You Talking To Me?
Quest Solutions Inc.'s first two voice-based picking projects yielded nearly $2 million in sales revenue. Now in its second year of selling this technology, the VAR already has five pilot projects in the works.
Everybody makes mistakes. At least that's what the AIDC (automatic identification and data collection) industry is counting on. After all, aren't data collection mistakes from paper-based systems one of the main reasons bar code technologies were invented? By standardizing data input we help increase - although, not guarantee - the accuracy and usefulness of output data. Therein lies the core to every AIDC VAR's and integrator's sales pitch - especially when the client has a warehouse to manage.
But warehouses of all sizes have been reaping the benefits of bar codes and real-time data collection for years. To get these clients' attention, you need a solution that will not only improve their current data collection process, but also increase worker productivity. Voice-based picking technology can do just that according to Quest Solutions Inc. (Eugene, OR), a $10 million mobile computing/AIDC integrator.
Prices Fall As Reliability Increases For Speech Recognition
Voice-based picking (which includes speech recognition technology) is not new, especially to Kurt Thomet, president and founder of Quest. "I used a primitive speech recognition unit 10 years ago," recalls Thomet. "Of course, at the time these devices were not even portable." Today, the mobile computing power for these systems often comes from handheld computers that double as IP (Internet Protocol) phones. A headset with a microphone connects to the mobile computing unit, which is worn on a picker's belt. This configuration is the key to this technology - hands-free picking.
Via their earphones, pickers are guided through a warehouse by voice commands coming from a speech server (computer) that houses the system's speech recognition software. (An 802.11 wireless LAN [WLAN] connects the mobile computing unit to the speech server.) Speaking into the microphone, pickers confirm their locations and the quantity of the items picked using specific key words and check digits printed on warehouse bays. That voice data is transferred back to the speech server, which decodes the data and automatically transfers it to a company's WMS (warehouse management system) or central inventory system for updating.
A lot has changed in the past 10 years for speech recognition technology. For instance, one of the biggest problems was always the reliability of the software to recognize different languages, dialects, or changes in a user's voice (e.g. if the picker has a cold). Thomet claims those problems have been resolved, and most users can train a speech recognition device to recognize a voice within 15 minutes. The evolution and affordability of WLAN technology during the past five years has also positively impacted interest in voice-based picking solutions. However, Thomet asserts the most important change has been the price of these systems. "In the past few years, I have seen the price of voice-based picking systems go from approximately $5,000 per user to $3,500," he says.
Grocery Market Ripe
Although any market with a large warehouse could benefit from voice-based picking, the grocery industry has been especially receptive to this technology. Companies like Kroger, Giant Eagle, Loblaws, and Wal-Mart are all regular users. "Organizations with large picking volumes benefit the most from voice-based picking as compared to traditional bar code scanning," states Thomet. "For example, a forklift operator doesn't have to stop and scan a bay location and an item's bar code label. That saved time can really add up." That's exactly what one of Quest's voice-based picking customers found out.
The company, a 103-store grocery chain with three distribution centers, wanted to improve warehouse item selection accuracy and employee productivity. Quest planned to conduct a four-month pilot program using Vocollect's (Pittsburgh) Talkman voice system integrated with the grocery chain's existing WMS. However, after two months, the results were so positive the company began rolling the solutions out to the rest of its locations. Some of the results experienced included:
- 10% to 15% increase in productivity
- 83% reduction in mis-picks in perishables
- 67% reduction in mis-picks in dry grocery
- approximately a 9-month payback period.
Your Value-Add Is The WMS Interface
Voice-based picking technology recently became part of Quest's portfolio of wireless remote computing solutions. In fact, the company began selling the technology in 2002 and has only two client installations thus far. Those projects, however, totaled nearly $2 million in sales revenue. Currently, Quest is working on five pilot projects for voice-based picking in the following vertical markets:
- beer/wine/liquor distribution
- auto parts manufacturing/distribution
- musical instrument distribution
- pulp/paper distribution
- lumber products distribution.
"This is not a plug and play technology," Thomet explains. "Developing the interfaces to the WMS is our value-add." So far, the company has interfaces for OMI Triceps and Biceps WMS software (used by nearly 75% of grocery distributors) and one customer's homegrown WMS. Gary Hunter, Quest's VP of software development, is responsible for developing these interfaces. Hunter has 25 years of experience and has worked for Telxon (a mobile computing vendor purchased by Symbol) and Cisco in the past.
Speech Technology's High Expectations
Although Quest is still new to voice-based picking, this is a company run by men who have years of AIDC industry experience (e.g. Thomet previously worked for Telxon and AIDC vendor Percon, and Senior VP George Zicman held sales management positions at Telxon) and know what technologies can sell. But Thomet and his crew aren't the only ones predicting growth for this technology. According to a study completed by research firm Venture Development Corp. (VDC), worldwide shipments of speech/voice technology will go from $55 million in 2003 to $233 million in 2006. Probably more impressive is that demand for wearable computers with speech/voice recognition is expected to surpass demand for wearable computers with bar code scanners and keyboards/keypads by 2006. In fact, the survey's respondents indicated the number one wearable computer input devices they would use in the near future are headset microphones for speech/voice recognition.
Not every client is right for a voice-based picking solution. But, successful AIDC and mobile computing VARs like Quest are realizing this is an up-and-coming technology that can be a profitable complement to any portfolio.