Is voice over IP the next trend in voice recognition?

An industry veteran is betting on changes in voice technology.
By Bob Trebilcock, Executive Editor
December 28, 2010 - MMH Editorial

The adoption of voice recognition in the warehouse, especially for picking, is one of the true technology success stories of the last few years. It’s also a testament to Vocollect, which has long dominated the industry, as well as competitors like Lucas Systems, Voxware and top-VOX to name just three, that have continued to improve upon the technology over the last decade. In fact, we’re featuring Tasty Baking Company, a Lucas Systems customer, in our January issue.

A few weeks ago, a press release from Datria, a provider of voice over IP voice recognition systems, caught my attention.

The company was announcing that it had added industry veteran Greg Cronin to its board of directors. Normally, we don’t pay much attention to who’s joining whose board, but I found this one interesting because Cronin has a track record of spotting industry trends in their early stages, from WMS to RFID to supply chain technology to robotic materials handling. 

Datria takes a different approach to voice from the major players listed above. Traditional voice providers install their voice engine on a mobile computing device that acts as a middleware application between the voice device and a WMS or ERP system. The operator communicates over an RF network much like someone doing bar code scanning.

Datria, on the other hand, use voice over IP. The voice solution is installed on one central server in the warehouse or a corporate data center. The operator communicates with the system via a VOIP handset – think of it as dialing up your voice solution on the phone. Instead of a proprietary headset, a company can use an off the shelf handset from Cisco or one of its competitors.

Until recently, Datria had just one flagship user in the industrial space – Coca-Cola’s bottling operations. But, what a flagship it was: Coke has enabled 3,000 warehouse workers across the country, with plans to keep rolling it out. But, from everything I’ve heard, there are challenges to the approach, like providing a separate infrastructure for the VOIP network. That has meant the solution isn’t right for everyone, which may explain why there have been few industrial warehousing announcements beyond Coke. By the way, we’re featuring Coke in March.

So, the press release made me wonder what an experienced veteran like Cronin sees in the technology. “I find them fascinating,” he told me the other day.

Cronin’s introduction to the company was in part geographic. Datria is located in Colorado, where he lives, and one of Datria’s early investors is a friend who suggested Cronin check the company out. He was impressed by the technology. “Their competitors are typically about headsets and proprietary hardware,” he said. “Datria is really a network play. They can use any phone and the computing horsepower you’re dealing with can be greater because you’re doing it out of a central system versus a headset.”

I asked Cronin whether the cost of the infrastructure outweighed the savings in using an off-the-shelf phone versus traditional headsets and mobile computers. “I think that certainly used to be the case,” he said. “But today, it’s less of an issue. You’re now talking about a dial tone on your Internet infrastructure. It works over WiFi, and nowadays, that infrastructure is in place in most distribution centers.”

Cronin added that while he is intrigued by the technology, at the end of the day, he’s a businessman at heart and he believes there’s a business opportunity at hand. “You’ve got some headsets and mobile units on the market coming to the end of life,” he said. “For that reason, I think end users will be in a position to decide whether to upgrade their existing system to the next generation of hardware, or switch to a less expensive technology.”

Does he expect Datria to get all of that business? No. He expects that some customers will stick with their current vendors or look around at the competition in the traditional space. But, any time end users are looking around, the door is open for them to consider alternatives. “I believe there’s an opportunity for Datria to pick up some market share, and that’s really exciting,” he said.

But Cronin isn’t just looking at the industrial space of warehouses and distribution centers. He believes there’s an opportunity for Datria in health care settings and large retail stores that are currently using RF scanning devices. “I love new ideas and new technologies that may take the market in a different direction,” he said. “That’s the opportunity I see here. I think the timing of this is perfect.”

I’m not a technologist, and have no idea how this may play out. I was impressed by the solution installed by the Coke bottlers – it really works for them. But there were also some unique factors that made it exactly the right solution for their application. At the same time, I think some of the challenges remain for the end user that doesn’t have the scale of Coke. Still, like Cronin, I’ll be watching the space over the next year to see what happens.



About the Author

Bob Trebilcock
Executive Editor

Bob Trebilcock, executive editor, has covered materials handling, technology and supply chain topics for Modern Materials Handling since 1984. More recently, Trebilcock became editorial director of Supply Chain Management Review. A graduate of Bowling Green State University, Trebilcock lives in Keene, NH. He can be reached at 603-357-0484.


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