Picking Responds to Words with Deeds

As an ideal supplement to barcodes or pick lists, pick-by-voice technology helps reduce errors by 70 percent to 80 percent. Benchmarks by Psion Teklogix, a supplier of mobile computing solutions, also show that the speed of picking and productivity can improve by more than 15 percent, depending on the starting situation.
The prevalence of speech-driven logistics applications in picking has occurred because of competitive pressure. Along with speed and lower costs, the market demands precision in deliveries. Increasingly integrated supply chains require just-in-sequence or just-in-time delivery. Picking errors in distribution warehouses create complicated and interwoven processes for customers, and they often cause damage that later redeliveries cannot repair. And increasing compliance requirements in many industries simply cannot tolerate picking errors because of product warranties or end-to-end batch tracing.

Clear view, free hands

A low error rate is the primary reason for implementing pick-by-voice technology. Additional advantages include greater efficiency because of uninterrupted processes and the savings that result. There is a huge variety of company-specific picking strategies, but the basic principle in manual warehouses involves one employee and one product. Employees walk or use some kind of vehicle to travel from shelf to shelf and fill a container with goods to satisfy an order.
In a pick-by-voice scenario, employees also carry a speech-enabled computer on their belts and wear a headset. The central warehouse management system (WMS) tells employees the location of the goods over the headset. The shelf displays a number that employees verbally enter into the WMS, such as SAP Logistics Execution System (SAP LES) or SAP Extended Warehouse Management (SAP EWM). The SAP software uses a Remote Function Call (RFC), a Business Application Programming Interface (BAPI), a business add-in, Web services, or an Intermediate Document (IDOC) to capture the spoken transaction data – what quantity should be taken from a warehouse location, for example. The software compares the location of the appropriate product. The host system tells pickers the item number and the number of items for the current order line item. As soon as the product is removed from the shelf, employees document the procedure by speaking into the microphone on their headsets. The pick-by-voice system replies with a shelf number for the next item or says that the order is complete and that a new order can be started.
No typing, scanning, or checking off of lists interrupts the work process. Hands and views remain free, so employees can concentrate on picking products. Speaking and listening demand significantly less effort than working with a paper list, so it’s an effective way to avoid incorrect postings. The risk of accidents is also lower because employees do not have to turn around and their hands are free, so pick-by-voice technology contributes to workplace safety as well.

Lower error rates, better productivity

The potential advantages of pick-by-voice technology were behind the decision of wolfcraft, an electronics and tool manufacturer headquartered in Kempenich, Germany, to ban paper lists from its distribution warehouse. A pick-by-voice solution from Psion Teklogix replaced paper pick lists. About 18 employees use a mobile, handheld computer from Vocollect to pick more than 100,000 orders with more than 3.5 million line items annually. Even though wolfcraft could have achieved real-time transparency by using paperless processes with its existing SAP R/3 software, it could not have reduced its error rate by 35 percent. Productivity in the parallel picking of various sales orders increased by 14 percent.
Headquartered in Künzelsau, Germany, Würth Gruppe, which specializes in assembly and mounting products, provides another example of the use of pick-by-voice technology. A speech-based solution accelerates the receipt and issue of Euro pallets in the company’s high-bay warehouse. The goal at the Adolf Würth GmbH & Co. KG subsidiary is for the central office to gain enough experience and knowledge to tighten logistics processes at its other European locations with speech technology. Würth uses TekSpeech, from Psion Teklogix to communicate between the mobile terminals and the central SAP software. The software features its own database and business logic, but can also be installed as a gateway, without database and business logic, as it is at wolfcraft. The gateway redirects the data from the SAP software to the speech devices. No formatting, like the sorting or cumulating of quantities, occurs.

Little effort, big results

The use of pick-by-voice technology depends on certain conditions. Speech-enabled devices must be able to function properly in a variety of environments, including extremes of temperature and humidity. Microphones must be able to filter out background noise. It’s best to use a speech-recognition product that depends on individual speakers. It usually only takes half an hour to train speech software because warehouse applications use a relatively small number of words. The greatest advantage of an individual speech profile is that recognition functions reliably, regardless of accent, dialect, or other linguistic characteristics – even when workers speak columns of numbers without pauses or when different words sound alike.
It’s also important that the mobile devices have enough memory and CPU capacity. The more that processing steps occur decentrally, the lower the load on the wireless infrastructure. The primary concern is adequate performance – an absolute necessity for uninterrupted picking processes. With a view toward integration costs, programmed software interfaces can help link other business applications and reduce the implementation time for pick-by-voice technology and the required investment.
The potential of pick-by-voice technology to increase quality and improve productivity is not limited to picking in the strict sense. Speech-enabled solutions can also improve logistics processes in other areas, including goods receipt, restocking warehouse shelves, and quality control. The measurable success of the technology depends on the concrete tasks and the starting situation. The value is greatest when replacing paper-based packing lists. According to Vocollect, productivity increases by 15 percent and quality by more than 35 percent in that case. If pick lists are replaced with a paperless and wireless data solution like pick-by-voice technology, a 15 percent increase in productivity is realistic.

Jürgen Heim
Jürgen Heim