Speech and warehouse management
By , independent journalist
Speech recognition systems allow for natural language data collection and hands-and-eyes-free operations. In a multitude of applications, such as warehouse management, it allows to perform various operations simultaneously, for example data gathering and pick and place. If well designed and integrated into other processes, speech input can speed up operations significantly, increase accuracy and improve comfort and safety in the workplace. The following article discusses how ?speech? can contribute to more productive logistics and warehousing systems, an absolute requirement of the 24/7/365 e-conomy.
In 1985 Westinghouse built a speech recognition terminal but it took another two years before a portable ?talkman? was installed at Ford MC in the USA. The first applications were in the area of quality control. Car manufacturer FMC used speech in its painting control process and weapons builder Raytheon in the microscopic inspections of printed circuits.
At first systems were quite slow and required clear articulation. By 1991 the machine had taken up a ?normal? speaking pace and by 1994 the ?talkies? had been coupled to narrow band radio. Now operators could ?talk on the walk?.
The technology hit Europe in 1994, particularly in warehousing applications. The use of spread spectrum allowed for very compact RF-equipment (radio frequency) that easily integrated with warehouse management and logistics systems. The technology is now taking up speed in this particular area where competition is fierce and margins are small, where operations are labour intensive and tasks repetitive. Further shrinking of delivery timeframes ?e.g. delivery on Saturday instead of on Monday for an order placed on Friday, or 24-hour delivery for goods purchased through the Internet? builds on ever faster processing in the warehouses. Speech technology can contribute to that goal.
In terms of hardware, speech systems comprise a combination of microphone and headset, a processing module and an RF-transmitter/receiver that links to the server and databases. In the future operators may also wear visual display units ? goggles ? that enhance ?reality? for more complex, procedural and even learning operations. Now the information comes from the warehouse management system (WMS) and ERP-system in the form of ?spoken? questions and instructions. Mobile workers give vocal feedback to this interactive system.
Performance degradation of voice recognition systems in noisy, real-world environments - such as warehouses - is probably one of the most significant factors limiting take-up of the technology today. This plays an important role in the accuracy of the recognition system and has a direct bearing on the acceptance of the technology by end users.
Solutions to noisy operational environments come from hardware improvements - directional, noise filtering microphones, and also from improved speech recognition algorithms. One example of a current EU funded research project taking the latter approach is project RESPITE, whose aim is to develop novel techniques for speech recognition that are robust to ambient noise and signal deterioration.
Another approach to improving speech recognition accuracy comes from two different perspectives of the speech signal - speaker dependent and the speaker independent. In the speaker dependent approach the system first learns to recognise an appropriate set of utterances by the individual speaker. On the other hand, speaker independent systems are ?language dependent?. They recognise ?language? rather than different voices.
The speaker dependent approach uses relatively less expensive technology but requires more training time. It takes the system some ten minutes to ?register? the voice profile of a user. It is independent of language or dialect... as long as ?sound? and ?meaning? have been matched beforehand. When the operator has a cold the profile needs to be adapted.
The speaker independent system is open to a larger variety of voices within a given language set, without the need for training or re-training. That could be an advantage in case of frequent personnel moves, e.g. temps. And there is no adapting necessary in case of a cold.
It would appear that the fast growing market for speech systems focusses less on the particulars of technology but on their seamless integration in the logistic process. Integrators now choose the most suited technology for the job. Return on investment (ROI) has become an overriding criterion.
When to go for voice?
When to choose voice rather than opt for other data collection systems, such as bar code scanning? Voice may be quicker, more accurate, convenient and safer when the operator is required to manipulate products, e.g. in order picking, and additional or variable information is required or must be passed on to the system (such as gate number, corridor, column, number, weight, pallet...).
Recent implementations in ?cold stores? make life much more comfortable for operators. They no longer need to use paper and pencil. Voice can be complemented with other data gathering technologies (barcode scanning, RF chip...) when very complicated data, such as long series of numbers are to be transferred. ?Speaker dependent systems are very suitable for input of more complex series of numbers and catchweight-picking,? says Rodolphe Becker, director of VoCognition.
Speech is now rapidly moving out of the ?early adopters? into mainstream markets. Early adopters were probably ?technology huggers? in SME-operations. The retailer chain Mestdagh in Gosselies (Belgium) runs the VoCognition system in its 8.000 m2 fresh produce warehouse since 1997. ?I was their first customer,? smiles Michel Eggermont, EDP manager who equipped a dozen pickers. The advantage? ?We move a third more.? Belgian wine merchant Le Clos du Renard was the first to implement the French-language SyVox product. Analysts of Deloitte & Touch calculated there that the picking error rate was reduced from 0,007 to 0,000033, validated complaints fell from 70 to 1 per week and picks per hour increased with 30%.
?The number of speech users quadruples each year,? says Jan Vermeesch, marketing manager Europe at SyVox (Brugge, Belgium), manufacturer of interactive speech applications for mobile workers. "SyVox opts for a speaker independent technology and now supports various languages: English (US and UK), Spanish (Mexico and Spain), French, Dutch, Flemish, German and Italian."
Becker at VoCognition agrees: ?Voice is hot!? The company now has some thirty installations running in Europe. ?Last year our turnover increased fivefold.? In the current lifecycle however technology remains the door opener. ?Later we can show we?re capable of implementing a whole system. Ultimately we talk about ROI,? says Becker who expects the technology to jumpstart soon. ?Huge operations have decided the technology works and they will go for it with hundreds of terminals at a time. Voice is a strategic decision. These customers will deploy the technology across the continent. Smaller partners and customers will follow suit.?
?Acceptance barriers are lifted through standard interfaces that integrate with industry standards in ERP and WMS,? says Vermeesch at Syvox. Implementations are rapid, near plug & play. ?The logistics market has not slowed its investment decisions after September 11th. But the sector invests only if ROI is less than 12 months,? says Vermeesch. And that is exactly what speech systems are capable of.
The better ROI is achieved in order picking in difficult environments. New applications, such as replenishment, supply, cross docking and reception, are already available or in development. The technology has also been used in quality control in a conveyer or assembly line environment. Integrators now follow their customers abroad.
What's in it for me?
It is the task of integrators to optimise the process and the technology. ?There can be no box-moving here,? says Vermeesch. Each implementation requires services to harmonise the dialogues and the operations. For example, the system should not repeat the full co-ordinates of the location if it directs the picker to exactly the same location. ??Same location? will do fine.?
Communication, change management and training require the necessary attention if the system is to deliver. Product marketing manager Bart Rivi?re at Syvox warns that the technology is an enabler. Pick-it champions therefore will generally be enrolled in project teams. ?Ultimately the people who use the apparatus make the difference. Make sure to clarify what?s in it for them.?
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is an independent journalist, with a background in peace research, having worked for Pax Christi Flanders, for International Peace Information Service in Antwerp, and later at the Life & Peace Institute in Uppsala (Sweden). He writes on a broad range of topics including the economy, management, human resources, industry, logistics, environment and technology matters.
The editors of HLTCentral would welcome any feedback on the article.