Your DC Is Never Too Small for Voice: Using Voice in Many Workflows
Your DC Is Never Too Small for Voice: Using Voice in Many Workflows
This is a six-part series that explores the many facets of voice-directed work in the small- to medium-sized DC/warehouse. In Part 1, we will introduce Honeywell Voice, its application across workflows, and return on investment (ROI). In Part 2, we will review the Honeywell walk-through and assessment process. In Part 3, we will look at the role of voice in the picking workflow and its ROI. In Part 4, we will evaluate voice against paper-based, radio frequency (RF) scanning and pick-to-light solutions. In Part 5, we will introduce Honeywell Guided Work Solutions for small- and medium-sized DCs. In Part 6, we will take a closer look at five DCs from around the world who have chosen Honeywell Voice.
Maximizing DC/warehouse utilization and consistently maintaining peak performance are common goals shared by operations. These start with identifying and evaluating your unique business requirements and addressing your most common challenges with solutions that will consistently deliver required outcomes.
As a small- to medium-sized operation, you are subject to numerous external factors that affect every level of the supply chain, such as customer expectations, product proliferation, expanding networks and the pace of innovation.
Take e-commerce, for example, which by its nature necessitates an increase in single-item picks and offers a wider range of product. This places greater pressures on store and customer-facing and supplier warehouse operations to deliver greater choice, in shorter lead times, in smaller quantities per SKU, coupled with an increase in customer expectations relating to returns. This naturally builds more effort and complexity into the average order.
For many, analog or paper-based systems are still a big part of many everyday tasks and workflows. This methodology is highly prone to introduce errors in every step of the process, and severely impairs receiving, inventory counting, picking and packing workflows. Companies are taking paper out of the equation and employing automation solutions such as RF scanners, light- and voice-directed picking, mobile computers and scanners to drive significant efficiency and accuracy improvements.
Building a Case for Voice-Directed and Hands-Free Workflows
In this article, we’ll make a case for how Honeywell Voice can make a difference in your current and future operations.
Traditionally, when we first approach small- to medium-sized operations (between 100,000 and 500,000 sq. ft.) about using Honeywell Voice as a replacement and/or alternative for paper-based, pick-to-light or RF scanner solutions, we get answers like:
- “We are too small.”
- “It’s too expensive.”
Per Gartner, Voice-directed warehouse management solutions involve the use of speech recognition and/or speech synthesis technologies to drive activities in warehouse operations, integrating speech-collected information into a warehouse management system (WMS) or other database. This enables hands-free operations for tasks such as carton or ‘eaches’ (single-item) picking, where the additive data collection steps can be removed with the use of speech input. This provides 40% to 50% improved productivity for a similar task that, historically, required paper-based or barcode data collection.
Enterprises that use speech recognition applications to replace paper-based picking or pick-to-light solutions can achieve ROI in less than one year. Other applications in the warehouse that can also use speech recognition include receiving, shipping, put-away, and cycle-counting and/or inventory management, and the payback on these implementations is getting more attractive with the elimination of specific-use data collection devices.1
Use cases for the technology are fairly-well understood, and technical barriers to adoption are pretty much nonexistent. The once-high costs of adopting voice are now on par with other technologies.
Gartner continues: Bottom line: voice works, the filtering is strong, and the use cases are well-proven. Adoption has primarily been constrained by higher costs for voice hardware and software when compared to conventional mobile ruggedized radio frequency (RF) scanning devices. While transactional voice offerings had higher costs, these costs have come down as vendors have transitioned from traditional rugged devices to more consumer-grade devices, so interest in voice is growing again.2
ROI of Voice: Primary and Secondary Benefits
No business is going to invest in something that does not have a clear ROI. Some investments in technology have a shorter payback, as is the case when implementing voice picking into DC operations. What is more significant for businesses today is the total cost of ownership (TCO). Businesses must partner with a trusted vendor that can help them assess their technology requirements as well as fully outline the initial and long-term costs for such investments. Are these businesses just looking at the cost of automation without considering the maintenance costs down the road? What if they are looking to employ a bring-your-own-device program into their DC, which is a rugged environment? Are there implications to that strategy? There are significant cost implications to investing in new technology, so selecting the right partnerships for DC operations is just as critical as the selection of the technology itself.
Voice comes alive when you can see the real and quantifiable ROI. The primary financial benefits are centered on:
- Accuracy – Errors are reduced by providing a hands-free, eyes-up technology that keeps workers focused on the task at hand. There is no longer the distraction of looking at a screen or a piece of paper to know where to go or what to pick next. The worker is directed via voice through the entire process, allowing them to be more alert and aware while performing any number of tasks.
- Productivity – Because workers are more focused on the task they’re performing and they’re being directed by a voice and not having to stop or pause to look at a screen or a piece of paper, the worker is more fluid in his/her movements and able to move more efficiently throughout their day. Fewer steps to complete tasks throughout the day — less fumbling or struggling with other forms of information — reduces lost time, leading to faster warehouse throughput.
The secondary benefits include:
- Labor efficiency – The use of voice and the subsequent increase in overall worker productivity lead to additional savings, including: reduction in overtime; the need for fewer inspectors to check order accuracy; less reliance on temporary or seasonal staff; and the ability to cross-train employees to perform more voice-directed tasks.
