Voice of reason in the warehouse - WMS & Voice Picking Technology report 2015

Manufacturing & Logistics IT spoke to a number of key spokespeople from the vendor and analyst communities about recent developments in the world of Voice-directed software and hardware and warehouse management systems – including those involving mobility, Cloud/SaaS and Big Data.

Some of the most dynamic and fast-changing technology areas have to be the ones deployed in warehouse and distribution centre operations – helping companies to better serve increasingly demanding consumer expectations while also aiming to improve business profitability.

So, what are some of the key discussion points in terms of current and ongoing innovations and developments within this space? Bob Heaney, research director, principal analyst – retail & consumer markets at Aberdeen Group, observes that omni-channel is a major current trend. "The web is now much more prevalent as an ordering mechanism," he said. "If a customer places an order through an e-commerce site typically there is now often a one- to two-day delivery expectation. So, if I have work that is flowing out into my distribution centre that has been batched up prior to these orders coming through I've now got to determine where I'm going to insert those extra orders into the flow throughout the day."

Heaney continued: "Typically, any company handling a reasonably high volume of products is already going to be using some form of picking waves and replenishment waves where the day is broken up into, say, two-hour sections of work. When one wave completes the next one queues up etc. With RF and Voice you have the capability to in some cases insert new orders directly into the current pick waves, depending on where the worker is. We call this task interleaving."

Heaney explained that there are other advanced techniques – within the picking process, for instance – that also demand more interactive communication with the actual worker. "For example, there is something we refer to as cluster picking, whereby workers can pick to a batch cart or pick to light system," he said. "It's not discrete order picking necessarily; it's about picking multiple carts. Therefore there's a little bit more interaction as workers pick an item, scan it, use the Voice mechanism to indicate the pick has been completed, and as they move through the instructions the next ones queue up on their device or they receive a verbal instruction on their Voice system to proceed to the next. So by having a way of communicating in near real-time with workers you are able now to address some of the more event-driven needs."

Steve Wilson, vice president, practice lead – operational excellence at Capgemini, considers that one key talking point is driving rugged proactivity from WMS controlled operations. "That's really coming about because of price stagnation or price deflation in retail, which is putting pressure on cost," he said. "And now with the living wage there's an increased level of pressure being put on the cost base, which has meant that there's a renewed focus on how to get that cost back under control."

Wilson explained there are now tools available that allow productivity management at an individual level. "These tools are integrated with the key warehouse management systems," he said. "For example JDA RedPrairie has a tool called Workforce Management which connects to its WMS, and Manhattan has one called Labour Management, which also connects to its WMS. These tools are very good at capturing the transactional data off of the WMS and allowing it to be analysed and validated against productivity standards in quite some detail down to individuals and groups. That allows many clients to manage productivity at a different level to the way they've managed it in the past."

The second main trend Wilson is seeing involves the integration of store replenishment and e-commerce into a single operation. He explained: "The purpose of this is primarily to drive a single stock pool; i.e. one location that contains all of the inventory in a logical way so that if it's needed for e-commerce it can be sent to e-commerce customers, or if it's needed for the replenishment to store it can be used for replenishment to store. In the more traditional model e-commerce stock tends to be separated logically from retail stock and therefore either you could end up with lower availability or with more stockholding to cover the availability. Neither of these scenarios are particularly good business outcomes."

What it now taking place, according to Wilson, is that some retailers use WMS to pick both e-commerce and store replenishment at the same time and from the same location and same stock pool. "This gives them better availability at lower overall levels of inventory," he said, "and because of the huge growth in Click & Collect that's become more and more important because a lot of Click & Collect parcels are picked in the warehouse and then they are put onto the same replenishment vehicle that is going to the stores because it's much more cost-effective than putting them on the carrier. Consequently, it makes sense to try to pick them in the same warehouses where they've picked the store replenishment work."

The third key trend Wilson is seeing is where a number of retailers in Europe have started to use augmented reality technology for picking. He explained: "With Voice, workers have the commands coming into their ear, but there is now software available that allows the picker to wear augmented reality glasses that include an earpiece – so it offers the benefits of Voice, but on top of that workers can see the instructions on a small screen in the eyepiece. They still have two free hands and it allows workers potentially to pick more quickly than if they were picking with Voice or handhelds.

Also, explained Wilson, a camera on the front of the glasses allows barcode scanning and quality checking – so it can check the accuracy of the pick while the picker is picking it. "All the picker has to do is scan the items inside the totes to check that they have been picked correctly," he said. "We are seeing take-up of this technology particularly in automotive spares companies in Germany at the moment. Providers currently offering this technology include Ubimax and Vuzix."

Happy marriage

Ed Spotts, senior ERP consultant for Panorama, considers that if ever a need existed to marry two technologies, it is warehouse management systems and Voice recognition solutions. "Even in highly automated warehouses, the warehouse worker is frequently called on to move objects, large or small," he said. "In more manual warehouses, the typical warehouse worker often wears heavy gloves and moves heavy boxes.

For that same person to then turn to a computer, even a rugged handheld device, requires the worker to stop the work they were doing, focus on the device, and enter or scan data into the warehouse management system. The appeal of Voice recognition systems is that they free the worker's hands and arms. If the worker can communicate to the warehouse management system through speaking the hands of the warehouse person can continue to conduct the warehouse work without the interruption of typing or scanning information into a computer."

Bart Riviere, business development director for speech solutions at Zebra Technologies, points out that Zebra has seen an increase in multi-modal Voice picking – both hardware and software elements. "Devices with easier-to-read screens and more intuitive interfaces using the latest operating systems will also make it easier to support multi-modal devices and provide greater rewards," he commented. Riviere added that Zebra has a large portfolio of Android devices such as Android versions of the MC92, MC32 and the all touch TC75. "Going forward, we will see more capabilities for supporting Android in the warehouse and linking to Voice picking from Zebra," he said.

Riviere also sees a growing interest for non-proprietary solutions that can be opened up and more easily managed. Additionally, he sees a key user need in having Voice solutions that require zero training. "This is especially important for seasonal workers but also for reducing re-training requirements for all workers," he explained, adding that a key enabler in this regard is the growing capabilities of speaker independent systems.

