January 4, 2006, 12:00 AM

A Headphones Play

Web-based, walkie-talkie headsets speed up fulfillment and boost accuracy.

For years, Mitchell Grocery Corp. has sought to improve warehouse workers’ productivity while dealing with mistakes in order-picking that routinely plague retail food industry distribution centers and lead to disgruntled customers, costly returns and spoiled goods. When a center processes 500,000 cases a week of dry goods, milk, produce and ice cream, mistakes can be hard to avoid, especially as orders change.

But today, wearing web-enabled headgear with headphones and microphones that interact with a warehouse management system, Mitchell’s warehouse workers have improved their accuracy significantly as they pick orders for delivery to 250 stores in the grocery wholesaler’s distribution network across the southeastern U.S.

Cool technology

“The accuracy of our order selection and loading has improved 50%,” says David Mitchell, president of Mitchell Grocery. With a lot of perishable goods that cannot survive long outside of refrigeration, it’s crucial to make fulfillment as accurate as possible, he adds. “In the past, we were losing a lot of products,” he says.

Welcome to the world of voice-directed warehouse management, a technology and process changing the way retailers and suppliers operate their warehouses and load docks, free of paper forms and scanners but with instantly available updated order information. “While other technologies like radio frequency identification has fantastic promise, voice-directed is ready today with proven ROI,” says Greg Aimi, director of supply chain research at AMR Research Inc. “Voice-directed warehouse management is a very cool technology.”

The technology has been winning over distribution center executives with its ease of deployment as well as quick results. “We’ve already seen a 16% increase in productivity over radio frequency guns and 21% over paper orders,” says Stuart Rosenfeld, vice president of distribution for automotive parts retailer The Pep Boys-Manny, Moe & Jack, which installed the Talkman voice-directed system from Vocollect Inc. a year ago. “When you put new employees to work with a radio frequency scanning gun, it takes at least twice as long to train them. There are a lot of keys on that gun, and you have to know what each key does. With a voice system, you just have to know how to talk.”

Hearing voices

At Mitchell Grocery, warehouse workers are using their VoiceLogistics headgear from Voxware Inc. to listen to and interact with computer-generated, voice-directed instructions delivered on how to pick orders and load them onto trucks. An order picker starts off his shift by speaking an identifying code into the microphone, which launches a series of voice-directed instructions on what to pick. As a worker completes each step, he acknowledges such by speaking into the microphone, setting off a new voice-directed instruction from the VoiceLogistics system. A loading worker follows a similar process, as each worker’s unique identifier-as well as his or her voice-activates the voice-directed instructions for their particular tasks.

It goes like this:

Worker: “Ready.”

Voxware: “Aisle 22, Row 12, Level 8.”

Worker: “Confirmed.”

Voxware: “Carton 2233”

Worker: “Confirmed”

Voxware: “Pick 5 items”

Worker: “Confirmed.”

As the worker indicates in the last communication that the pick has been completed, he causes the VoiceLogistics system to automatically switch to instructions for the next pick. If the worker needs the system to repeat an instruction, he can simply say “repeat” or some other word programmed into the system, says Jef Morrow, vice president of marketing for Voxware.

Pioneering WMS

Voice-directed technology has been around for 10 years or more, but it’s only recently that it has been applied in a web technology environment that allows for a level of integration with warehouse management systems and provides for the kind of operation deployed by Mitchell Grocery and others, experts say. In fact, voice-directed warehouse management is one of the best examples of how warehouse management systems technology is playing a leading role in using web technology to improve supply chain operations, Aimi says.

“The architecture of warehouse management systems, brought on by the web, has enabled new enterprise applications,” Aimi says, adding that warehouse management vendors have been pioneers in converging toward service-oriented architecture. “That allows you to have integrated systems without having to create custom-coded systems. So it’s very natural to integrate with multiple technology services.”

Voice-directed warehouse management relies on technology that transforms words spoken or keyed-in by people into computer-generated voice commands, which are transferred from a warehouse management system or other back-end enterprise software application to the warehouse workers’ headgear using radio frequency technology. Instead of requiring warehouse workers to read paper instructions telling them what to pick to fulfill orders, or to scan picked items with a radio frequency gun, voice-directed systems from companies like Voxware and Vocollect are designed so that workers can keep their hands free for handling goods while using speech to interact with a warehouse management system.

At Mitchell Grocery, the communications are supported by Voxware’s VoiceXML web browser, including a portable VLS-410 computer device worn like a belt pack. The system uses wireless fidelity web transmission to connect to a central VoiceLogistics server on Mitchell’s corporate network, where VoiceLogistics integrates with Mitchell’s web-enabled warehouse management system. The warehouse management system automatically configures the optimal picking and loading sequences for each order, then integrates with VoiceLogistics to distribute interactive, voice-directed instructions to each worker.

Searching

Mitchell, after observing the VoiceLogistics technology in operation at multiple retailers’ warehouse operations, including a furniture merchant as well as other grocery companies, decided to deploy the system in the second half of last year at the company’s three-building distribution center, where it maintains 16,000 SKUs. The system supports about 100 order pickers and 20 loaders.

“We had been looking for about two years, we wanted to wait until other warehouses had proved it worked,” Mitchell says. The research paid off, he adds, as the VoiceLogistics system quickly produced results. The system’s installation took about three weeks and most workers learned the system within two days, he says.

In its first few months of operation, the VoiceLogistics system at Mitchell Grocery has cut to two from more than four mistakes per thousand picks, savings that can mean a lot in the tight-margin grocery business, experts say. “This system guarantees that the order-picker is in the right slot,” Mitchell says. “The worker would have to almost intentionally make a mistake for the system to fail.”

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