Moving with the times - WMS/Voice Picking Special Technology report

Manufacturing & Logistics IT spoke with a number of experts from the vendor and analyst communities about recent developments within the Warehouse Management System and Voice-directed picking space – including those concerning SaaS/Cloud and Big Data.

Today, warehousing has never been more mission-critical; with expected delivery dates becoming shorter and with omnichannel efficiencies becoming non-negotiables for many warehouses and DCs in the advent of the ecommerce explosion. There are also many intricate supply chain challenges to overcome in order to keep customers happy, operations efficient and the bottom line healthy.

So, what are some of the current key talking points and developments in the warehouse management and Voice-directed solutions space? Shahroze Husain, analyst, autoID & data capture, VDC Research, explained that, according to VDC's research, there are three major ongoing developments in the WMS space:

  • The emergence of Warehouse Execution Systems (WES) as a replacement for WMS solutions. "The evolving needs of the warehouse brought by new automation and faster needs to fulfilling orders, has resulted in greater interest surrounding WES, which is a hybrid of WMS and Warehouse Control Systems (WCS). The WES analyses data from the ERP and WMS and on-going operations to optimise the warehouse and DC operation through controlling of systems in the warehouse via the WCS. The latest WES software can optimise the process from automation, inventory, asset movement, and order picking. Most end users prefer a single solution to manage/monitor both inventory and automation and WES solutions have emerged as the next evolutionary step to the traditional WMS.
  • Modular WMS solutions with the ability to add-on packages/capabilities as needed. "Developments are already in place with solution providers developing modular management platforms instead of complete WMS solutions. Multiple WMS vendors today offer customisable and modular solutions with the ability to add on packages such as Order Management Systems, Transportation Management Systems, Labour Management System modules as needed and is an appealing feature to organisations as they are able to pick, easily integrate and spend on software according to their warehouse operational needs."
  • End user migration to Cloud-based systems. "Vendors such as HighJump (acquired by Koreber), SAP, and Oracle now offer Cloud-based scalable management systems. These Cloud-based WMS solutions can be accessed from anywhere and from multiple platforms making them highly attractive to SMB organisations who need solutions that can be implemented quickly and grow as their business scales but the shift from physical servers to the Cloud has been slow due to security concerns."

Proven technology

Dwight Klappich, research VP, Gartner, made the point that Voice is a mature technology. "A lot of people that still feel its new and risky, but it's actually proven and there are tens of thousands of users," he said. "One of the barriers to Voice has been that it was more expensive than traditional RF, but now that it's more price competitive more warehouses are consideriung Voice, or those that have it can more easily expand the number of users."

According to Klappich one of the key trends is multimodal systems, where Voice is combined with traditional scanning technology. "It's synergistic in the sense that certain things fit Voice much better – navigation instructions and so on," he said. "But if I have a 35-digit lot number it might be much easier and more accurate to scan that. So, we see multimodal gaining traction; particularly in sensitive industries such as food and pharma." Another area of development cited by Klappich is use of consumer-grade devices in the warehouse; moving from a traditional ruggedised proprietary scanner to using an Android-type device.

However, Klappich considers probably the biggest area of innovation on the horizon to be the convergence of 'transactional Voice' with 'conversational Voice'. "The unstructured dialogue capability of chatbots (conversational Voice in this context) like Siri, Cortana and Alexa, combined with the structured capability of transactional Voice, has the potential to dramatically change the whole nature of Voice," he said, adding: "With Voice, we have had instructions like 'go to location A21, pick five cases, confirm your location' for a while, and walkie-talkie capabilities to ask questions such as 'I am at the location but I'm out of inventory what why do?'" he said. "Now, the conversation could be 'Siri, do I have any late orders, or Cortana do I have any more inventory for 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5?' I don't know of any company that has delivered this commercially yet, but I've seen a couple of prototypes and talking to the organisations involved it's not a huge technical hurdle to get there. So, over the next 12 to 18 months I think that at least one vendor will deliver that capability."

Steve Wilson, expert in supply chain management, Capgemini, said Voice picking certainly drives productivity to a more efficient degree than paper-based picking. "That's because it's a better way of communicating tasks and is comparable with RF in terms of productivity – indeed, in some instances it actually offers higher productivity than RF guns," he said.