Anton du Preez, group sales director for Voiteq, is seeing an increase in the use of Voice beyond picking. This, he says, is something that has been talked about for a number of years, but the rate of uptake has accelerated. "This is being driven by the maturity and breadth of product integration and pressure on warehouses to use their existing assets to drive additional cost savings," he remarked.

In terms of other key developments, du Preez points out that quality 'screen to Voice' solutions – which take the text prompts displayed on handheld terminal screens to be translated into Voice and which then enter the user's spoken responses back into the screen – have enabled companies with legacy systems or limited IT resource to implement Voice into a range of warehouse processes. du Preez also comments that new commercial models – including Subscription and Software as a Service (SaaS) – are becoming popular with companies that have Capex constraints but want to get the benefits of Voice today.

In addition, du Preez explains that retail and FMCG companies – driven by omni-channel, convenience retail and changing retailer order profiles – are having to manage more case and piece picking to even tighter deadlines.

Business intelligence

Business intelligence and predictive analytics (now often revered to as Big Data) are also attracting a lot of interest from Voiteq customers, explains du Preez. "They want clear, actionable visibility of their operations and want their systems to predict and manage issues before they occur," he said. "Our Voice solutions have always captured low-level process data and we're now using this data to provide higher-level visibility and control of the operation."

Vision-based systems are being talked about and are something that Voiteq has trialled with customers. However, du Preez considers that they have a number of challenges still to overcome before they will be viable alternatives to current, proven technologies.

Andy Briggs, technical director for BEC, considers that one of the main current key discussion points is the spread of Voice applications, i.e. not just for picking but for doing every task within the warehouse using Voice to get the best out of a company's technological investment and the solution as a whole. "Door-to-door Voice applications – as well as picking – can include dispatch, stock counting, quality transactions, stock rotation and stock control, i.e. any movement or transaction which can be done should be done with Voice as it has so many advantages," he explained.

Andreas Finken, president of topVOX US, managing director topVOX UK, reflects that there are always new developments in WMS and Voice. He commented: "And because of the way technology is moving forward it is important for us as a Voice solutions provider to be very adaptable to these changes in a way that will maintain performance of the Voice system itself and also to add real benefit to the end user." Finken added that with the ever increasing speeds and reliability of high-speed Internet worldwide, the increasing interest in SaaS/Cloud, topVOX continues to provide and enhance its Voice as a Service offerings in line with these trends; something it has continued to do for a number of years.

Additionally, with the movement to lower-cost highly flexible mobile OS such as android and iOS, Finken believes it is essential for both WMS and Voice providers to not only move with this technology but also to allow customers flexibility in transition between platforms. "So for topVOX it has been a key priority to move with these developments, and not just to enable our technology to work on these platforms but also to allow customers the flexibility to be able to transition between them at a pace that suits their needs rather than an overnight transition." This, he explains, is why topVOX has developed its Lydia speech solution to work on all of these platforms while also being able to mix and match them in the same operation so that they do not have to change their hardware overnight but rather be able to pace their investment.

Finken adds that there is huge growth in the number of e-commerce operations, many of which have grown from small one-person operations starting a business in the person's house, growing into the garage then into a small business unit with a small number of staff. Finken explains that a key area of focus for topVOX is to work and engage with as many of these growing operations as possible; many of whom need help to manage and control their costs and also to improve efficiency and accuracy in order to grow into major companies. "We have a few of these types of operations where growth has been phenomenal and we are very proud to have been a part of that growth," he said.

Finken also points out that there has been a lot of development regarding augmented reality technology, such as smart glasses. "This is an area where there is huge growth potential and can be seen as a potential threat to Voice solutions," he said. "However, when this is embraced it is clear that there is huge opportunity here and we already have live operations where these technologies are combined and delivering very real benefits to customers around the globe, which only a year ago were not really viable for full-shift operations."

Darrel Williams, region director, Northern Europe, Vocollect Solutions, Honeywell, considers that Voice is now firmly established and recognised as the optimum work interface for delivering productivity and accuracy benefits in the warehouse. The most interesting change he sees today over previous years is the acknowledgement of this fact by WMS and ERP vendors who have adopted Voice as a value-added mechanism to their offerings. "Understanding that a seamless delivery of all types of instructions to the worker is paramount to achieving today's warehouse challenges has led the WMS community to offer Voice-ready systems in much the same way that barcodes were adopted over 20 years ago," he said.

Williams believes the trend and differentiation is now more about the scope of the Voice offering rather than the availability. This, he maintains, is driven into even sharper focus with the need for business agility driven by surge in omni-channel and click and collect type operations. "Late ordering for next-day delivery, for example, relies heavily on timely execution of work instructions – doing job right first time in good time to meet demand and greater visibility of order progress, whether click and collect, timed or next day deliveries," he said.

Bill Tomasi, VP product management at IBS, comments that because the WMS market in general has evolved well into the maturation cycle, the key topics in IBS's discussions with customers haven't changed substantially over the past 10 years or so – but the focus on the details behind the questions has. He added: "For example, customers have long recognised the need for real-time visibility into operations within their fulfilment facilities (and indeed no WMS solutions provider can exist nowadays without this functionality).

However, more recently the discussions have focused on the format of retained information, faster and easier retrieval of this information, and intuitive UI (user interface) design approaches. All of these drive not only end user productivity but also are imperative with the new government regulations being placed on businesses."

Gavin Clark, commercial director at Snapfulfil, observes that Software as a Service (SaaS) continues to gain traction, not only with the company's traditional SMB customer base who are embracing the Cloud as a competitive differentiator, but also among Enterprise companies who have fixed IT budgets and are adopting SaaS solutions to help subsidiaries accelerate speed to value.

Real-time management information

What has driven these developments? Martin Eppert, product manager for Vanderlande, believes one key driver is the requirement for real-time management information. "Presenting the right information to warehouse managers in an appropriate way, whenever they would like to see it, is still a hot topic in WMS development," he said, adding that this will increase visibility over warehouse processes. Eppert also considers that dashboards are becoming more prevalent, combining WMS and process information from the system; for example the lower control levels due to automation. This, he explains, enables supervisors to make the most of available resources and reduce costs within the entire logistical process.

Another key driver for change, according to Eppert, is the continuous growth of ecommerce. He commented: "The e-commerce market continues to influence WMS developments. Orders are becoming smaller while lead-times are getting shorter. In addition, same-day deliveries are on the rise. The number of SKUs in a warehouse is also growing. Distribution centres need to be able to support multi-channel processes, which increases the overall operational complexity. WMS has to support these developments with suitable planning and scheduling functionalities to maintain warehouse efficiency. Consumers expect to be informed in more detail – and at short notice – about the delivery status of their order. Therefore, the WMS of the future has to support increasing track and trace demands."

