Aug 19 2009

Straight Talk

Voice-logistics system helps businesses cut warehouse errors and boost productivity.

Photo: Image100/Photolibrary

In one week, Southern Wine and Spirits, the largest wine and spirits distributor in the United States, works with up to 130,000 customers across 29 states. When it used paper lists to pick bottles for shipments, employees averaged about 220 bottles an hour. In 2001, Southern implemented Lucas Systems’ Jennifer voice-directed warehouse solution in its Miami warehouse, and the system, now in 11 of Southern’s 16 warehouses, helped increase the number of bottles picked per hour to 420.

“They just about doubled their productivity,” says Lucas spokesman John H. Schriefer, “and they achieved that gain in four months.”

Such results are what first attracted Southern to Lucas Systems of Wexford, Pa. Some 260 warehouses, across a range of industries, have deployed Jennifer. Instead of using barcode scanners or paper lists, employees receive verbal instructions through wireless hands-free computers with headsets and microphones.

“The voice interface means they’re not checking a list or scrolling through screens or trying to input something on a keyboard to confirm that they’ve picked it,” says Mark Withrow, manager of IT and purchasing at Lucas. “They’ve got both hands to lift and to stack stuff. That speeds the process up and reduces the error rate.”

Companies also can build protections into Jennifer, Schriefer adds. For instance, if Jennifer instructs an employee to choose an ink cartridge from Bin 123, it can require the worker to read a check digit printed on the shelf as he picks the item. It can also require him to read the item’s UPC number as an extra safeguard. Jennifer has thousands of variables that can be adjusted to meet companies’ business rules, Schriefer says.

Using Jennifer, food distributor Pate Dawson saw its error rate drop from one per 1,000 cases picked to less than one per 10,000 cases. “That’s 99.99 percent accuracy,” Schriefer says. And when you’re talking about thousands of units per week at an average of $50 per error, a 10 to 50 percent reduction in errors adds up quickly.

A Strong Voice

Vocal Range

Voice-logistics warehouse systems serve a variety of industries:

  • Healthcare
  • Food and beverage
  • Retail
  • Pharmaceuticals
  • Manufacturing

There are two key components of the voice client. One is Jennifer’s voice. “We use a real, recorded human voice,” Schriefer says. “People prefer that to a computer-generated drone, especially if you’re going to be listening to it for an eight-hour shift.”

The other component is voice recognition. “The technology that’s used over a telephone is very different from what you can use in a warehouse,” he says. “You have conveyors, ride-on equipment with horns, people talking,” so you need industrial-grade voice recognition. “If people have to continually repeat themselves because the system doesn’t understand them, it’s going to cut down on user productivity, and they’re just not going to like using it.”

Jennifer’s wireless hands-free computers communicate with a server, which typically receives information from a warehouse management system. Lucas provides both client and server software.

Setup typically takes three to four months, including up to six weeks to outline specifications for the system — what clients want Jennifer to do and not to do. “We work very closely with the client on that up-front piece,” Schriefer says. “You don’t want to roll it out and then say, ‘Oh, that’s not really how we want it to work.’ Nothing can hurt a project more than confusing your users.”

The good news is that the system is intuitive. “It’s inherently an easy system to use,” says Schriefer. People typically exceed their productivity rates after less than a week with Jennifer. “Sometimes after one day of training, people are already doing better.”