Voice and Mobility: Enabling the visible supply chain

Our Technology Correspondent offers an in-depth look at how voice and mobility are driving speed and efficiency inside today’s more automated, multi-functional distribution operations. By Bridget McCrea, Contributing Editor, October 01, 2013, Logisticsmgmt.com

Sharply focused on the orchestration of processes and making sure directions are followed to a “T,” today’s warehouse and distribution center (DC) managers rely on technology to verify that their facilities run like well-oiled machines. Over the last few years, voice and mobility have emerged as two of the most valuable technology tools for managers and their employees, and in doing so have fused yet one more link on the growing “visible supply chain.”

David Krebs, vice president of enterprise mobility and connected devices at VDC Research, keeps close tabs on the adoption of both voice and mobility in the warehouse and DC. Right now, he says voice is primarily being used for picking applications in an industry like grocery, where high-volume picking and packing is the name of the game. “At this point,” says Krebs, “voice is really for hands-free picking applications.”

Mobility, on the other hand, is ubiquitous in the typical DC. There, goals like optimizing “perfect orders” (those that are fulfilled, shipped, and delivered correctly and on time) and reducing idle work hours are achieved through the use of mobile devices, rugged hand-held equipment, Wi-Fi, and the web. As more warehouses are asked to support concepts like omni-channel retailing—creating a seamless consumer buying experience across mobile devices, computers, bricks-and-mortar, and catalog—the need for mobility, and the supply chain visibility it creates, has grown exponentially.

“We’re seeing individual warehouses supporting both single-item distribution and high-volume distribution solutions,” says Krebs.

“To do that, logistics operations are deploying a greater variety of data collection technology that incorporates voice, traditional barcode,RFID, and location technologies.”

Over the next few pages we’ll take an in-depth look at how voice and mobility are being put to use inside today’s warehouse and DC operations through the eyes of top analysts and vendors who are in the trenches, watching the evolution of the visible supply chain.

Doing the dirty work
It’s been years since the grocery industry decided that it no longer wanted to “get its hands dirty, picking through boxes,” says Joe Vernon, warehouse management systems (WMS) practice leader at consulting firm Capgemini.

Since then, the notion of using technology to do this dirty work has spread to many other industries. As the trend picked up speed, technology vendors caught on to the need and began making equipment, devices, and software designed to support the fully mobilized warehouse—or, at least one that employs as much mobile technology as possible.

Today, Vernon says that one would be hard pressed to find a warehouse or distribution center that doesn’t rely on at least some form of mobile technology to receive, process, store, inventory, and ship its products. “It’s become a mainstream option—from the front to the back of the warehouse,” says Vernon.

In some instances, the technology works so well that users don’t want to give up their existing systems in lieu of newer, state-of-the-art voice-based options. “Radio frequency (RF) technology is still delivering a lot of value,” says Vernon. “When you try to pitch someone on voice-based loading, very often the answer is: ‘I have 50 devices that are working, why do I need more?’”

Another issue that’s holding shippers back from making mobility investments is the fact that devices aren’t necessarily made to take the abuse of the warehouse environment. After all, the odds that a device may be dropped out of a forklift or accidentally placed under a heavy box are very good in that setting.

“Devices that come down to the warehouse floor have to be industrialized,” says Vernon, who points to the iPad as an example of a useful device that wouldn’t survive a 10-foot fall from a lift truck. “It’s a nice device and interface, but the iPad has to be industrialized before it can be used in the warehouse. Warehouse managers need to understand that before they push non-rugged into certain applications.”

The vendor perspective
With technology advancing at the speed of light, and with new voice and mobility innovations hitting the market on a daily basis, product and solutions providers must have their fingers on the pulse of the shippers who are purchasing and using their products.

At Voxware, a developer of voice-picking software, President and CEO Keith Phillips says that his team is seeing strong demand for voice applications in the warehouse. Citing industry statistics, Phillips estimates that voice penetration in the supply chain is at about 20 percent right now. Breaking down the market into thirds (large, midsized, and small enterprises), Phillips says voice usage among large enterprises is probably closer to 60 percent to 70 percent.

In most instances, Phillips says that technology costs are the inhibitors when it comes to the midsized and smaller users. He doesn’t see that obstacle going away anytime soon. In fact, voice devices continue to fetch a retail price that is upwards of $2,000 to $3,000.