Eppert believes the increasing demand for ergonomic working environments is also a pertinent subject. "This can be achieved through a combination of user-friendly interfaces and optimised workstations," he said. "Enhanced working conditions have a positive impact on both the motivation of operators and their performance while reducing absenteeism due to sickness. An ergonomic and user-friendly interface also requires shorter learning curves for employees, which is especially important in dynamic workforce environments."

In Eppert's view, the experience for customers is also crucial. "Online reviews and easy ordering procedures mean there are many factors to consider in ensuring consumer satisfaction," he said. "To facilitate this, same-day deliveries, at the lowest cost, with zero errors in order fulfilment are essential. Also store-friendly deliveries can help turn this trend into a solution, allowing for shelves to be replenished quickly, while reducing 'out of stock' notifications to customers. This requires distribution centres to reassess their processes and look for ways of optimising their supply chain. Important decisions need to be made relating to the entire logistical process. For example, in altering the stacking pattern of a delivery pallet to match the unpacking sequence of a certain store, the individual layout of the shop must be taken into account within the WMS."

As a result of the factors he cited above, Eppert maintains there is a trend towards the automation of more warehouse processes. "This will not only reduce running costs, but also increase process quality and facilitate short order throughput times," he said. "A state-of-the-art WMS has to support this in a very efficient way."

Chris Pass, consultant for BCP, believes some of the key drivers are transparency and rigorous fulfilment procedures to accommodate the demands of the multi/omni-channel market. He commented: "The warehouse management system must be able to handle orders of all sizes – from single items to more substantial orders – from a myriad of different sources, alongside a much wider choice of delivery options – plus the flexibility to mix and match those options in whatever combination the customer demands. Key to success is business-wide transparency – stock availability, stock location, delivery data and the whole spectrum of orders that are being placed – through all channels – and using that information, alongside accurate forecasting, sophisticated pricing matrices and rigorous fulfilment operations to deliver a seamless omni-channel experience for customers at a cost which is economical for the business. That's where truly integrated systems come in."

Pass also observes that the new Alcohol Wholesaler Registration Scheme (AWRS) is shining a new light on Bonded warehousing as alcohol wholesalers of all sizes have to check compliancy with regulations. He said: "This process does seem to be raising awareness of the cash flow and administration benefits that can flow from setting up a Bonded facility; benefits which are magnified if they are also involved in exporting activities. Voice technology is an ideal tool for running a Bonded warehouse, with its unmatched traceability capabilities – provided it has been thoughtfully designed into the solution."

Clark reflects that, in the past, companies wanting to streamline their warehousing operations had two choices: a low-cost solution – often their ERP's WMS – at the expense of the sophisticated functionality required to support a truly efficient warehousing operation, or an on-premise Tier 1 WMS with far greater 'fit for purpose' but with a lengthy implementation process and enormous price tag to match. Clark believes Cloud computing and SaaS models are bridging this gap, providing an affordable way for companies to benefit from a best-in-breed WMS.

Williams believes ecommerce, changing buying profiles and online availability mean that the warehouse is increasingly under pressure to perform in new and varied ways. "Often we find that a warehouse or warehouse worker is now the last (or only) touch point before the consumer and is almost totally responsible for brand image and customer satisfaction," he said. "Get an order wrong and both of these are affected with the potential to lose a customer forever."

Riviere considers that increased pressure on warehouse and logistics in general has been driven by ecommerce, and the evolving supply chain means warehouses need to cope with increasing demands; including more SKUs, greater returns and stock visibility. "This has meant that warehouses and DCs need to continue to evolve to increase accuracy and efficiency," he said. As a result, Riviere pointed out that Zebra customers have very much driven these changes to meet these underlying needs:

  • Non-proprietary hardware to increase flexibility.
  • Speaker independent systems to reduce training requirements and also grow the capabilities of these systems, which, claims Riviere, are now outperforming speaker-dependent ones.

According to du Preez, key drivers for change include the omni-channel; the growth of convenience retail and lean retailer initiatives have resulted in warehouses having to handle smaller orders and make more frequent deliveries. "This, in turn, has increased the need for handling cases and eaches, which is where Voice excels at providing an accurate and efficient process," he said.


Have ways of best integrating WMS and/or Voice-directed systems with other systems developed to any notable extent over the past year or two? Finken believes this question depends on the customer organisations and what they want. He commented: "If they want to have a system that can add functionality then a database and middleware can do this. If they want a direct real-time connection to their host system then there are many ways that this can happen depending on their host system. A database, telegram, html or .NET type of communication can do this. If they want total freedom to develop their own system changes then training them to do this and providing a development kit and support would be appropriate."

Riviere considers that integration of Voice and WMS is quite stable today. "However, Zebra has added more support for faster and easier integration over the past few years," he pointed out.

Andy Briggs points out that BEC has various integrations into all the major ERPs (SAP, Oracle, Infor, Dynamix, IFS & many others). "There is no need for bespoke development to add Voice to a business's ERP system – we have proven technology connectors," he said.

Wilson thinks things have become increasingly standardised in the sense that most of the packages now have standard connectors to the leading ERP systems. "That makes the whole process easier, however this is not something that is in my view plug and play at this point," he said. "This is because an ERP normally is a configured solution, so the specific way a company has set up its ERP solution can have an impact on how the interfacing works. That's why there has always been a degree of tailoring required to make the interfaces work. Nevertheless, it is now a much easier process than it used to be because a lot of the integration is more standardised – it's now more a case of tailoring rather than building from scratch."

Eppert has observed a strong trend towards adopting responsive, near real-time interfaces such as web services, over the more conventional and less reactive batch-oriented communication methods. "This allows for closer process integration; for example, being able to automatically print and add a delivery note – or invoice – and shipping label reflecting the latest pick results and parcel weights," he explained.

Eppert added that customers are becoming more aware of the value of their software solutions and, moreover, the risks involved if they do not work as expected. "Therefore, integration tests of a new system within the customer's existing IT network have become more important," he said. "To test whether integration will be effective before the software goes live a special test environment is established. This includes remote connections that mimic the dynamic behaviour of the existing material handling system. More customers are participating in this test phase, which gives them an excellent opportunity to receive training on their new system and prepare for a smooth commissioning phase."