Wilson pointed out that he has seen companies that have implemented Voice directly into legacy WMSs. "Consequently, they have needed to put a lot of WMS-type capability into Voice picking software both in terms of creating pick waves and also in terms of pulling out productivity data around the pickers," he said. "That has been quite successful; however, what I have seen is that they are moving to a mode of putting in place the kind of WMSs that are scored as being the leading solutions by organisations like Gartner.

For the most part, we agree with what they are saying around who the leaders in that space are. For, example, Manhattan's WMOS integrates directly with Voice without the need for the level of middleware which historically was necessary. So, the integration of Voice now into the leading applications is effectively the same as it is for RF devices. A few years ago, that was not the case; for RF devices integration was there, but for Voice there was a need to have a middleware layer. That just shows how the leading applications have moved forward in terms of their capabilities. That has helped in terms of the uptake of Voice."

Bryan Ball, VP & group director – global supply management practices, Aberdeen Group, explained that the issues today's warehouses and DCs are facing need to be understood at the picking level, at the distribution level and at the business level. "Just about everybody is now in the retail business because companies are trying to compete with companies like Amazon," he said. "For example, particularly in the US, retailers and wholesale distributors – or distributors of any kind – are leaning on their suppliers; these could be traditional B2B manufacturers, or they could be distributors themselves that ship direct.

"Even B2B companies that have traditionally focused on bulk-pick operations – sending to distribution centres or direct to store – are now also picking ecommerce direct-to-customer orders in their warehouses or DCs. These companies need to fulfil these types of orders even though their labour operations have traditionally been organised for bulk-picking, and their systems have been installed for bulk-pick methods of operation rather than parcel.

Even at the retail level, their own distribution centres have the same types of challenges. So, warehouse operations have dramatically shifted, while labour and freight costs have risen. This is where Voice can offer advantages in terms of faster and more accurate picking. Whereas companies used to be able to manage bulk orders quite comfortably without Voice, they are now having to look any method that can save money because they are often being hammered on price through shipping direct to customers." Ball added that, in the omnichannel world, Voice should also be able to coexist with other techniques, such as RF or barcode scanning, and be able to easily integrate with the WMS; ideally as plug and play rather than via middleware.

Speech recognition developments

Sharmila Annaswamy, senior research analyst, industrial automation & process control, Frost & Sullivan, made the point that Voice-directed picking solutions have been well-established now for a number of years, but the number of implementations are increasing due to the commoditisation of the technology and the greater affordability of the systems. She added that speech recognition technology has greatly improved in the recent past. "Developments in speech recognition technology have been a major boost for Voice directed picking systems – being able to understand different users' accents and how they pronounce words," said Annaswamy, adding that some systems can also filter out background noise in the warehouse. She believes benefits like these are driving more warehouse professionals towards Voice.

Annaswamy explained that automation is another enabler that is increasingly occupying warehouse management systems. "For example, you might find autonomous vehicles going up and down aisles," she said. However, because Voice is so convenient, with users simply putting on their headset to hear where to pick and what to pick, Annaswamy maintains there is not necessarily the need for fully robotic processes for these types of tasks.

Isabel McCabe, managing director, Voiteq UK, reflects that Voice has evolved immensely since its introduction and continues to do so. "We're finding that more and more of our customers are using the technology across multiple warehouse functions and not just picking; particularly in stock movements, loading and returns processes," she said.

McCabe added that, in addition, its data capture methods – combined with business intelligence (BI) tools such as VoiceMan Data Analysis – is enabling businesses to crunch data more effectively for both historical reporting and predictive analytics. She made the point that Voice is also proving to be a perfect companion to many other technologies such as vision goggles, put-to-light and other multimodal applications. Additionally, McCabe believes machine learning is one to watch out for, as well as real-time 2D and 3D positioning visualisations. Furthermore, she is seeing the use of Voice grow outside the warehouse into markets such as inspections and in-store retail.

Continuous development

Tim Just, managing director. topVOX, made the point that Voice solutions are continuously being developed. "We are hearing from customers that Voice is a key important technology and that they are keen for this simple to deploy technology to lead the way in many different areas of their businesses," he said.

