer more choices when deploying a voice solution.

Ultimately, then, voice technology should be a key consideration for all distribution centers looking to remain competitive in today’s challenging business landscape. Voice-based warehousing gives companies the benefits of improved workforce productivity and accuracy, while increasing warehouse safety and decreasing training time, with a payback period that is typically less than one year.

This article is based on a white paper produced by Voxware (www.voxware.com).

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