Other Voices: Voice fills the functionality gaps

Not everyone is ready to upgrade their warehouse management system. Here’s how two companies added new functionality without a new WMS.

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Editor’s Note: The following column by Ian Hobkirk, founder and managing director, Commonwealth Supply Chain Advisors, is part of Modern’s Other Voices column. The series features ideas, opinions and insights from end users, analysts, systems integraters and OEMs. Click on the link to learn about submitting a column for consideration.

Supply chains have become more complex than ever in recent years. Structural changes to supply chains and demand patterns over the last two decades have created a host of new process requirements for distribution centers. As a result of those changes, warehousing, order fulfillment and logistics operations are more dependent than ever on software to efficiently manage processes. A warehouse management system (WMS) is foundational when it comes to meeting the new requirements demanded by the market. Yet, many companies’ WMS systems have failed to keep abreast of these new requirements, creating operational inefficiencies that eat away at corporate profits.

The March issue of Supply Chain Management Review, features Do You Really Need To Update Your WMS?, an in-depth look by Ian Hobkirk at how some of his clients are approaching the limitations of their legacy WMS and supply chain management software applications:

“Despite the benefits of upgrading to more modern supply chain software,” Hobkirk tells us, “many firms have resisted the call, and instead have sought less expansive solutions to address their needs. However, several technological advances, which have roots in the 1990s, have finally come of age and are offering alternatives to wholesale platform replacements.”

Just what are those technological advances and alternatives to wholesale platform replacements? According to Hobkirk, they include voice recognition technology and the next generation of warehouse control systems. Below, Hobkirk discusses two end users who have added functionality to their distribution and order fulfilment operations through voice recognition technology while soldiering on with a legacy WMS.

The experience of Cabela’s, a $3.5 billion-dollar retailer of outdoor sporting goods,  provides a good example of the side-benefits to voice.  Some years ago Cabela’s invested in a best-of-breed WMS system. While that software has largely been an effective tool in the distribution center, the company found that certain processes were time consuming and cumbersome in the WMS. “Things like starting a new carton to pick to involved multiple keystrokes and menus on the mobile device,” says Kevin Thompson, Cabela’s distribution systems manager. “It just wasn’t easy for workers to do. Seemingly simple things like re-designing the screen menus would take an amazing amount of development time, and we had to pay expensive rates with our WMS provider to get it done.”

Cabela’s began exploring other ways to tackle these problems, and decided to implement a speech-based warehousing solution from Vangard Voice Systems, an up-and-coming player in the world of voice. “The voice solution has allowed us to take the underlying data from the WMS and put a more user-friendly interface on it, removing steps and streamlining the process,” says Thompson. “We can typically voice enable any of our mobile computer screens in about twenty-four hours, all using our own internal resources. We can also test most of the work in the production environment, since we aren’t making any changes to the core WMS.”

This ability to make little changes in key areas has had a big impact on productivity for the sporting goods retailer. Thompson reports that Cabela’s has seen a fifteen-to-twenty-percent productivity improvement in some areas of retail order filling and even bigger gains in areas like cycle counting.

Cabela’s is not alone. Another good example of the flexibility of voice systems is that of Progressive International, a manufacturer of kitchen gadgets that are sold through a variety of retailers from specialty shops to big box. The company had a commercially-developed WMS that was difficult and expensive to modify. The company had been practicing discrete order picking – picking orders one by one – but wished to improve efficiency and flexibility by batch picking multiple orders at the same time. “We realized that creating cluster picking functionality would be a big undertaking in our WMS system,” says Patrick Klein, Vice President of Logistics for Progressive. “It wasn’t impossible to do, but it would involve writing a lot of custom code. Once you’ve experienced the pain of doing software modifications, it colors your decision to do it again.” Instead, the company began investigating voice solutions as a way to achieve this functionality, eventually implementing a solution in 2013 from Datria Systems, now a part of Intelligrated, Inc.

“The voice system has been incredibly flexible and easy to use,” reports Klein. “We can pick as many orders as we want at the same time, using standard functionality. If one person is taking longer than normal to pick a group of orders, or we have freed-up a staff member from another function and want to add into the picking to further expedite the processing, then the group can be split up and divided amongst a few people.” Another added benefit has been the improvement in visibility and reporting with the voice system. “The software functionality gives us a great ability to monitor what’s going on in the warehouse in real-time,” indicates Klein.  “We can watch the flow of orders, and see if any orders or people are idle for extended periods of time and manage resources better. This visibility is much more robust than what was inherent in our WMS.”

Ian Hobkirk is the founder and managing director of Commonwealth Supply Chain Advisors. The former manager of the supply chain execution practice at The Aberdeen Group, Hobkirk has over 20 years experience in the supply chain industry. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


About the Author

Bob Trebilcock
Bob Trebilcock, editorial director, has covered materials handling, technology, logistics and supply chain topics for nearly 30 years. In addition to Supply Chain Management Review, he is also Executive Editor of Modern Materials Handling. A graduate of Bowling Green State University, Trebilcock lives in Keene, NH. He can be reached at 603-357-0484.

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