Just added that SaaS is definitely a trend he is seeing more and more of, and explained that this is an area topVOX has developed further, having been offering this for some time. "I think this is partly driven by us but also by the customers," he said. "It just makes sense that when SaaS-model WMSs are becoming more and more sought after that the technologies that typically either integrate with or are intrinsically built into these systems, such as Voice, should be able to offer the same service model. Also, the ability offer truly multimodal Voice offerings which are effectively Voice enhancing other technologies such as typical scanning technologies but also Vision, Augmented Reality and even Virtual Reality system for training purposes."

Just made the point that Voice and Vision is something that has been spoken about for some time. "This is now becoming a reality and Voice and Vision is now being deployed as a standard option with Lydia using Android Smart Devices including Phones and Watches," he explained. "This has been enhanced with Glasswear to develop Augmented Reality solutions where the combined technologies are complementary and offer additional assistance to users to be able to fulfil more complex tasks very quickly and simply whilst minimising risk of errors. We are also seeing the evolution of Virtual Reality where this technology is being developed to assist in training people such as forklift drivers among other things."

Multiple benefits

Joshila Makan, CEO, Worldwide Chain Stores (WCS) UK, said Voice has evolved significantly over the past few years, and after evaluating a number of picking solutions with its customers –such as RF, pick by light, RFID and robotic picking – WCS still finds Voice the most effective and efficient technology option. According to Makan, this is due to the following key benefits:

  • Voice offers the most versatility.
  • Voice can be used across the DC not only in picking; e.g. in section, forklift, loading, merging and PI. It offers a true end-to-end warehouse solution.
  • Voice gives immediate benefits to the employee because of its hands-free/eyes-free operation, ensuring maximum freedom of movement while focusing on process.
  • Voice allows for fast results, giving improved accuracy and efficiencies immediately.
  • Those that implement Voice in their DC often are able to recoup their ROI within less than a year.

Makan added that WCS is seeing further innovation with Voice in returns, which is a growing challenge its customers are experiencing due to their customers ordering a number of different product variants and returning them if not suitable. Moreover, she made the point that due to the impressive accuracy, productivity benefits and rapid return on investment, Voice is also finding its way into retail stores.

In terms of the drivers for these types of changes, Makan said that over the past few years WCS has seen major progress being made on further Voice innovation. "Ecommerce and omnichannel fulfilment pressures are helping to push further investment and adoption of Voice within the distribution centre and more broadly across the supply chain," she said. "As we are seeing shipping and return volume peaking per day, WMS vendors like ourselves are continually investing in the development and functionality of solutions that will meet the complex needs of today's companies."

From a WMS perspective, Makan said WCS customers are always looking to remain one step ahead of the competition and recognise the value that technology brings to their business. "They are investing in pilots that test the viability and relevance of the types of technology available in the distribution centre today that will have maximum impact with the biggest ROI," she said. "They also have in their sights on the next wave of technological innovation that includes the likes of mobile, wearable, Internet of Things, driverless vehicles, automation and robotics. These all have the highest predicted adoption rates over the next ten years."

Makan added that to fill the gaps in the labour force and to increase efficiencies in distribution, supply chain business leaders will look to technology to continue to help widen their margins while reducing costs and remaining as lean as possible. "Indeed, as costs reduce for these technologies, and the cost of labour increases, we are sure to see more organisations investing particularly in automation and these other emerging technologies," she said.

Robotics

From a warehousing management perspective, Jonathan Bellwood, founder & CEO, Peoplevox believes the arrival of software robots is without doubt the most important innovation in the WMS space. "Amazon has blazed the trail with softbots like KIVA, and this has started to make more retailers interested in them and wanting to know how these innovations can help improve efficiencies in their own warehouse operations," he said.

Bellwood explained that Amazon's KIVA can boost picker productivity and accuracy when it comes to the retrieval of certain common items across the warehouse. "That's good news for pickers who often walk as many as 20Km per day, and for business owners from a time- and cost saving perspective," he said. "Rather than replacing pickers, the robot is helping them do their job faster and more effectively."

Bellwood made the point that robots are a natural extension and evolution of automation. "Organisations typically look at ways of eliminating a process to save on tying up their own human resources," he said. "If they can't, they will look to automate it. Similarly, outsourcing to temps at peak times is the preferred option over hiring additional full-time staff. Hiring more in-house staff is always the last resort."