Eppert also makes the point that the world of logistics still requires a flexible and adaptive software solution that integrates smoothly into a customer's existing IT systems. "Choosing an application with a set of predefined, best practice integration scenarios, omits risks and reduces costs in WMS projects," he said.

Heaney makes the point that the price-point for Voice is now lower and integration within WMS has become simpler over the past few years. "I am and industrial engineer by training and in the days when I was looking at Voice versus RF and other capabilities the price point wasn't right," he remembered. "Also, Voice could be more disruptive to the ebb and flow of the primary WMS system and not very easy to interface, and the devices themselves tended to be more proprietary. Today, with the advent of the smartphones and newer ways of engaging with the worker, Voice systems are much more integrated and most can plug and play with any device you might already have. It is now easier to justify and to leverage Voice across your entire enterprise."

According to Tomasi, the current trend in inter-solution communications is to generate open and transparent communication layers. "This trend results in easier, faster, and less expensive integration as more and more companies adopt technological standards and publish their interface requirements," he remarked.

Spotts considers that in some ways integrating the Voice-directed system with the WMS is straightforward. "Because of the real-time nature of Voice-directed systems, using middleware may not be effective – a direct integration may be the best choice," he remarked. The good news, according to Spotts, is that if a direct interface is written between the WMS and the Voice-directed system, the quantity and variety of data exchanged will likely be very predictable and limited in scope. "That is because the transactions conducted by the Voice-directed system must be limited in order to maintain its accuracy and speed," he said.

Pass argues that integrating Voice into WMS continues to be more challenging than is often represented by middleware providers "who simply aim to bolt Voice hardware onto an existing WMS". In Pass's view, a totally integrated Voice WMS still, in general, offers more functionality while being more robust and less risky. "It's important to appreciate that Voice is now a mature technology with customers much more aware of the potential benefits it can deliver and the need to integrate it fully and sensitively to other business systems if those benefits are to be realised," he said. "This applies equally, whether it be a Warehouse Execution System to Voice empowering an existing WMS or a full Voice WMS interfacing to other business systems." The key, says Pass, is to choose a supplier with a proven pedigree of implementing Voice and a full understanding of what is involved so that Voice can be made to 'work for you'.

According to Clark, the main challenges when integrating with existing business systems usually rest with the ERP systems, as they are often older versions and not configured for connecting to external systems. He commented: "The advances the vendors of these systems have invested in have really made the difference, allowing the use of real time web services, APIs and other real-time transport methods. Obviously the providers of WMS and Voice systems have had to ensure they can accommodate as many options as possible, providing flexible methods for each new client system."

Williams believes that, undoubtedly, more business systems have wider ranging integration to Voice systems than ever before. He adds that Honeywell Vocollect solutions integrates with over 200 business systems, often with several at the same time, with the emphasis on seamless integration to deliver the best performance possible. "However, with the ever-changing demands from the market there still remains the need for functionally-rich applications or middleware that is truly attuned to the business in hand," he said.

du Preez makes the point that, today, there is a wider range of Voice integration options than ever before. "The larger WMS vendors have more deeply embedded Voice into their latest versions and companies with older versions now have access to high quality screen-to-Voice solutions to voice-enable any of their screen-based processes," he said. "There is still strong demand for Voice warehouse execution systems that enhance the lower level operational processes of traditional WMS systems. For example, Voiteq's VoiceMan warehouse execution system enabled Kellogg's to realise a 40 per cent productivity improvement by better managing workload and pallet building using Voice."

According to du Preez, there is also growing interest from SAP customers for Voice solutions that connect directly to SAP and a number of these solutions have gone live in the past 12 months in the UK and Europe – particularly as the adoption of SAP's Extended Warehouse Management (EWM) grows.

SaaS and Cloud

Has the Software as a Service (SaaS)/Cloud model had any notable level of impact on the WMS and/or Voice-directed software solutions market so far? du Preez comments that it is first worth distinguishing how a Voice solution is hosted and provided (which could be in the Cloud) from the commercial model for acquiring it (which could be pay-per-user-per-month). He commented: "New commercial models such as Subscription and SaaS were accelerated in the economic downturn when capital was hard to come by. Interestingly, the appetite for these has not diminished now that the economy is stronger."

du Preez explains that Voiteq offers all three hosting models: Cloud, data centre and on-premise. "Primarily due to the mission-critical nature of Voice systems, most of our customers opt for high-availability deployments under their control in data centres or at their warehouse sites," he said. "Examples of internet services being unavailable, such as the recent Skype outage, are often quoted by companies when we speak to them about a pure Cloud service. The cost and impact on customer service of a picking system being unavailable for a few hours is not something they're willing to risk. That being said, some of our larger customers have opted for Cloud-like solutions (centrally hosted with a browser user interface) in resilient data centres that they can select and hold to high service levels."

Eppert has seen few notable requests for a SaaS model so far. "In the context of automation projects, WMS is seen as an additional investment to the traditionally more expensive equipment," he said. Eppert has observed little interest in a 'public Cloud' approach; however, he has witnessed a greater focus on 'private Cloud' solutions within small- to mid-size systems warehouses. He commented: "The benefits of Cloud-based approaches are well-known: IT setup and maintenance costs are reduced and the scalable nature of the solution allows customers to respond quickly to changing market needs, without compromising response times."

Going smaller

Spotts reflects that publications often focus on gigantic organisations with massive warehouses and large information technology staffs. "In today's environment, there is a growing number of small boutique and specialty retailers who manufacture and warehouse their products," he said. "These organisations do not have the resources to maintain an ERP or warehouse management system. For a growing number of such small- and even medium-sized businesses a Cloud-based solution can be desirable."

Spotts added that people often associate SaaS with Cloud-based technology. "While SaaS computing is almost certainly Cloud-based, there are other Cloud-based models available," he pointed out. "SaaS implies that the business does not own the software, and even more concerning, it may be unclear as to who owns the data. With Cloud-based systems, the business owns the software and its data, and merely pays the hosting organisation to operate its system. Such solutions have proven to be very cost-effective and relieve the need for an organisation to have the deep skillsets necessary to support an ERP or warehouse management system."

