VAR's Warehouse Voice System 'Speaks' To Workers

Fort Wayne, Ind.-based Do It Best is a full-service, member-owned hardware, lumber and building supply cooperative with more than 4,000 stores nationwide. The company was hunting for a new picking system to boost productivity and cut down on errors between receiving, picking and truck loading. Picking is the process of removing items from the warehouse shelves -- either in full cases, bulk or split-case -- for transport to one of the retail locations.

According to John Schriefer, marketing manager for Lucas Systems, the voice-directed logistics solution, called "Jennifer" because it uses a real woman's voice as opposed to a computerized voice, enables warehouse workers to get picking information from Jennifer software via a headset connected to a Motorola MC9090 mobile computer (pictured). So far, Lucas Systems has deployed Jennifer at four of Do It Best's retail service centers and plans to roll it out to four more in the next couple of months.

Do It Best piloted Jennifer at its Dixon, Ill.- and Cape Girardeau, Mo.-based retail service centers. In less than two weeks, 90 associates in Cape Girardeau were trained and working with Jennifer. At the end of the rollout, associates were surpassing their previous productivity and accuracy rates. Based on the success of the program, Jennifer has been deployed at two more RSCs.

Essentially, Jennifer tells workers what location to go to and the quantity of a specific item needed in that location. The worker speaks a "check digit," the number printed on a label on the shelf to confirm they are in the right place, then announces the quantity selected. Jennifer registers that information and then offers workers directions to the next location and items to pick.

"If someone is going to be working with this for eight to 10 hours a day, a human voice is a lot easier to work with," Schriefer said.

Along with understanding the user's voice, Jennifer can also take commands. If the worker is in a hurry and Jennifer is talking too slow, the user can say "faster Jennifer," and her voice speeds up. With computerized voices, that wouldn't work because it would make it more difficult to understand, Schriefer said.

Jennifer also understands help commands, meaning at any time workers can say "Jennifer, where am I?" or "Jennifer help" to get the information they need in a voice-activated dialog.

Here a Do It Best worker uses the hands-free Jennifer system to pick items from the warehouse shelves.

According to Schriefer, the installation requires the Motorola mobile device with microphone headsets, an 802.11 a/b network, a server hosting a warehouse management system, a server application that manages assignments and orders and more.

To set up the voice activated system, every user has to build a voice template so the system recognizes their voice queues. The process, Schriefer said, takes about 20 minutes.

"No two people speak exactly the same," he said. In warehouse environments there are often workers with different accents, he added, some have Vietnamese accents, Spanish accents, Boston accents and southern accents.

Schriefer said Lucas Systems landed the deal through general marketing practices and got on Do It Best's radar screen. The VAR has a long-standing relationship with Motorola for the devices and has become a preferred supplier of voice applications on Motorola terminals.

Do It Best currently has four distribution centers running the Jennifer software. Before moving to the cutting edge system, Do It Best used a paper process for picking products, carrying around stacks of lists and labels. That method made it difficult to pick large items, since workers only had one free hand -- the other was holding paperwork. Also, using a paper and pen model increases the margin of error because workers have to continually look between the lists and the items they're picking.

The deployment overall took about four months from beginning to end, Schriefer said. A good chunk of that time is an evaluation to understand the processes of how Do It Best works and what the company needed. The voice recognition is done on the device, meaning it doesn't cause dramatic traffic increases on the WLAN.

And because warehouses have towering steel racks a necessary part of the deployment is to ensure the devices can maintain a wireless connection anywhere in the warehouse.

The cost of a system like Jennifer is variable, Schriefer said. It depends on the number of users, how complex the application is and what else is needed at the server level. Lucas Systems deployed the software on the server and sets business rules based on users. A large deployment, Schriefer said, can run several hundred thousand dollars, while an entry level system can run around $100,000. Do It Best currently has more than 300 users and 100 terminals. More than one worker can use each terminal. When a user signs in, the voice software is temporarily loaded from the server to the device.

According to Schriefer, companies that opt for such a system achieve a return on their investment in roughly a year based on improved productivity and order accuracy.

In a statement, John Snider, vice president of logistics at Do It Best, said Jennifer has already started to pay off.

"Jennifer has already had a measurable impact on the quality of service we provide to our member-owners by improving the accuracy and efficiency of order fulfillment at our Dixon and Cape Girardeau retail service centers," he said. "The Lucas team worked closely with us to assemble a voice system that fits our processes, while providing maximum flexibility and control for managers at each of our RSCs. Our move from paper-based processes to next-generation voice-directed work has significant benefit for our customers, the 4,100 member-owned Do It Best hardware stores that depend on our RSCs for timely, efficient and accurate delivery."