Glenn Melville, software development manager, Indigo Software, explained that, as a provider of WMS solutions, Indigo is seeing significant demand from customers to integrate their existing WMS with other tools to improve process efficiency. "For example, ecommerce customers are asking to integrate weighing scales, conveyors and parcel carriers, with the objective of joining together the picking, packing and dispatch processes into a single, seamless transaction," he said. "The end goal is to effectively build quality into a process from the outset, thereby saving time and resource costs, rather than having to operate quality checks at each stage. Instead, with an integrated and automated process, a single individual can be responsible – and accountable – for picking, packing and dispatching, all driven by the WMS."

Regarding drivers for change, Melville believes there are a number of things that are fundamentally changing the WMS market and end user requirements. "These range from smart devices and the Internet of Things; operating systems like Android and IOS; and demand for truly mobile applications that can switch seamlessly between Wi-Fi and GSM," he said. "Users now expect applications to include touchscreen functionality, which is fundamentally changing the landscape of what the software and hardware in a warehouse looks like and influencing the development of much more intuitive user interfaces."

Development of omnichannel

Mark Jones, enterprise account manager, Honeywell, is noticing several key new trends, driven by the ever-changing customer demand and expectations. "Warehouses are no longer just a place to store goods; they are often now the final touch point between the retailer and the customer," he explained. "As such, the pressure for picking accuracy, efficiency and exemplary levels of service is higher than ever before. The development of the omnichannel has meant the elevation of the warehouse to a point where successful operations can drive the success of a brand."

Jones added that some of the tendencies Honeywell has noticed to help enable this are:

  • The WMS is no longer just a stock management tool. It is key to achieving the customer engagement needed.
  • The ability to re-work redesign and having the visibility across the supply chain is essential to maximise inventory and reduce lead times.
  • The implementation of Voice technology to enable operations that ensure the necessary levels of service in today's omnichannel world is increasing.
  • Retail stores are integral to the supply chain and should not be seen as silos but rather part of the end-to-end supply chain solution, so that it aids in delivering the overall customer experience.
  • Businesses are ultimately being challenged to think differently and strategise like never before.

Andrew Briggs, technical director, BEC (Systems Integration) Ltd., believes the key talking point is the spread of Voice applications, i.e. not just picking but 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. He explained that door-to-door Voice applications – as well as picking – can include dispatch, stock counting, quality transactions, stock rotation and stock control. Indeed, Briggs maintains that any movement or transaction that can be done should be done with Voice as it has so many advantages.

With respect to drivers for change, Briggs said everyone is also asking about reporting and monitoring productivity and efficiency and being able to view dashboards etc. "This is also all achievable with Voice," he explained, adding that there is now more knowledge and acceptance of Voice and its benefits. "We are seeing it being implemented in all the big industrial/corporate players, and it has now filtered down into smaller operations," he said. "There's now much more acceptance to look at and to use new technology instead of being sceptical and wary of change."

Steve Richmond, director – logistics systems, Jungheinrich UK, notes that, today, consumers are demanding unprecedented levels of immediacy and visibility. "For organisations to stay competitive, this has to be reflected within the Warehouse Management Systems (WMS), whether that is through immediate order updates/alerts, full visibility of where an item is within the supply chain or the ability to check stock levels through an online portal," he said. "Ultimately, all supply chain systems and sub-systems require a high degree of communication and connectivity. Consumer expectation continues to drive innovations and developments throughout the supply chain, including improved functionality and capability of the WMS."

Richmond added that the consumer journey today more commonly starts from point of order on a mobile device, for example. "From that point forth, the consumer expects a complete single-view of their order and where it is in the process," he said. "Organisations that fail to provide those levels of service will soon see themselves waning in comparison to their competitors."

The Internet of Things and digitalisation

Wolfgang Albrecht, managing director IT development & delivery, Vanderlande Industries B.V., considers that, without any doubt, the Internet of Things (IoT) and digitalisation is currently a very hot topic. "It is a game changer in logistics and this is for several reasons," he said. "On the one hand, a lot of our customers are currently implementing new business processes to serve the digital world; and this means more logistics challenges. Digitalisation and the IoT are the enablers for a lot of new innovation as a wide range of new technologies becomes available. Due to new IoT-based software architecture we will have in the near future plug and play systems for material handling systems. New IoT-based sensor systems will provide far more data, which we can use for optimisation and machine learning."

