Is voice the future for industrial facility managers?
Integrated voice solutions are streamlining industrial warehouses for increased profitability, writes PAUL PHILLIPS, regional manager, Aus/NZ, Vocollect by Honeywell
As Australian facility managers continue to struggle in challenging economic conditions, industrial facilities managers are finding a new wave of technological innovations a viable avenue to reduce costs and improve workplace efficiency. Because of the ever-increasing regulatory and fiscal pressures placed on industrial facility managers, it has never been more important to develop, integrate and invest in innovative new technologies that can afford a competitive advantage.
There are a number of technology trends that we, as an organisation, have identified for 2014. The vast majority of these trends relate directly to the fact that facility managers are now asking – and being asked – to do more with less, like never before. As a result, we know that facility managers working within the Australian supply chain are now looking to technology to provide an increase in output or performance that presents an opportunity for increased profitability as well as enhancing existing operations.
Because it provides the potential to significantly increase productivity and efficiency throughout many industrial facilities, voice-enabled solutions are becomingly increasingly popular across Australia and New Zealand. Voice has a well-documented track record when it comes to reducing human errors within industrial facilities and for this reason, amongst many others, facility managers are certainly looking to voice to provide a boost to their bottom line through the reduction of these errors.
However, a well-integrated and implemented voice solution presents a number of benefits for industrial facility managers beyond human error reduction. While some of these advantages may sound relatively simple, saving just a few seconds on a high-volume and repetitive task can translate into meaningful efficiency gains throughout the warehouse. These gains can then translate to a more cost-effective, accurate operation without having to sacrifice the overall quality of your operations.
SAFETY AND ADAPTABILITY
For example, in the past pickers were essentially chained to their paper order forms and pens, which made it difficult to work at optimum efficiency. With the integration of a voice solution, the system actually ‘speaks’ to each individual operator via a headset. As a result, both the operator’s hands and eyes are at liberty to accurately and safely complete the task that they have been assigned – without them having to refer to pieces of paper or handle any other equipment.
We have also seen that with a pen and paper system, workers can often become focused on the order form in their hands and have their head down, making it very difficult to be appropriately aware of what is going on around them. In an environment that involves moving machinery that can travel at significant speeds, shifting materials and a range of other environmental hazards, this could prove a deadly distraction.
This hands-free, eyes-free approach to potentially hazardous work not only creates a more efficient warehouse, but also a safer working environment for your workers. So for industrial facility managers who are looking at technology to positively impact their health and safety record, a voice-directed system can also contribute towards health and safety compliance obligations while increasing job satisfaction for those on the front line.
As we know, there is no rule of thumb for how big an industrial facility is, and how many individuals an industrial facility will employ. Therefore, the adaptability of a voice solution is something that quite often appeals to managers of small to medium sized industrial facilities.
Unlike in larger industrial environments, where people have their own dedicated or predetermined functions in the warehouse, in these smaller facilities it isn’t uncommon for workers to have to do several jobs every day. With a voice solution, the ability is there for you to be able to turn on your voice equipment and perform a receiver function, then progress during the day to doing put-away and then picking, and we have seen that there are a lot of benefits in that ability for the device to adapt to changing tasks.
All of these tasks/workflows are supported by the same simple intuitive voice-directed link to the host system, which ‘talks’ workers through the processes, effectively making every worker a jack-of-all-trades.
Increasingly we are also seeing the proliferation of technology, such as smartphones and tablet computers, in industrial facilities throughout Australia. The ease and mobility of a voice solution very much lends itself to the reliance we as individuals now place upon technology to make our day-to-day activities easier. So by taking an integrated approach to technological investment as a means of optimising business processes, a voice system can improve and build upon the processes that are being carried out with these types of devices.
At an adoption level, the real advantage of a voice solution in the warehouse is how simple it is for people to use. A conversation is one of the most natural interactions that is carried out, whether or not that interaction is with another individual or even with a computer or piece of technology. So by having built a very human interface into this type of technology, there is a vastly reduced training time for operators. We also see that workers are more comfortable and engaged with their day-to-day tasks because of this more familiar feel.
DATA MANAGEMENT SYSTEMS AND VOICE
With the shift from paper-based data management systems continuing, regardless of the size of the operation, another trend that we are seeing heading into 2014 is the proliferation of advanced WMS integrations, and their positive effects across the board. Because voice comes provided with out-of-the-box integration with a number of the main players in that space, such as Manhattan, INFOR, Red Prairie and SAP, with the flexible infrastructure voice solutions can be connected easily and cost-effectively.
The ability to connect voice-enabled solutions with the data management systems regardless of the operating system means that organisations can rest assured that there is a minimal amount of work and cost needed to integrate the voice-enabled solution.
An efficiently run industry facility calls for equipment that includes the most adaptable warehousing tools available, capable of evolving with changing business needs. Increasingly we are seeing a range of different environmental conditions within large industrial facilities, and it is especially important that hardware can be utilised across these environments.
An example of this would be an industrial facility that requires workers to operate in a cold-storage environment, as well as a warehouse floor. This worker, if equipped with a mobile computer, would need a specialised solution (such as a mobile computer equipped with big buttons for use with gloves) which could potentially make things difficult back on the warehouse floor.
Alternatively, a voice solution in a cold storage environment eliminates this button requirement, as voice systems do not require any specialty input considerations.
The advantage of not requiring any specialty input devices becomes apparent if the next job is one that requires a mobile device that can input a large amount of text – such as picking items that require the recording of batch, lot or serial numbers. The voice solution, which works in the cold storage environment, can also be used to capture batch/lot or serial information, eliminating the need to have two separate solutions where only one is needed. This example is just one of many instances where the adaptability of a voice solution shows how industrial facility managers can obtain an advantage over a range of standalone alternatives.