January 4, 2006, 12:00 AM

A Headphones Play

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The VoiceLogistics system also provides web-page administration accessible by any managers with authorized Internet access. Because the system uses computer-generated voice technology to translate text to speech as well as speech to text, managers can log on to see textual reports of each worker’s progress. “They can see in real time what’s happening on the distribution center floor,” Morrow says.

At the same time, he adds, managers can log on to override the VoiceLogistics system with new instructions if necessary, as typed-in text is transferred into computer-generated voice sent to workers’ headgear.

6-month ROI

Although Mitchell declines to say how much his company paid for the Voxware system, VoiceLogistics can range from under $100,000 for a single-application deployment used by fewer than 25 workers-just order-picking, for instance-to several hundred thousand dollars for a multi-application system used by a larger number of employees, Morrow says.

“We figure the system will pay for itself in less than six months,” Mitchell says, adding that he expects VoiceLogistics to help his distribution center get down to one mistake per thousand picks.

Voice-directed systems have made other technology leaps in recent years, as more retail industry companies have begun deploying them in place of paper forms, radio frequency scanning and pick-to-light systems. Pep Boys has already replaced most of its paper and radio frequency scanning guns with the Vocollect Talkman voice-directed system, Rosenfeld says.

Although he had been monitoring voice-directed systems for about eight years, it wasn’t until the last year or two that the technology matured into a fully effective application, Rosenfeld says. In addition to its new ability to better interact through web technology with warehouse management systems, the voice-directed technology also became more practical for use by workers. Older systems used microphones that were incapable of filtering out noise, for example, and the early headgear units were too heavy. “Now the headsets are feather-light, and they can filter out noise like the motors on forklifts and warehouse loudspeakers,” Rosenfeld says.

The headsets now operate with software that can be programmed to recognize a particular person’s tone of voice, so that the voice directions interact only with the intended worker.

Not for everyone

As useful as they are, the voice-directed systems are not ideal for all situations, Rosenfeld says. They’re not quite as accurate as radio-frequency scanning guns, which Pep Boys will still use for picking certain high-priced items. “In our lock-up areas of high-value products, we want the 100% accuracy we can get with radio frequency guns, and with voice we get 99.5%.”

It takes too long to scan all products with radio frequency guns, however, so the voice system provides the best mix of speed and accuracy, Rosenfeld says.

Perhaps the biggest advantage of the voice-directed systems, he adds, is the support they get from workers. After it began testing the Talkman system with a group of 10 employees, Rosenfeld asked each one for pro or con comments. “Every single employee loved the system,” he says. “I have never before implemented a new system where I got 100% buy-in.”

As voice-directed technology continues to mature, it will become more common in a larger number of warehouse and other operations, including receiving inventory into warehouses as well as picking orders to send out, experts say.

Indeed, Voxware is banking on its web strategy to catapult into an expanded market. AMR’s Aimi notes that Vocollect has grabbed a larger market share, partly by building technology partnerships with warehouse management system providers and more aggressive business development, but he adds that Vocollect uses proprietary middleware to connect workers’ Talkman units to a central server.

No more paper

Voxware is placing a larger bet on web technology to make its system integrate more easily with multiple applications, Morrow says. Like Vocollect, Voxware’s system benefits from web-based technology that integrates the systems’ central server with warehouse management systems. But Voxware continues to develop new versions of its patented VoiceXML over IP system that connects its VoiceLogistics mobile units over an Internet protocol connection to back-end servers, which it figures will make it easier to integrate a broader range of applications, Morrow says.

Regardless of which version of voice-directed technology wins out in the long term, one thing is for sure, Rosenfeld says. “We won’t be using paper,” he says. “Voice will be predominant in distribution centers.”

paul@verticalwebmedia.com

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