Albrecht believes these developments are driven by new requirements because of new business models that are changing the traditional business processes in logistics. "In some areas, the logistics chain changes from a push principal to a pull principal where the end-customer demands delivery through the use of mobile devices such as smartphones or tablets," he explained. "R&D activities are, of course, also driving the change in logistics as new technologies will help us to offer more automation for materials handling. Very often in the past we had to answer the question: 'should a specific process be executed automatically or manually?'. In the near future, humans and machines will work more and more together in a collaborative way."

Software as a Service

Has the Software as a Service (SaaS) model, and the Cloud concept in general, had any notable level of impact on the Voice-directed systems and WMS market? Husain made the point that most leading vendors have come on board to invest in Cloud/SaaS-based offerings for clients. He elaborated: "Many WMS providers are experimenting with the idea of Cloud-based WMS solutions, but the shift from on-premise to Cloud-based has been slow in comparison to other enterprise applications (such as CRM) due to security concerns and the more conservative approach supply chain executives take with technology investments. SaaS-based solutions have become attractive to both vendors and end users alike as end users are able to expand storage and capabilities as needed with cloud-based solutions as their business grows while vendors now have a channel for recurring revenue generation."

Ball considers that for companies trying to get to a best of breed solution, the Cloud has been a huge advantage in that in some instances users don't need to rip and replace a whole ERP system just to get a WMS, or to get the few extra pieces of functionality they want by bolting on and integrating the extra functionality. According to Ball, another advantage of SaaS/Cloud is that users can still put the application behind their firewall if they prefer. "So, companies don't necessarily have to have their software completely on-premise – if they want, they can opt for a type of specialised hybrid Cloud model – a personalised Cloud. It should all be based on what makes the best sense for their particular business needs," he said.

In terms of the actual IT, Ball commented that SaaS is very near being a commodity at this point. "Whether a solution is on the user's server or somebody else's server, or whether it's a hybrid of both, it has been proven to work so in most cases you can just let the integration people do their job," he said.

For over 10 years, Klappich has seen many companies progressively moving WMS into a centralised centre of excellence – a private Cloud. "Some companies want to roll it out to multiple sites – they might, for instance, have five warehouses and have an IT centre at one location offering a single instance of the software that supports those five locations remotely. Alternatively, they might have two instances of the software; one supporting three North American warehouses and the other supporting two warehouses in Europe – but still in a central data centre. Now, moving that to the other side of the firewall in the public Cloud is not a big leap. Only about 8% of companies have actually implemented Cloud WMS, but that is accelerating, so the bottom line is the majority of people are going to be accessing a remote server from the warehouse; whether it's Voice or RF."

Wilson made the point that a dedicated Cloud-based WMS can offer the advantages of SaaS from the perspective of speed of implementation and therefore cost of implementation. "However, the degree of flexibility and configurability it offers makes it probably a more logical choice for organisations such as smaller retailers or smaller .com operators where they can align their processes to the capabilities that it delivers – this is the fundamental nature of how SaaS products work best," he said.

Depths of functionality

Wilson added that the leading on-premise type solutions offer huge depths of functionality. "That is part of the reason they keep getting chosen because they can be configured to deliver a complex retail solution, and they are also proven to work at high volumes," he explained. However, Wilson also pointed out that those same leading best-of-breed, on-premise solutions can be delivered as Cloud solutions if required. "So, if clients are looking to avoid having on-premise hardware in their own data centre then those solutions can be delivered in that way," he said. "That's actually pretty normal these days and I can think of several retailers where the data centre is a considerable distance away from the physical distribution centres that it is controlling. The days when the data centre needed to be physically inside the DC are well behind us now; particularly for leading applications. Consequently, clients do have a choice; if they want to go Cloud they can go effectively private Cloud very easily."

Albrecht made the point that, in this context, we have to differentiate different forms of Cloud-based solutions. "With regard to the private Cloud model, the enterprise manages the Cloud environment as something that is completely separate from the public Internet," he explained. "Sensitive data is thereby under control and an IT solution can be provided and managed flexibly at the same time. In a public Cloud enviroment, the application is managed by a third party and the customer can use this application very often as a service. The application software needs to support both set-ups. Currently, we see a growth in both areas. Parts of a logistics application that contains sensitive data can be managed by the customer in a private Cloud, and parts of the software where data is less sensitive will be managed by third parties and offered combined with additional services (e.g. system maintenance)."

