By Alex Mills, Sales & Marketing Director, Chess Logistics Technology
Voice directed warehouse operations are now accepted by the market but there is still some potential for misunderstanding its role and the relative ease with which voice can now be implemented by an experienced provider. The traditional view is that a business would introduce a basic WMS, then add RF capability with hand held or truck mounted terminals or scanners and only consider voice as the ultimate objective. But changes in the technology and the market could mean that this supposed hierarchy is no longer valid.
In technological terms there is no reason why a business could not implement voice straight from the standard WMS level. The most important consideration is to make sure that the underlying WMS can manage the business and data management processes that are core to any warehousing, order picking or distribution function. If these are not in place then no amount of technology added on top will deliver the full and true projected benefit. The WMS is essentially a data processing engine that can be integrated with any enabling technology including RF, barcodes, RFID or voice. The best systems are, or should be, able to operate independently of this enabling technology and integrate with any or all at the same time.
When deciding whether to deploy a standard WMS, RF or voice it is important to assess the business case and anticipated benefits and costs. Many warehouses continue to operate happily with a basic WMS that generates paper documents to manage stock movements and picking. These operations often identify a business requirement that leads to the addition of enabling technology.
Every warehouse is different but in general terms RF-based applications are often appropriate for stock control, movement and order picking operations where accuracy and efficiency are the primary requirements or where the majority of movements involve bulk items or unit loads. Another scenario would be where items being handled are high value, which is typical of the electrical and white goods sectors, where speed is not the over-riding objective.
Voice systems are perhaps more suited to higher throughput operations where there is a lot of small-item picking. The “hands free” nature of the technology eliminates the need to read screens, scan barcodes or input data manually. This should offer benefits in terms of productivity and throughput while also ensuring the same operational accuracy and efficiency as a standard RF setup. New users can be trained quickly and systems configured to work with multiple languages, which can be a significant advantage in warehouses employing staff from overseas.
It is also possible to automate exception management more easily with voice than conventional RF. But while voice is good for issuing instructions and verifying task completion it is not ideal for recording new data, so if this is a significant part of the process, conventional RF terminals may be more appropriate.
Properly architectured WMS should have a stable core functionality that includes a number of different integration capabilities built in. Although most installations have a degree of customisation to match a user's requirements, the underlying technology is generally common to all. A key consideration is to provide an interface between the WMS and the hardware. The WMS will generally treat the information it sends and receives as an “object” which can be used with RF, barcoding or voice. Differences between various types of hardware will have little bearing on the WMS and how information is processed.
The equipment required to implement RF will normally be compatible with voice systems because both use a standard radio infrastructure.. This means that end users are not limited to choosing between RF or voice at the outset and can reconfigure their systems as the business case or process requirement changes. Configuring the WMS for either system should be broadly the same although there may be some additional tweaking required to create the dialogues that really match the user processes.
Solution providers will be able to advise on the advantages and cost justification of either system but, again in general terms, the difference in hardware prices is not so large as to make this the only factor in the decision. There are devices available now that can support both technologies which would allow customers to switch or migrate with relative ease. Hardware costs have been coming down and this makes it is a less significant proportion of the overall implementation budget. This means it is more important to choose the best software from vendors who can demonstrate successful implementations and will be able to ensure the overall configuration of the application is aligned to the business and process requirement. And that means choosing the right WMS to provide the platform for a sustainable and deliverable solution in the long run.