- Safety – The hands-free and eyes-up nature of voice creates a more alert and aware workforce, helping to decrease the chance for injury. This also leads to less damage and breakage, which can ultimately lead to other incidents or injuries.
- Regulatory – Achieve cost-effective compliance using voice for real-time material tracking and traceability, to comply with evolving government regulations without burdensome process or cost.
- Inventory and downstream savings – Reduced inventory holding costs are a direct result of the ability to create a more efficient fulfillment cycle from the receiving dock to the outbound shipment, reducing mis-picks and moving product at the right time to meet customer demand.
Impact of Voice Across the Organization
No two companies determine the cost or definition of an error in the same way. Some need to retrieve, inspect, and re-inventory improperly delivered items, while others may simply write off the incorrectly delivered goods. Some are sensitive to the cost of downstream lost sales, as deliveries are being made to company-owned retail outlets. Others calculate their costs per order (per delivery) instead of accuracy per line item.
The following information illustrates examples of frequently reported expense categories. While not exhaustive, they serve as a good model of cost areas relating to order errors that can add up and account for large buckets of operating costs if not tracked or improved. Many of these directly impact the workers using the voice systems and can more easily be measured. Some are upstream or downstream impacts that can provide additional savings opportunities, but may not be as easy to track.
According to one supply chain consulting firm, a mis-pick, for example, can cost a wholesaler in the range of $8 to $40 per error. “The cost is based on the error being correctly identified and reported followed by the costs for the clerical effort of handling the credit claim, the margin on the lost sale, the transport costs of returning the item, the labor costs in handling the return, and in some cases, the cost of writing off stock if the returned item is outside acceptable shelf life or QA parameters”
“As an indication of the magnitude of the possible savings, a wholesaler picking 500,000 cases per week with an error rate of two per thousand (99.8% accuracy) is experiencing 50,000 errors per year. An 80% reduction to 0.4 per thousand (99.96% accuracy) will reduce errors by 40,000 per year, which at a cost of $15 per error, represents savings of over $600,000 per year.”3
When you look across your organization, you will find that voice can impact a myriad of costs, including:
- Time spent working with clients, validating errors, and determining the proper course of correction
- Time spent re-issuing orders to correct errors
- Time spent adjusting existing invoices, issuing credits, and documenting account actions
- Time spent administering the return material authorization (RMA) process
- Time spent re-picking an order
- Time spent re-packing an order
- Time spent re-delivering an order
- Time spent collecting RMA items
- Return freight expenses for RMA returns, as applicable
- Receiving returned items, updating RMA information
- Inspecting returned items and deciding re-inventory status
- Put-away (return to inventory)
- Updating inventory information
Lost Margin and Revenue
- Lost profitability from selling mis-delivered items at an unusually deep discount
- Lost sales downstream at company retail outlets, due to lack of product
Understanding the Basics of Voice
In this part of our discussion, if you are not familiar with voice, we will introduce you to a few basics about the technology.
Voice-directed workflow. Workers wear a headset with microphones and communicate orally with software to receive and confirm tasks. For example, in the picking workflow, the worker is instructed to go to a pick location. The interaction between the worker and Honeywell Voice would likely be the following:
- Voice: Go to location A21b.
- User: Confirm check code for A21b.
- Voice: Pick five cases of product 123.
- User: Confirm quantity, five.
- Voice: Go to location A35a.
- User: Confirm check code for A35a.
- Voice: Pick five cases of product ABC.
- User: Confirm quantity, five.
- Voice: Capture lot codes for product ABC.
- User: Lot 1, A1B2C3D4.
- User: Lot 2, XXXXXX.
The majority of benefits for using voice-directed solutions come from the hands-free, eyes-up nature of voice technology. By using a headset instead of a screen or piece of paper, the worker can keep their eyes continuously on the task at hand. By being free of holding a keyboard or scanner, or reaching for a piece of paper, both hands can be used to carry out a range of tasks.
Defining speaker-dependent vs. speaker-independent solutions. Historically, the Honeywell Voice business has been focused on what we refer to as “speaker- dependent” solutions. This is where the user trains the system to recognize their individual language, dialect and speech patterns. This allows the speaker- dependent solution to filter out environment noise, increasing accurate and robust responses from the user’s voice. We have felt very strongly that is the best way to go; if your livelihood depends on it, it absolutely needs to work all the time.
Over the last few years, a few of our customers have asked that we consider additional options to help them address the need to bring on temporary workers and not have to train them on our speaker-dependent solution. We have recently released Pick Up and Go. This is a “speaker-independent” solution where the user does not train the system to recognize their individual language, dialect or speech patterns, but instead tries to match the user’s voice to generic, previously created voice patterns.