Bellwood maintains that SaaS is steadily becoming the preferred choice for ecommerce retailers over on-premise as it removes the burden of ownership of servers, backing up, and having in place layers of resilience. "This hugely reduces cost of ownership and complexity as well as eliminating the need for expensive in-house IT resources," he said. In addition, Bellwood made the point that SaaS-based offerings are continuously maintained, updated, and enhanced by the vendor, which allows future-proofing and alleviates the risk of over customisation, therefore eliminating integration problems later on or premature obsolescence. However, added Bellwood, to really accelerate the adoption of SaaS, additional peace of mind through the provision of an off-line capability is necessary.

Melville believes web-based systems have their place and are popular among start-ups and SMEs that do not want to invest in an IT infrastructure or internal IT competencies and are seeking a low-cost entry point for a small number of users. "From our experience, larger companies prefer the option of remaining with their on-premise solution, especially if they already have the data centre capabilities required or have an existing ERP system," he said. "Most major WMS vendors would probably agree that it is typically smaller companies using cloud solutions and that it appeals to a certain 'profile' of customer. For example, when a company's warehouse operations and sales order processes are in the infancy stage, a Cloud-based system is very appealing – there is no outright purchase cost and no need for internal IT expertise. But as the company matures, Cloud systems can be restrictive if the user wants to make changes and that performance is often outside of their control and dictated by the hosting infrastructure available."

Cost

Cost is also a key factor to consider, according to Melville. "A Cloud-based WMS solution requires an ongoing monthly payment and the industry average lifecycle of a WMS is approximately 10 years. Therefore, what initially appears a cost-effective solution in the short term can quickly become an expensive recurring outlay in the long run. Finally, there is also still a legacy perception about data security with Cloud systems that some companies are inherently suspicious of and the issue of reliability. With the Cloud, you are effectively relying on your Internet service provider to ensure you can deliver orders, and if the Internet goes down, the company could potentially grind to a halt."

Richmond considers that the WMS software solutions market has been revolutionised by the wider adoption of the Cloud. "Cloud services have given suppliers access to a wider range of customers, including many smaller start-up organisations," he said. "These smaller businesses, which may not have benefited from a fully integrated solution, no longer need to invest heavily in infrastructure as they can now access a WMS through Cloud-based services instead."

McCabe commented that businesses are asking for SaaS as an offering, and it is one that Voiteq has been providing to its customers for a number of years. "We tend to think of it as a more holistic 'Solution as a Service', which includes all the components; including headsets and devices," she explained, adding that although still a relatively small portion of the overall market, she does expect to see demand for SaaS grow.

Just considers that Cloud-based solutions have a huge benefit in that they can be deployed quickly and easily and very cost-effectively. However, he added that in the past they have had an Achilles Heel in that they rely on robust and fast connectivity. "This has been a stumbling block in the past and is now becoming more and more mainstream," he said. "I was with a customer recently who has now decided to replace their old proprietary WMS with a readily available Cloud-based solution for the very reasons I have highlighted above. They also want to have their Voice solution delivered on the same basis. With Lydia PickManager they have exactly that and because of our open architecture the ability to connect to any of these WMS's is incredibly simple."

Just believes that, for the foreseeable future, there will be a place for non-Cloud-based systems; however, he maintains that they will become less and less relevant over time. "That said, because of our business model and beliefs in freedom, flexibility and reliability, it does not worry us in the slightest as we are already capable of handling whatever the customer wants," he remarked.

Voice as a Service

Jones considers that some customers will naturally see the benefit of SaaS as it allows for regular payment options, allowing them to transition more easily from their existing system to Vocollect Voice. "These smaller scheduled payments can then be accommodated into budgets in the same way that a utility bill is regularly paid," he explained. "VaaS (Voice as a Service) is a service offering that allows customers to have access to the software and support that they need to implement a Vocollect Voice solution as well as optional hardware in some geographies. It offers an alternative to the requirement for a large up-front purchase and outlay cost associated with the outright purchase of a Vocollect Voice solution."