For real-time systems, such as Voice recognition, and any kind of automated warehouse cranes and material movement systems, Spotts maintains that the controls continue to need to be local for reliability and speed. "Even the direct supervisory systems should be local to assure a reliable, fast connection, but middle tier and ERP level software is being moved to the Cloud more and more frequently," he said.

Heaney explains that many multimodal units have the Voice engines and the software kernels that drive most of the heavy activity on the devices themselves. He commented: "They can send messaging back to either the local host servers for Voice or to the Cloud etc. So, by decoupling where a lot of that heavy processing is and then putting many cases right on the device you are now able to support largely Cloud-ready type operations."

Heaney continued: "The same thing is true on WMS. Today, there is a lot more bandwidth and less latency between how quickly the systems can receive information. In some cases we have seen SaaS-based WMS providers actually doing high-speed sortation where units pass by a scanner at rates of 2000 to 3000 per minute. As a result of that capability we are seeing many more people opting for a solution that allows them to leverage their WMS or their Voice system etc. more in the Cloud and then take advantage of a common system across their warehouses facilities. Then, rather than having dedicated servers and differences in how things are implemented, they can take advantage of a more common broad-brush solution that is easier to maintain and also satisfy their needs. Therefore, we are seeing the tendency for people to start moving that way."

Heaney added that, particularly in the case of new installations or new facilities, this kind of migration is starting to happen. "There are, however, companies that are still tied to their legacy systems and to central processing that happens at the facility itself," he said. "This often can make migration more difficult; so instead of moving to the Cloud many companies are moving to multi-modal open architecture devices, such as Voice, which allows them to deal with their everyday processes and event-driven flows without necessarily needing to rip out their legacy WMS."

Finken thinks it is clear that SaaS models do work and are growing. He commented: "There are major strengths to this model as they generally do not require large capital investment and have flexible contract terms so it provides a low risk option to companies providing they have resilient and reliable connectivity. With the massive growth over the last few years of mobile communications I think there are some real opportunities here."

Tomasi believes SaaS is definitely becoming more of a topic for discussion with customers as they see the benefits. "I don't believe we have fully crossed the chasm and entered into the Early Majority phase yet, but I see the market as definitely trending in this direction," he said. "Much as we saw back in the 1990s when real-time visibility crossed the chasm, we will see a shift as some of the providers who failed to adopt the prerequisite technological underpinning fall to the wayside and new start-up companies burst onto the scene. This is good news for the WMS market in general as historically these events drive the market forward."

According to Clark, the acceptance of SaaS systems for CRM and ERP has opened the floodgates for other pioneering system vendors to create SaaS products that can stand shoulder to shoulder with the established on-premise solutions. "Increasingly, our SaaS WMS is being evaluated alongside and chosen above on-premise solutions and not simply because it is a lower-cost option," he said. "On this basis, we predict that Cloud will overtake the popularity of on-premise WMS within the foreseeable future."

Pass explains that several of BCP's Voice WMS customers have been operating private Cloud systems to manage multi-depot operations for years, but BCP's own research and experience shows that customers prefer being able to see their own hardware and control their own data. "There's still an inherent discomfort about the data ownership issue which comes with the SaaS/Cloud model," he said.

Riviere comments that Zebra is seeing increasing interest in SaaS as it is easier to deploy and get up and running and offers a different investment model for customers. Williams points out that term 'SaaS' has been around for many years, and its impact and interpretation can vary widely depending on one's perspective. He commented: "To some it means renting licensed software or pay to use, to others it represents having a hosted system that is run and managed by someone one else and to yet another group it represents an alternative cash flow profile."

Williams adds that Honeywell Vocollect solutions have been able to provide hosted or remote systems for many years with a variety of licensing models. "However in order to maximise returns, Voice solutions often need to be configured, personalised or tuned to individual requirements, so as to deliver the most significant returns," he said. "As such, the astute client will usually invest in a solution that differentiates him in his market, whilst delivering an outstanding ROI, typically within a year. SaaS remains an option for voice that stimulates interest but doesn't always deliver the best results."


Are mobility solutions having a greater impact or influence on WMS and/or Voice-directed solutions? Finken states that these are exactly the sort of things that topVOX is developing and deploying in augmented reality solutions now. "This will extend not just within the warehouse but also across the whole distribution chain," he said. "We are already seeing this happen and as devices improve this will accelerate. We already have many live systems not just in warehousing and logistics but in healthcare, maintenance, production and field service where these types of hardware devices have made this possible. Not only that, we also have several other solutions that we have developed that are really waiting for the hardware to catch up before we can really deliver them. But it is happening."

Heaney believes that, in today's digital society, we are becoming increasingly accustomed to leveraging benefits of smartphones and ecommerce etc. "For example, many consumers now expect to be able place an order with Amazon and receive it within a day or two, and track and trace it on its delivery path," he said. "Consumers also expect to be able to easily and quickly return unwanted goods. So we are communicating needs fairly immediately and getting statuses almost immediately. This expectation of quicker delivery and traceability also ripples into the workplace."

According to Wilson, a growing number of people who have the task of supervising the pickers in the warehouse want to go out on the floor with a tablet; bringing the supervisor layer out of the office and to the operation. "Allowing the WMS to display dashboards on a tablet makes things much more convenient," he said. "One of our clients is in the process of piloting this because that will mean the supervisor layer is not tied to the desk. Through being able to see dashboards on a tablet, supervision will be able to be undertaken more effectively without individuals having to go back to the office every time they want to run a query."

According to Pass, there is significant interest in mobile devices at senior levels for management of the warehouse, to quickly identify hotspots, such as empty pick faces, for example, and in the field to allow field sales staff to better service customers with real-time information accessed directly from the main system. However, he believes there is no real movement in this direction on a day-to-day operational basis where it would only contravene the whole 'hands free, eyes free' ethos that underlines Voice technology in the warehouse. Nevertheless, with the growing popularity of wearable technology, and the rapid rate of technical innovation in this area, Pass considers it is not unreasonable to speculate that wearable mobile devices could make inroads into the warehouse industry in the not too distant future.

