Voice-Directed Work in the Supply Chain: What IT Execs Need to Know

A primer for anyone ready to implement voice-directed work


  • Is voice difficult to implement? Voice-directed work has a tremendous impact on the efficiency of the supply chain and is quite easy to install. It's important to work with a supplier with a strong track record and intimate knowledge of job functions, operating environments, and business realities.
  • Is the technology mature enough? Voice-directed work has been successfully deployed by both large and small companies for well over 20 years.
  • How do you integrate the WMS with the voice system? A voice deployment requires special software to enable a company's WMS to receive assignments and to establish the two-way dialogue required to give assignments and confirm that tasks are completed. The voice supplier should bring experience across multiple businesses and offer the most effectively engineered combination of hardware and software designed to make using voice as natural and easy as possible. Most major WMS providers already have the necessary interfaces for voice in place. The best voice systems have been designed to integrate directly without middleware to many of the most popular commercial WMS systems. A direct interface can even be implemented for home-grown legacy WMS systems to provide true real-time updates for each activity on the DC floor.
  • What security standards are supported by voice? The best voice suppliers support all standards, including Wi-Fi, WPA-PSK and WPA-Enterprise.
  • What device management tools are necessary? Since efficient voice systems must manage voice-related configuration information beyond the capabilities of common mobile device management software, full-featured voice systems have device management functionality built in as an integral part of the system.
  • Is installing voice similar to implementing a WMS or ERP? No. Voice-directed work can literally be installed in a day, and employee training takes just a few hours.
  • What kind of involvement is required from the IT organization? Once the technical interfaces are completed, the requirements from the IT group are minimal. Experienced suppliers know how to take the lead on designing, developing, testing, project managing and implementing voice systems. Furthermore, once it's up and running, there is little overhead associated with ongoing support needs.
  • What does the IT infrastructure framework look like? Voice-directed systems interface with a company's existing infrastructure, either via a direct communications interface to the WMS or via middleware. Relevant information is translated into work assignments that are distributed as voice instructions to a body-worn voice device running on the company's existing 802.11b wireless LAN. Integration is straightforward and IT infrastructure impact is minimal.
  • Can voice be applied in both centralized and distributed IT environments? Yes. As wide-area networks become faster, more and more companies are looking at centralized systems where only the voice terminal and headsets are in use in the DC and the WMS is centrally located. Experienced voice providers can accommodate this scenario as well as create systems for use in distributed environments.
  • What does the overall implementation process look like? Naturally, the installation process will vary depending on the voice supplier selected. You'll want to look for a company whose implementation process has been finely-tuned, based on hundreds of successful installations.
  • Can voice systems be customized? Yes. You'll want to look for systems that include an integrated software development tool which allows you to customize your system to meet your specific process and procedures. However, be cautious about voice providers that offer no standard released software and want to develop a fully customized approach for you. This doesn't leverage a voice supplier's R&D investment or allow you to take advantage of new developments, which can further increase your ROI. Look for voice providers that not only offer regular software release updates, but also allow for customization of off-the-shelf software packages. A software package without modifications should, in most cases, provide up to 90 percent of required functionality.
  • Does voice work with a multilingual workforce? Advanced systems can support upward of 20 languages, making it easy for companies to simultaneously accommodate employees who speak many different languages — even within the same facility. Companies also have the option of deploying voice in one base language and having individuals respond back in their native language or dialect.
  • Are there limits to where voice can be used because of noisy or other challenging work environments? The best-in-class voice-directed work deployments have evolved to such a great extent that they can be used in the most challenging distribution environments, including sub-zero industrial freezers, oppressively hot warehouses, extremely noisy environments and 100 percent humidity.
  • Does voice work with RFID? Voice and RFID are complementary, paperless technologies that integrate well together and enhance the benefits of each. RFID provides extensive information about the products and voice provides the vehicle to synthesize all of that information to then direct employees on what and where to go with products.
  • How long does training take? New employees can be trained on voice in less than 30 minutes and get up-to-speed within a day. In many cases, employees are ready to be directed through each step of their assignments after just 15 minutes of training.
  • How soon can companies expect gains in productivity, accuracy and safety? Because voice-directed work will not allow employees to receive additional commands until they have accurately completed the previous assignment, accuracy increases almost immediately. Productivity improvements and safety, which take somewhat longer to measure, also increase significantly, typically within a period of days.
  • How soon do companies start to realize their return on investment? In virtually all operations, such as manufacturing and distribution companies, a direct payback to the bottom line in less than one year is common. With accuracy rates of up to 99.99 percent and greater, and productivity increases of up to 50 percent and more, voice-directed work has been shown to pay for itself relatively quickly.

Voice-directed Work Makes Business Sense

With its two-decade track record of achieving productivity, performance and high-yield ROI, voice can no longer be viewed as a risky corporate investment. Senior IT executives making large-scale technology purchases for their companies can rely on the professionalism of their DC/supply chain leaders to implement voice-directed work successfully. By partnering with an established voice supplier with a solid record of financial stability, integrity, and support services, DC/supply chain leadership can help voice-directed work soon become one of the most important strategic weapons in a company's global supply chain.

About the Author: Larry Sweeney is vice president of product management for Vocollect, Inc. www.vocollect.com.

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