“As a software company we don’t control those prices,” says Phillips, “but watching them retreat is kind of like watching the polar ice cap move.” To offset those costs, software firms have started offering cloud-based models that allow users to get their voice systems up and running without a large, upfront capital payment. “This has helped tremendously,” says Phillips. “More than 80 percent of our new customers are using the cloud.”

Warehouse and DC mangers are also finding innovative new uses for voice. At Pittsburgh-based voice solution developer Vocollect, Jay Armant, vice president of product management, says that functions like cycle counting, receiving, shipping, reverse logistics, and auditing are all being handled by voice.

These additions complement the usual lineup of voice-related activities, which typically include enabling, picking, or selecting workflows and processes. “Logistics professionals want to gain additional value and benefit improvements within the four walls of the distribution center, and one way they can achieve those efficiencies is by expanding their use of voice to non-traditional areas of the DC,” adds Armant.

What’s ahead?
Based on his research into technology penetrations, shippers’ technology needs, and shipping market trends, Krebs says that, overall, “the fundamentals are good to very good going forward when it comes to voice and mobility usage in the warehouse.”

Krebs points to innovations like Google Glass as one driver of voice usage, noting that while the product wasn’t made for warehouse usage, the very idea of “wearables” and “hands-free operations” can be applied across many different industries and applications. “These are some interesting concepts that I think warehouse workers could benefit from down the road,” Krebs says.

Capgemini’s Vernon expects voice and mobility equipment makers to come out with even more innovative products—all with the goal of “driving more devices into people’s hands.” To logistics operations that are considering a more mobile and voice-enabled warehouse and DC, or looking to upgrade and existing systerm, Vernon says careful selection and research is necessary during this era of unbridled technological innovation.

“Be smart,” advises Vernon. “Don’t go out and buy the latest and greatest if you don’t need it.”

Dwight Klappich, research vice president for research firm Gartner, sees more growth ahead for both voice—which he says is mature, but not ubiquitous in the warehouse and DC—and mobility—both mature and ubiquitous.

Klappich says that the pathway from using ruggedized devices to employing handheld smartphones and other types of smaller, cheaper mobile equipment is currently being carved out. “We could see a move to mobile technology for voice, particularly if ruggedized device prices stay high,” says Klappich. “In fact, if the equipment manufacturers don’t start lowering their prices they’re going to lose out to the iPhone.

Mobility: Satisfying the “need for speed”

Today’s logistics managers face a series of significant changes in how warehouses, distribution centers, and the entire supply chain operate. More facilities and larger spaces demand high-speed mobile communications virtually everywhere on or off the floor.

The need for more accurate product tracking and tracing, the effects of the manufacturing re-shoring movement, and myriad other e-commerce and related transportation challenges are pushing logistics operations to come up with more efficient and effective ways to manage their DCs.

Put both voice and mobility on the list of resources that logistics professionals have on their side. Such technologies feed today’s “need for speed,” according to Rob Armstrong, senior marketing manager, manufacturing and logistics, for Motorola Solutions. “Our research shows a 77 percent correlation between manufacturing profitability and inventory turns,” says Armstrong. “So the speed at which manufacturers, third-party logistics providers, and distributors operate has a significant impact on profitability.”

Armstrong points to person-to-person communications as a critical link in the inventory turn-profitability chain. For example, a major food distributor on the East Coast recently consulted with Jim Hilton, Motorola’s vertical lead, manufacturing, about his operation’s lagging productivity. The distributor’s major issues, according to Hilton, involved inefficient cross-docking and shared production across various, geographically dispersed plants.

Using two-way radios equipped with voice-over-internet protocol (VoIP), the distributor was able to closely align its production lines, minimize overproduction, and create a more collaborative environment for line supervisors. “The whole operation wound up more effective and streamlined,” says Hilton, “even though multiple states were involved.” Taking that model a step further, Hilton says that he’d like to see more logistics operations employing analytics across the production line, through the logistics component, and out into the sales department. “There are a lot of models out there that help companies see where their people and trucks are and what to do if something happens,” says Hilton. “But what if you were able to use the information to figure out what to do before a disruptive event occurs?”

Armstrong says such scenario planning is already happening in the warehouse, with labor rebalancing occurring automatically when a truck is late to the dock, or when product is piling up on a dock because the truck can’t be loaded quickly enough.

In most cases, however, these reallocations require a human touch. “Warehouses and DCs are now moving to the point where they can take in analytics and figure them out on a machine-to machine basis without having to have someone else figure them out,” adds Armstrong.