In Eppert's view, mobile solutions are having a big impact on WMS. "Recent innovations have created a new world of opportunities and improvements within warehouses," he said. "For example, if a service technician has to solve an equipment-related issue, they benefit from having all the relevant information on their mobile device, such as a tablet. In addition, if they require remote assistance, they can highlight the problem with a mobile video camera while discussing the situation with a specialist, conceivably thousands of miles away (as per Vanderlande's EYE4U solution). As mobile technology continues to evolve, we will see more of these applications appear on the market. This will help to improve the overall service level and process continuity in warehouses."

Eppert adds that being online is such a big part of our personal lives that we expect to enjoy the benefits of this in a professional capacity. Alongside the easy to use applications, Eppert makes the point that WMS provides accurate information and reports, whenever it is required.

du Preez states that mobility has been core to Voice solutions since their inception. "Mobile access to the back-end systems that manage mobile workers is a more recent development, but demand is growing rapidly," he said. "Typically, managers and supervisors want the key information and alerts pushed to their mobile devices with the ability to then trigger actions in their systems, even when they're away from their desks. The technologies to enable this are well-established and in general the key areas of focus are data security, making the information relevant and minimising 'information overload'."

Clark comments that the widespread use of tablets and smartphones means all systems will be developed to work on these platforms. "Mobile Manager, our latest BI tool, will not only be web-based to allow access anywhere, but will also deploy native apps for iOS and Android devices," he explained.

According to Tomasi, mobility solutions are impacting the WMS market in a two main areas: Device selection and application development. He commented: "On site, we see more customers looking for alternatives to ruggedised terminals and PC stations, and off-site more and more companies are adopting a BYOD (bring your own device) approach to technology, which requires solutions to be either easily installed or accessible through the web. Luckily, development technologies like HTML5, reactive screen designs, etc. are enabling software providers to support a much wider range of devices without additional investment in development or support."

Greater access

Briggs observes that the scope of people using these mobile devices is changing; with more people having access to information via smartphones and tablets for reports and dashboards while they are out and about/at home – and more executive level personnel using mobile devices than before.

Spotts considers that technology is benefitting smaller and smaller companies. "How many times have you been at a street fair and seen a food wagon or a street seller collecting data off of a phone or tablet mounted credit card reader?" he said. "Smaller, inexpensive systems allow small businesses to manage their inventory and accounting with simple, affordable technology. Benefits of inexpensive mobile computing platforms don't need to be limited to small businesses. In the right environment in large corporations, these inexpensive, versatile devices can improve business efficiencies and serve as data terminals, cameras, barcode readers and – yes, of course – Voice recognition systems. Because of the massive quantity of such devices that are in use for personal and business use, a great deal of technological development has poured into making such devices an integral part of day-to-day life."

Williams believes mobile devices are de facto in today's world and interoperability should be the norm. However, he adds that Voice enables end users to do what their business requires of them in the best possible way, rather than their being encumbered by technology. "The trick is to apply technology in the least invasive way to the user, letting it assist rather than direct strategy," he said.

Riviere sees enabling mobile workers to make real-time decisions based on actionable intelligence as a major trend. "With the development of technology and Voice-picking solutions they provide greater access to data and also data in real time through industrial WLAN solutions," he said. "This also links to the key trend of increased mobility in the workplace. By providing workers with real-time data through handheld devices it can provide them with key enterprise intelligence to enable them to make key business decisions."

Riviere explains that, in the past, warehouse operations tended to look at mobile devices as one-size-fits-all. "That's no longer the case," he said. "Today, with the proliferation of smarter, more productive mobile devices, the goal is to make sure employees are using the right device for the right task. Fixed and mobile printers enable assets and inventory to be efficiently tracked. Powerful, rugged single and multimodal devices provide functionalities – from scanning to tag reading to Voice picking and more – in a variety of form factors such as handheld, vehicle-mounted, wearable and hands-free mobile units. Multimodal technology is rising in importance, providing users with the ability to perform multiple tasks on one device; for example, units that combine scanning, Voice and text, with the option of using Voice-only, text-only or combination Voice and text for input."

Big Data

Is Big Data now having a notable effect on the development, operation and benefits of WMS and Voice? Wilson considers that if one thinks of Big Data as collecting and using the pool of detailed transactional data, then this is what the workforce management applications he referred to earlier do. He added: "It used to be that data collected in the WMS was cleansed each night and the following day the process would start again. The results were posted into the ERP but the actual transactional data wasn't analysed in any great depth and was regularly disposed of.

Most WMS solutions aren't particularly designed to be data storage devices, however there is now a recognition that this data does have value and is often exported into workforce or labour management modules where it is held and where there is then analysed. That can help improve how workers are performing, so that's how I see Big Data applying to warehouse operations. There is a lot of transactional data available, but it's really about getting the value out of that data which companies are increasingly keen to achieve. This wasn't so much the case two years ago."

Clark makes the point that by combining different sources of information, a sophisticated business intelligence tool can convert data into real usable management information. He commented: "Knowing what is happening and what happened is one thing, but being able to know ow that compares with yesterday, this time last week, last month and forecast what resources will be needed to hit deadlines and update that throughout a working day will allow smaller businesses to compete more effectively with the larger corporates. This is why we will soon be offering business intelligence and dashboard tools within our Snapfulfil WMS, built on the incredibly powerful MicroStrategy platform."

Clark added that each reporting Pod within the dashboard can be interrogated in a variety of ways and the BI reports are easily customisable with graphs, charts, gauges and other easy to view options. Alerts can be set by the user and reports easily exported via email, with annotations to provide swift notification and further investigation. "This data is all seamlessly integrated with the data within the Snapfulfil 'Data Cube' and non-linear reporting allows for rapid searches of millions of rows of data," Clark continued. "By using the power of Software as a Service, all Snapfulfil users will soon be able to choose an Enterprise level business intelligence tool that would usually be outside of their budgets."

Tomasi believes Big Data is another area within the WMS market that has not progressed beyond the early adopters, but nevertheless has massive ramifications for our industry. "It's not just about data retention but rather how quickly and easily the massive amounts of data can be optimally searched and, most importantly, how the results can be used in ways that propel a company ahead of their competitors," he said.

Pass considers that capturing performance data and using it alongside advanced labour scheduling, such as BCP's Accord Voice Labour Scheduling system, facilitates better management of manpower resources, time scheduling and identification of any underlying issues. In the wider field of ERP solutions, Pass believes Big Data promises much, but only if IT solutions can manage the huge volumes of data available and deliver it to users in a meaningful, easy to use and interpret format.

