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Voicing a view on picking efficiency

25 January 2013

From productivity gains to 100% picking accuracy, voice technology enables organisations to drive down head count while meeting evolving customer demands and, says Martyn Broadhead of Solarsoft Distribution and Wholesale

From productivity gains to 100% picking accuracy, voice technology enables organisations to drive down head count while meeting evolving customer demands and, says Martyn Broadhead of Solarsoft Distribution and Wholesale Systems, it's not just for the larger corporates

Cost cutting through head count reduction may have seemed the best approach to surviving the recession, but as the economic decline continues, manufacturing and distribution companies are facing new challenges. Driven by the explosion in online purchasing and integrated supply chains, customer expectations of excellent product choice and immediate delivery are forcing organisations to be more accurate and efficient in their warehouse operations.

While larger organisations achieve new levels of efficiency through innovations such as voice technology, the majority of SMEs are still constrained by outdated manual warehouse processes and exposed to significant levels of mis-picking and cost.

Despite the widespread perception, voice technology is not just for organisations with multiple warehouses and a minimum of 50 warehouse employees. Any organisation picking high volumes of goods, or operating in an environment that requires two hands for effective picking, can achieve cost savings and immediate benefits from voice technology.

SMEs still reliant on manual warehouse processes have to consider the expectations of an online customer community that has rapid access to a range of competitive suppliers, and which is intolerant of inaccurate delivery, making the business cost of mispicking rise further.

Voice opportunity Despite advances in technology, the majority of SME warehouse facilities are not automated in any way. It is estimated that only 30% of all warehouse operations of any size across the country are automated, leaving huge numbers of organisations still wrestling with paper-based systems.

However, a growing number of larger organisations are embracing the use of voice technology- and benefiting from a massive productivity jump and a reduction in picking errors to close to zero.

So why are SMEs not following suit? Voice systems are easy to use, especially since they now support user-dependent voice recognition, which significantly improves accuracy, and can even be used by seasonal workers.

Any situation where equipment or process volume interferes with the speed and accuracy of the picking process is an excellent candidate for voice picking, almost irrespective of company size. Throughput increases significantly when picks can be repeated into the voice system without interrupting proceedings to scan barcodes or complete paper forms.

Flexible approach In an industry dominated by paper processes, the rapid evolution of voice technology to its current level of robust maturity offers organisations a real chance to address one of the most labour-intensive and error-prone areas of the warehouse: the picking function. Once in place, organisations can look to build on the improvements in accuracy and control by adding warehouse management functions, including scanning at goods receipt and dispatch. Time-consuming manual checks of inbound deliveries can be replaced with regular but less frequent audits to confirm stock levels (supported by heavy penalties), allowing the most efficient SME distributor to win more.

This is not just a technology for the largest distribution and manufacturing operations; by deploying voice technology in the right SME environment, organisations can transform efficiency, cost effectiveness and customer service while retaining a viable margin.

Flexing a business up and down in line with the country's economic position cannot be achieved solely by changing head count.

In a highly competitive market increasingly driven by the demands of the online customer base, integrated supply chain and just-in-time ordering, organisations need to be more productive, deliver the right goods at the right time and respond fast to customer demands.

Competing against larger organisations that can leverage economies of scale to drive down price will always be a challenge in a tough economy. SMEs must appreciate that they too can take advantage of the warehouse efficiency and accuracy that voice technology provides. By ensuring improved customer service and fulfilment, SMEs will be best placed to endure the financial challenges and maximise the opportunities their competitors will miss.