Though the food-distribution industry has benefited greatly from high-speed Internet, radio frequency, and other high-tech modes of communication, the hottest communication vehicle impacting the warehouse these days is just the good old-fashioned human voice.Well, it's not just voice, but voice-directed warehousing systems, which convert digital text into voice instructions. Those instructions are

Though the food-distribution industry has benefited greatly from high-speed Internet, radio frequency, and other high-tech modes of communication, the hottest communication vehicle impacting the warehouse these days is just the good old-fashioned human voice.

Well, it's not just voice, but voice-directed warehousing systems, which convert digital text into voice instructions. Those instructions are transmitted by radio frequency to product selectors, who can then do their jobs hands-free of any paper documents. The system then translates the selector's voice responses back into text. Still, the underpinning of it all is a person's voice.

At last month's 2003 Food Industry Productivity Convention & Exposition, voice-recognition technology, first applied at a Nissan parts warehouse in Japan in the 1980s, was once again a lively topic of discussion. Educational sessions featured case studies from three major food distributors, a wholesaler (C&S Wholesale Grocers), a Canadian retailer (Sobeys), and a food-service distributor (Maines Paper & Food Service).

"I think it's the next big thing," said Kenneth B. Ackerman, president, K.B. Ackerman, a consulting company based in Columbus, Ohio, and a speaker at the Productivity show. "It's better than bar-code scanning, and it's ready for prime time," unlike some other hot technologies like RFID (radio frequency identification).

Voice recognition has certainly become popular among prominent food distributors responsible for rapidly and efficiently moving large quantities of goods. Ackerman pointed out that the two largest food distributors in the United States, Wal-Mart and Kroger, "are committed to installing it as rapidly as they can."

Indeed, the food-retail market leader in voice technology, Vocollect, Pittsburgh, supplies seven of the top 10 food distributors listed on SN's Top 75 list. Mid-sized players like Wegmans and K-VA-T also employ Vocollect's technology. Vocollect competes in the voice arena with Voxware, Lawrenceville, N.J., and Genesta, which acquired voice supplier SyVox last year.

Voice technology has had its greatest initial impact on the selection, or picking, of product off warehouse shelves for delivery to stores, including variable-weight products. There, voice-directed systems have invariably cut costly errors and shortages and, for companies willing to give up order labels, increased productivity, according to many testimonials. Ackerman noted that voice can also substantially reduce training costs and even worker turnover.

According to Ackerman, voice hardware averages about $4,500 per selector, while the software runs about $30,000,; training and implementation can cost between $30,000 and $100,000, assuming an RF network is in place. Bill Kimler, director of systems and inventory control, Maines Paper & Food Service, Conklin, N.Y., said he achieved a payback in 13 months.

Kimler noted that while picking errors are substantially reduced through voice technology, they don't disappear. Even voice will falter, he said, when pick slots are divided into several sections with multiple items, requiring product descriptions to be transmitted to help pickers distinguish between items. To alleviate that issue, Maines is opening up additional DCs so slots don't have to be subdivided, he said.

One question frequently raised at the conference was: Now that voice has found success in the picking process, can it be applied to other warehouse functions? Those functions include everything from receiving and put-away to replenishment and cycle counting to cross-docking and line loading.

Yet, observers differ on whether voice can be as successfully applied to other applications as it has to selection. Larry Sweeney, vice president, product management, Vocollect, who also spoke at an educational session on the exhibit floor at Productivity, listed several examples of voice being applied beyond selection. In particular, flow-through applications like cross-docking are "hot," with a number of installations, he said.

Some distributors, including one top 10 supermarket chain, are beginning to leverage the real-time update capabilities of their voice and warehouse management systems to accomplish selection and inventory cycle counting at the same time, Sweeney said.

According to Sweeney, a convenience store chain is installing voice for replenishment, transfers and receiving. At a facility in Brea, Calif., operated by Nature's Best, the natural products wholesaler/retailer is extending voice from piece and case picking to line loading (building pallets for shipment at the dock), and will be using voice to manage put-away within three months, said Jerry Johnston, vice president of operations.

Serge Chevalier, director of perishables warehouse operations for C&S Wholesale Grocers, Brattleboro, Vt., said C&S is looking at using both voice and scanning for receiving by next February.

However, Kimler said at a Productivity session that he doesn't see voice as appropriate for all areas. "We saw no significant gain [in using voice] vs. using bar-code and RF technology for applications like put-away and replenishment," he said. "Voice is better for very small data transactions like pick quantities and check digits."

In regard to cycle counting and receiving, Kimler said these applications have "too much information for voice to handle," noting that it would take someone 15 to 20 seconds to speak all of the required information, such as vendor, pack size and description.

Mike Miller, director, industry marketing and consulting, Vocollect, disagreed that it's necessary to recount all of that information in these processes. "But old habits die hard," he said.

Voice Innovations at C&S

While some companies ponder alternate uses of voice-recognition technology, others like C&S Wholesale Grocers, Brattleboro, Vt., demonstrate the innovative ways the technology can be applied to the product-selection application, still the bread-and-butter of voice recognition.

C&S got started with voice-based selection in January 2002 at its 455,000-square-foot North Hatfield perishables distribution center in Hatfield, Mass.

It has since installed voice at its Chester, N.Y., perishables warehouse in March of this year, and in June put it in both its Westfield, Mass., frozen-food facility and its Newburgh, N.Y., grocery DC. At least four more DCs are slated for installation next year on the way to a probable companywide rollout at all 34 depots, said Serge Chevalier, director of perishables warehouse operations, C&S. Chevalier, also facility director of the North Hatfield DC, described C&S' voice implementation at a Productivity show educational session last month in Nashville, Tenn.

C&S chose to use a customized voice application from Lucas Systems, Wexford, Pa., that runs on Vocollect's hardware in concert with a home-grown warehouse management system. The Lucas system runs on clustered Windows 2000 servers, and uses a Microsoft SQL Server database. Communications take place via an 802.11b RF network at a frequency of 2.4 GHz.

Chevalier acknowledged that C&S was led to voice in part by the nature of its incentive-based system for selectors. "You sacrifice a little on quality when you use incentives," he said. "[Selectors] take shortcuts." Only one in three selectors was at an acceptable error rate, which he said was no more than 1.5 errors per thousand picks.

Following the installation of voice at North Hatfield, which took three months, that number dropped to under one error per thousand picks, said Chevalier, and audits were reduced to between 3% and 4% of shipments, also a savings. Because errors were reduced, C&S pays 25% to 30% of what it used to pay in store credits.

The next installation site, in Chester, N.Y., was chosen because a retail customer whose service was shifting from North Hatfield to Chester wanted to continue to be served via voice selections, he noted.

Chevalier described several novel approaches C&S took to the voice-implementation process. One was training three of the most productive selectors on the system and, having convinced them of its effectiveness, using them to proselytize the other selectors. The three selectors, with first names Matthew, Mark and John, were dubbed "The Apostles."

C&S has had Lucas customize its three-part training program for selectors to ensure that both quality and productivity were achieved in the voice-based selection process. First comes the learning mode for trainees, where the voice system says more and requires more validation from selectors than in later stages. Selectors who complete the eight-week training program enter the intermediate mode, which requires less validation. Finally, selectors who achieve the required level of accuracy enter the expert mode.

C&S also gives selectors a paper-based "cheat sheet" to warn them about crushable or wet items they would encounter in their picking assignment. "Building a pallet is the hardest thing to teach our folks," he said. "The cheat sheet worked well, and is now used in grocery and frozens."