Briggs explains that much of the business intelligence in BEC's solutions to date has focused on users; for example the performance/productivity of operatives. "We expect that we are going to see much more use of the masses of data that can be gathered through our warehouse management systems, giving the ability to monitor all business process, transparency across many sites," he said. "The large volumes of quantitative data will enable very accurate measurement and forecasting of resources – labour, energy, materials etc. – and provide immediate real-time quality and reliability measures, with triggers for anomalies, and exceptions which can then be handled immediately."

Better insight

Eppert believes Big Data is having a noticeable impact on the world of WMS. "These systems are required to deliver more detailed internal process data to the business intelligence platform, which facilitates in-depth analytics," he said. "Combining this data from multiple points within a warehouse can offer a better insight into areas of improvement. The correct interpretation of data will remain a human task for now and not fully automated in the near future. In this sense, Big Data can be understood as an approach to making effective decisions based on reliable information. One of the expected challenges will be to incorporate media information such as pictures and movies taken from warehouse processes into data analytics."

Spotts reflects that Big Data is a term coined to describe data sets so large or complex that conventional software and hardware are inadequate. "This definition is a moving target," he remarked. "Data sets that were incomprehensible and hard to manage a few years ago have now become routine."

Spotts continued: "Putting aside that rather vague definition of Big Data, let's talk about the benefits that global companies can achieve as the result of the technology employed to manage Big Data. Companies can now have a global view of their inventory. With the advent of inexpensive sensors and computers, they can collect vast amounts of data. Data can include text, images, audio, and video. Big Data is often characterised as high volume, variable, real time, and accurate.

"Vast amounts of data do nothing but fill up disk drives if proper organisation and analysis of the data is not completed. When making the decision to collect and store massive amounts of data, advanced tools with algorithms and analysis must be employed to transform it from data to meaningful information. Cutting-edge technology allows forward-thinking users to quickly recognise changing patterns, detect seemingly invisible issues, conduct predictive analysis and enable confident decision making."

Heaney reflects that, when one talks about the event-driven warehouse this is not just about adopting more interactive technologies and solutions. "There is also a need to interleave those very tightly into the workflows," he said. "After all, it does companies no good if they bring in Voice but are then not be able to take the input from the Voice unit and interdict or interleave an order into the workflow. Why provide the capability to communicate in real-time with a system if it goes into a black hole and doesn't allow workers to react to it for, say, a hot replenishment etc.? So you need to be able to access the more granule data and be able to react to it much more in real-time and deploy courses of corrective action if necessary. The whole purpose is to be able to take on workflows that in the past were simply batched and delayed."

Riviere explains that Zebra's solutions can provide a much deeper insight by providing real-time data that feeds into the WMS systems. He commented: "This help provides visibility of assets and visibility throughout the warehouse and supply chain. With the advent of today's mobile technologies and the Internet of Things (IoT), enterprises can accelerate productivity, profitability and operations with solutions designed specifically for their processes.

With the right IoT solution in place, enterprises can connect all devices across a centralised Cloud network, and capture and share their mission-critical data, allowing them to gain real-time visibility of their operations. This actionable insight is what provides organisations the Enterprise Asset Intelligence they need to make improvements. This enhanced business knowledge can be gained through a set of enabling technologies in the areas of asset management, Cloud, mobile and Big Data."

Riviere added that he sees enabling mobile workers to make real-time decisions based on actionable intelligence as a major trend. He makes the point that Zebra's solutions (WLAN, RFID, scanners, mobile computers) are key to capturing real-time data (barcodes, timestamps, location etc.) to enter into WMS systems to enable this. "With the development of technology and Voice picking solutions they provide greater access to data and also data in real time through industrial WLAN solutions," said Riviere. "This also links to key trend of increased mobility in the workplace. By providing workers with real-time data through handheld devices they can access key enterprise intelligence to enable them to make key business decisions."

Riviere is seeing this then being increasingly analysed to make business decisions. "For example, in Zebra's warehouse in Heerenveen, we integrated our own Real-Time Locating System (RTLS) technology with the WMS system to enable a truly dynamic and real-time facility. The solution enables staging requests from the WMS to be dynamically staged, resulting in a 40 per cent space saving versus traditional fixed staging and savings of over 400 man hours per month." In terms of hardware, Riviere is also seeing increasing analytics available to ensure optimal performance. For example, he points out device-diagnostic services are available to maximise the performance of Zebra mobile computers and ensure visibility.

du Preez observes that most warehouse management systems and Voice execution systems have provided fairly detailed transactional records of the activities in the warehouse. "Increasingly, this data is being used to provide more meaningful and actionable insights into the operation, which in turn enable managers and supervisors to make better decisions," he said. "Some providers have evolved this historic view of activity into predictive analytics that use past and current performance to predict future outcomes such as completion times and resource requirements. These insights and predictions are proving to be extremely valuable to users and so the providers of these systems are investing more into research and development of these Big Data tools."

du Preez points out that by combining real-time operator performance with data from the WMS and transportation scheduling systems, Voiteq's Warehouse Execution System is able to predict the completion times of zones or routes and recommend alternative resource allocations to avoid or minimise missed shipping deadlines. Larger data sets captured over longer periods allow users to compare current and historic performance and to measure the impact of changes to processes.

Finken reflects that there is a lot spoken about Big Data within logistics and distribution. He commented: "And certainly there are huge benefits already being realised where the consumer market is concerned and in trend analysis. So I think so far there are clear benefits in these areas and in intelligence gathering for businesses. How exactly this is being used in WMS and within the four walls of a warehouse is yet to be fully understood. The key is that we know it will as systems and business processes become more and more interconnected and as the consumer demands more flexibility and greater service. That said, there are some new developments that we are progressing right now, which will materialise in the next year or so."

Williams considers that Big Data is a relatively recent term for analysing what is happening and using what one has learned. "Voice has been applying these principles for many years to streamline and optimise labour-intensive warehousing activities," he said. "The very nature of Voice technology delivers visibility into the component parts of every process, rather than just reporting the outcome, providing unprecedented data points to allow us to make actionable change. For example, we notice in the 'profile' of a product that is picked several times a day that there is a higher than normal percentage of walk time, so we are able to analyse the actions and identify options for immediate improvement, for example, why aren't we batch picking multiple orders or even moving the stock location?"