Expected results with voice-enabled workflows. Results vary based on the workflows you voice-enable and the current technology you are replacing (paper, scanning, lights, etc.). The list of potential benefits is impressive:
- Increased accuracy — 99.9% plus
- Increased productivity — 15–50% plus
- Decreased staff churn
- Efficient regulatory compliance
- Inventory optimization (reduced holding costs)
- Removes trips back to assignment desk
- Removes cost of printing and distributing picking documents
- Removes cost of re-keying order amendments, picking confirmations and catch weights
- Fewer administrative, fixed asset and consumable overheads
- Hands-free and eyes-free — makes picking easier
- Real-time feedback for proactive management
- Real-time stock updating
- Real-time visibility and integration into business system decision making
- Improved safety — hands-free and eyes-free
- Reduced training — verbal prompts easier
- ROI in 2–24 months
Voice Has Applications Across the DC
Voice-directed solutions are most often associated with the picking workflow. However, voice solutions provide value to mobile employees whenever hands-free operation proves advantageous over other user interface methodologies, including:
Receiving – The accuracy of the receiving process is increased as the receiver focuses on one thing: receiving the product. The rate of receiving also increases, as the receiver is not interrupted with stop-and-start steps in the process.
Put-away – Can be automated to meet the specific needs of the WMS and match the demands of each environment. Using voice provides advantages and benefits, regardless of whether an operator is performing driver- or system-directed put-away.
Replenishment – Workers focus on the timely moves of pallets or cases being dispensed, as well as the location where the work is being done. Voice enables multi-tasking, so the worker can carry out the replenishment and confirm the activity, all at the same time. This results in better performance and real-time data collection while increasing task accuracy.
Cycle-counting (inventory) – Whether it’s integrated as part of the picking process in order to update low-quantity items, or as an ad-hoc or stand-alone application that helps maintain more accurate inventory levels, cycle-counting is one application that has hard and soft payback benefits. Inventory no longer requires bodies and days to get counts; now you can have real-time updates every day to ensure your warehouse is moving at top speed.
Temporary moves – Moving product from a reserve location to a pick slot or from a storage location to a reserve location may be necessary to increase operational efficiency. The workers need to know where the product is moving from, how much needs to be moved, and where it’s being moved. This can be easily managed with voice and provide real-time updates to pickers without creating skips or mis-picks.
Packing – By voice-enabling specific instructions or priorities for packing, the process can be integrated directly into the selection and delivery steps in order to maximize worker efficiency and keep the orders moving from start to finish.
Staging/loading – Another peripheral application for voice that can help to increase worker efficiency in the warehouse. Providing voice direction to lift drivers to stack and stage lanes as part of the inbound/outbound side of fulfillment can help minimize errors and stops and starts due to reading screens. Direct loading can also be managed by voice for operations desiring to skip staging.
Cross-docking – Moving products from the dock to the point of activity (e.g., piece putting) is critical to sustaining the flow of product through the warehouse and out to the customer. Integral activities that are powered by voice can help keep up with the needs and schedules of the outbound processes while helping drive worker efficiency and productivity. As with put-away, cross-docking can help get the right products in place for the next step of the fulfillment process, helping better utilize your operators, who can now do more in less time.
Returns – An integral part of many warehouses, managing returns can be a labor-intensive and slow process. With voice, quickly breaking down, assessing, and delivering returns to the right step of the process can help to quickly update critical system information and reduce the cost of handling returns to help margins on those products.
Value-added services – Quickly incorporate value-added services like tagging or labeling into your picking or fulfillment process to maximize efficiency and keep up with order velocity. Create more consistent processes, eliminating the stops and starts and removing non-value-add touches.
Time and attendance – Help improve your employee morale and eliminate time-consuming start and end-of-shift operations; voice-enable time and attendance as part of the voice experience and get faster, more accurate data in real time.
Honeywell voice-directed solutions are used by nearly one million mobile workers every day, throughout the world, in a variety of tasks/workflows, in almost every kind and size of DC/warehouse operation. Honeywell voice-guided solutions have been proven to increase productivity by up to 35% and accuracy to 99.99%+. For example, in picking processes where workers follow a series of instructions for specific pick locations, products and quantities, these tools provide needed guidance and verification at every step. Voice is available in more than 35 languages and has been proven to dramatically reduce training and onboarding time, especially in peak seasons with highly transient workforces.
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Our expert assessment teams will partner with you to understand your unique business requirements and identify where opportunities exist to optimize your workflows and increase efficiencies within today’s competitive climate.
At Honeywell, we work with thousands of distribution centers of all sizes, across a wide variety of industries worldwide. We bring a deep foundational understanding of the businesses we serve, backed with expert research and data that identifies the real, specific needs of today’s DCs.
With over 130 years of on-the-ground experience, Honeywell is uniquely equipped to help you solve the problems that your business faces every day, see improved results, and be a trusted partner to help you reach and exceed your predetermined goals.
1 Gartner. Revisit Your Ruggedized Strategy Before You’re Hit by the End of OS Support. Leif-Olof Wallin, Stephen Kleynhans, et al., Published 27 March 2017.
2 Gartner. Emerging Technology Analysis: Build Voice-Enabled Technologies Into Manufacturing and Supply Chain Processes. Emil Berthelsen, Tim Zimmerman, et al. Published 30 March 2018.
3 Voice-directed Picking: Expected ROI, Business Computer Projects, Ltd., Chris Pass, 2015.