Back in the 1980s, I was on a supplier audit mission and requested a review of a distributor's warehouse system. I was taken to the back of a very large building, guided through secured double doors, and introduced to the unexpected.
Above me was a system of operating gantries with picking claws carrying various colored component bins to some final destination beyond my field of vision. When I looked closer, I saw that the gantry network branched into various "aisles in the sky." I asked my guide to explain how the system worked, and he was more than happy to show off this new technology.
I followed him to a computer screen where he punched in a part number and said, "Watch this." He directed my eyes to the hanging rail system to watch an empty mechanical claw move towards a bin location about 8 feet above my head and down the aisle about 20 feet. I watched the claw stop in front of a bin, extend forward, pick up the bin, and move it to a receiving station, which I could now see. When we arrived at the receiving station, the bin had been lowered and set on a rack with a paper label that matched the computer printout being printed at the receiving station as I watched. I felt I was on the set of a Star Trek episode.
We have come a long, long way since then. Now it is a common sight to see distribution centers with picking apparatus enabled by both computer and voice commands via a wireless network. The picking operation is effected by someone with a headset terminal for hands-free operation. An assignment is transferred from the warehouse management system via an 802.11-enabled headset or terminal. The voice-enabled device translates the assignment data into audible commands. The user provides spoken responses to confirm any actions, and the confirmed instruction is converted to data that the host system can use to self-update.
Voice technology has now been deployed at thousands of companies around the globe in multiple industries, for multiple workflows and processes, and has moved well beyond the initial picking applications that were the first areas of deployment focus in the distribution center.
One voice technology vendor, Vocollect claims 500,000 users. Voice tech has only been around for about a decade, and for one vendor to have half a million users is a testimony to the perceived value of this supply chain innovation.
Off-the-shelf software with pre-populated phrasing tied to text commands is fundamental to rapid deployment. In the most basic terms, a voice system directs an operator to complete discrete tasks, such as an order-pick or replenishment, using audio commands. That generally means that the "text-based" commands originating in a warehouse management or order processing system have been converted into voice commands by the voice technology provider. The software continues to evolve with each new generation, and so the implementation for voice-controlled systems is becoming easier and therefore more desirable. The reality today is the success rates for voice technology are very high, and "failures" are virtually unheard of.
Voice today is being used in put-away, truck-loading, receiving, inbound quality/compliance audits, and really just about every process in the distribution center. The industry may soon be able to use voice command for offloading trucks and containers equipped with the mobile picking apparatus. It shouldn't be too long before we see beverage distributors offload case after case of bottles and cans to retail stores and vending machines via voice control operations.
Can you hear it? "Give me 16 cases of Mountain Dew, 4 cases of Pepsi, and 1 case of 7-Up." The side-accessible delivery truck, equipped with a computer-controlled moveable gantry with mini-forklift tongs, moves up and down and left and right and pulls the heavy cases and lowers them to the dolly to be wheeled to the in-store final destination. The packing slip shows up on a portable touch display that receives the accepting signature and a copy of the invoice beams through the cloud to the store's AP department.
Because this technology does not depend on the machine-based picking system, an employee could be a full time "picker." Equipped with a headset, the picker receives voice command for pulling batch orders. When the goods are pulled, one component at a time and individually voice confirmed, a hand-filled bin is hand-carried to its final destination awaiting the customer's retrieval.
I almost engaged a grocery service that used this system for batch orders via phone. I decided that maybe I didn't need another technology that would make me even more sedentary than I already am. But for those big distributors handling thousands of orders a day, how could you not love this system? This is one innovation that really speeds up the supply chain and improves accuracy via voice confirmation one SKU at a time.
To Vocollect and other voice system purveyors, I say "Thank SKU very much."