Take total control of your supply chain

27 Dec 2008

New innovations involving sight and sound have transformed the supply chain and warehouses for the 21st century.

Having evolved in Ireland over the past five years, voice recognition technology is the latest innovation to impact the supply chain, allowing businesses managing warehouses to dramatically improve accuracy and productivity.

With this technology, warehouse personnel wearing headsets talk to a computer and receive a spoken response in reply. Essentially, it translates human speech input and data output into speech output, and  applications include order picking, shipment, inventory, put-away and movement of pallets.

Traditionally, the mainstay in warehousing was to use handheld scanners. In recent months, technology companies have started offering multi-modal solutions, which integrate voice, scanning, keyboard and other interfaces onto one platform.

Pan-European provider of goods and people identification solutions Zetes launched its 3iV Crystal product in Ireland earlier this year and general manager Declan Torsney says early adopters have been in the food-supply chain.

“The mix of products in the food-supply area is quite varied and companies require full traceability of goods going in and out, as well as movement within the warehouse,” he says. “Accuracy is proving to be the biggest benefit, providing most payback. Errors are quite expensive – if you ship out the wrong quantity, you never get the surplus back.”

Head of research and development at Zetes, Marcel Kars, says the origins of this integrated solution lies in quality inspection. “Around 10 years ago on mainland Europe, the first idea was to use this interface when inspecting paint in car manufacture – quality inspectors received information by headset and spoke back to a computer via a microphone,” he says.

“In the early Nineties, Campbell’s Soup thought voice recognition would be a great idea for order picking and decided to implement it. After this, developments started to make the solution better and better, and around six years ago there was a big jump, in that the technology became much easier to use.

“Now it can interface to almost any warehouse management system or engineering installation parameters software, and on the user side it can support a wide range of devices. 3iV Crystal opens up a much broader range of applications than just voice recognition alone.”

Indigenous Irish company Heavy RF, a division of Heavy Technologies, has one customer using its multi-modem offering – a healthcare distribution specialist. It recently introduced video case studies on its website to demonstrate its voice recognition solution in action at Superquinn, Cahill May Roberts and Motor Distributors.

“Voice direction certainly is the latest big thing in logistics or supply chain management. So many warehouses were built over the past decade, a lot of which have sophisticated computer systems. However, we estimate more than half of distribution companies don’t have technology on the shop floor,” says sales manager, Ciaran Lavelle.

“Running a warehouse on paper means you have no access to real-time information and your decision-making can be flawed. Cadbury implemented our solution in July and is seeing the benefits of having up-to-the-second information. With the coming spike in volume for Christmas, this will make it easier for Cadbury to plan resources, such as extra shifts.”

Using voice recognition when you’ve been used to paper involves quite a change in mindset. Lavelle says some companies decide to do it in a big bang, which requires a lot of preparation and training beforehand, while others bring everyone in gradually – over a six-month period, for example.

“The thing with voice recognition in Ireland is a customer has to trust you as a provider because it transforms the way they operate, whether they’re small, medium or large-scale. We have found customers get the hang of the solution within an hour or two and gain a level of efficiency in a couple of days.”

With a nine-year track record in the radio frequency (RF) area and three years’ in voice recognition, Heavey RF recently beat off local and international competition to win Glanbia as a customer.

Lavelle explains how the Heavey RF voice recognition solution works. “The speaker is tied specifically to the voice of the user. The employee is given 100 items to pick, for example, and told where they are. When he picks an item up he says the product code and the computer confirms if it’s the right one.

“As employees move around they quickly get used to the system and get a rhythm going. They find it much easier than dealing with paper orders as their hands and eyes are free all the time. Order pickers we’ve spoken to say they wouldn’t go back to the old way of doing things.”

By Sorcha Corcoran