Looking to the future

What might be the next innovations and developments to look out for in the world of WMS software and Voice-directed systems over the next year or two? Eppert believes one area of development will be the integration of new technology such as automated shuttle systems allowing for scalable storage or automated mixed palletising solutions. These, he sayd, will need specific WMS support in order to get the maximum benefit.

Another challenge for WMS software, according to Eppert, will be handling the conflict between the impressive speed of innovation and release cycles from the consumer market and the demand for future-proof investments in the world of logistics. "For example, mobile terminals in a warehouse are often in operation for many years, while the capabilities of an average smartphone and its apps are improving monthly," he said. Also, Eppert reflects that the discrepancy between the 'always connected' trend in the consumer market and the demand for IT security within a warehouse will be an interesting topic to work on as a product manager.

Finken comments that topVOX is now deploying solutions that combine new hardware with the use of 'Voice and Vision'. "This is very real now and I think this will be a big growth area over the next two years," he said.

Finken pointed out that customers are continually demanding more flexibility. Therefore, he thinks the use of android in warehouse operations will be a very noticeable development as the hardware can be much lower cost than traditional ruggedised devices. "The key here is how we enable customers to have this flexibility," he said. "So we will be developing our Lydia Voicewear to help with this in keeping low-cost devices protected and therefore viable in the harsh environments of warehouses."

Also, Finken believes the market will continue to see the growth of 'Pick and Pack' operations as businesses modify their models to allow shipment direct to end customer. "We are experiencing a growing number of customers asking us to enable 'Pick and pack' within their operations, and this has been a built-in option on our 'Lydia Plug and Play' system for quite a while now," he said.

Wearable technology

Pass believes wearable technology is one area that will become more prevalent within the Voice space, while Clark considers that WMS systems will continue to become more sophisticated, with the ability to handle greater levels of exceptions without requiring any manual intervention or administration by operators. This, he believes, will essentially make the system smarter while keeping the user experience simple and straightforward. Briggs considers that Voice could spread further from warehousing into manufacturing for assembly, inspections etc. (for more comment in this area, see pages 30 and 31).

Within the next year or two Tomasi thinks we will see improvement in the SaaS adoption, clarity of purpose in the Big Data arena, emergence/improvement of augmented reality technology, and improved adoption of existing development technologies. All of this will, he believes, lead to a rejuvenated and much more dynamic WMS market, which will be good for vendors and customers alike.

Heaney makes the point that because companies are adding extra complexity they are also adding more cost. "So one of the next frontiers is to become more profitable," he said. "One way to achieve this is through more effective labour-management, which can, for instance, help to take out non-value-added work. Some vendors now offer labour management solutions that are independent from their primary WMS solution, so that if a user has a legacy system it can bolt on a labour-management solution. The idea is to provide an effective way to become more profitable in your work processes as you turn on these new more labour-intensive modes of fulfilment."

Heaney also sees a growing trend towards being able to take Big Data, analyse it and determine what the workload is going to look like tomorrow, the next day or the day after that based on what has been seen today. He commented: "If you think about an event like Black Friday, orders are coming in, data is being collected and the orders are being processed – but there may be a certain amount of backlog at the end of the day. There may be an indication in the data itself that some items are nearly out of stock, meaning you may need to get extra stock from your supplier. You can now turn this Big Data into intelligence in order to be a little more proactive about where your next failure point may be. For example, you might need to bring in more temporary workers tomorrow because the order levels are so huge and the popularity of some of these items is outstripping the pick face."

Riviere considers that more warehouses and distribution centres will be using multimodal devices over the next year or two. He also believes we there will be a sizeable increase in all touchscreen devices being deployed in the warehouse. Finally, he anticipates further interest in SaaS.

Changing demands

du Preez comments that ever changing demands on warehouses – driven by consumers, retailers and regulation – will force them to consider flexibility and rapid return on investment as key factors when choosing technology. "With the range of proven integration options available from experienced vendors, it will be easier than ever for customers to implement Voice into their operations," he said. "Existing users will seek ways to further leverage their investment in Voice and will extend its use into warehouse processes beyond picking. We therefore expect continued strong growth from the warehousing Voice market."

du Preez also believes the market will see the use of Voice rapidly expanding into non-warehousing markets; particularly inspection and in-store retail. "This will bring new device and headset form factors as well as advances in the underlying Voice recognition engines," he said. "These innovations will positively impact the established warehouse Voice market and provide more options for existing users."

du Preez added that, much like RFID, vision systems need to pass through their hype stage before their particular business case becomes credible. "We do believe that vision systems, combined with quality Voice recognition, will offer innovative solutions to certain data-rich processes," he said. "However, we don't expect them to displace current warehouse technologies any time soon." Finally, du Preez believes the availability of new commercial models such as subscription will give customers the ability to select and implement Voice within their budget cycle by shifting the costs from capex to opex.

In Williams' view, today's advances in technology and systems, coupled with the increasing professionalism of the industry, means that many things are being executed well in the logistics and warehouse arena. As such, he believes that occurrences of 'game-changing' innovation are less common. "However that does not mean that we stand still," said Williams. "We continue to make small and subtle improvements and refinements that still add significant value to costly operation."

Williams explained that some of Honeywell Vocollect Solutions' more recent innovations are the inclusion of 'hands-free' scanning into a Voice device; allowing all of the benefits of Voice-directed work with the additional option of automatic data collection. Additionally, Williams points out that the company has produced advanced wireless headsets with 'sound sense' noise cancellation that has further pushed the performance boundaries of industrial Voice-recognition systems, whilst also offering even more ability to integrate into multiple systems concurrently.

He added that, in line with the 'keeping it simple for users' philosophy, Honeywell Vocollect Solutions continues to implement practical improvements in both WMS integration, ergonomics and ease of use. Williams also explains that the company has already witnessed the use of Voice into areas such as MRO, healthcare and in-store and he sees its usage expanding into even more diverse environments.

Augmented reality

Wilson reiterates his earlier point; that we are going to see a growth in augmented reality technology in the warehouse. "The reason for that is with the amount of pressure on cost people will be looking very aggressively at how to do things that can reduce operating costs," he said. "I think we will probably see more of an interest in warehouse automation because people who are reconfiguring their networks or building new distribution space will be taking account of the living wage and the impact of that over the medium to long-term. Therefore automation may start to pay back a bit better than it has done in the past in the UK.

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