Makan has seen a high take-up of SaaS models directly related to challenges with high-volume picks due to ecommerce. "Software as a Service (SaaS) it is becoming popular with organisations that have Capex constraints, but want to get the benefits of Voice today," she said. Regarding WMS and SaaS/Cloud, Makan explained over the past 2 years WCS has witnessed a growth in the interest and adoption of its CSnx Cloud-based WMS. "We will definitely continue to see SaaS deployments," she continued. "The main reason for the stimulated WMS market growth has been that our customers are investing to support ecommerce and omnichannel fulfilment."

Makan pointed out that WCS has seen major interest in the 3PL industry over the past two years too. "WCS has responded to this fulfilment trend with features and functionality to support our customers' evolving requirements and offering a small- to mid-sized business a WMS with Tier 1, deep and broad functionality and the ability to integrate seamlessly to ecommerce platforms," she explained. "For example, WCS CSnx has multi-owner, multi-warehouse capabilities, multi-channel warehouses to manage ecommerce waves, put-away processes and shipment documentation."

Big Data

Is Big Data having a significant impact on the world of Voice or WMS? For initial clarification, Husain explained that Big Data is essentially any large amount of data sets and the use of it to better organise/forecast inventory levels, product sourcing. He added that in this regard ERP planning is becoming a key investment across organisations. "Organisations are investing in data scientists and data analysts to combine insights from data silos including WMS, CRM, ERP and sales databases to gain actionable insights and form strategies for growth," he said.

Husain pointed out that Big Data is being analysed more as raw data by data scientists today to identify key trends and variables to help grow the business. However, he explained that warehouse management systems are approaching this via the integration of BI and analytics tools within WMS product packages which can be leveraged for insights. "We are starting to witness the impact of Big Data on improved forecasting of demand to optimise inventory levels and open the opportunity for more intelligent stock management systems and eventually for complete automation of warehouse and distribution centre environments," he said.

Annaswamy believes Big Data offers a huge opportunity within the warehouse management and Voice marketplace. However, she added that Big Data itself is simply very large chunks of data that may be of little use to anyone. "It is only when this data is able to be analysed that there will be valuable information and actionable insights available," she said. "So, Big Data analytics is the next step that we are going to see develop in a major way. There might be hundreds of people in a warehouse, receiving Voice commands and picking and replenishing objects. Then, at the end of the day when warehouse managers look at the statistics that are available through using Big Data analytics, they can get to know things that could have been done to improve efficiencies."

According to Klappich, the Big Data questions are mainly around how do warehouse professionals leverage data to gain insights of learning and to process tasks better. "Labour is a big issue – we are seeing people wanting to use machine learning capabilities that can say 'am I improving?' or 'if I could tune this process better could I increase my throughput?' That's certainly a big goal; it's certainly an absolute goal in ecommerce because you've got to keep pumping more and more goods through the warehouse. But that's not the only industry where you see very similar situations – service parts look a lot like ecommerce warehouses, for example. So, there are some real opportunities with Big Data, but regrettably I think warehousing is a little behind other areas in exploiting it. Nevertheless, I think we are playing catch-up and making progress pretty quickly."

The right data for the right people

Ball reflected that, today, companies have access to more data than ever before. He made the point that much of this data could potentially be of value to a company, but different people within an organisation will essentially require different types of data at different times. "For example, if I'm on scheduling goods into the warehouse or picking orders I don't necessarily need to see the Big Data involving shipments coming from all my logistics providers from Shenzhen, or what container certain products are in and so on," he said. "If I'm planning, on the other hand, I need to know when items need to be delivered and therefore when I'm due to have them in stock."

Ball explained that the supply chain is where a lot of the real value of Big Data comes into play. "It used to be the that most things were vertically integrated so you could see everything within your own four walls virtually. Then, you had groups of local suppliers, which meant there were also your suppliers' suppliers. So, every time you add a tier to the supply chain you increase it by two transactions – one the suppliers need to get the goods in, and two they need to ship them out."

Ball added, that planners who are really on top of things might be looking two, three or four levels back through the chain. "If they are tracking raw materials they might want to know when they are going to be shipped from the mill," he said. "If it's certain types of metal goods they need, they may want to know what shipments are coming from the mines to their suppliers, and want to know about any other issues that might possibly create disruption to the supply chain."

Ball reflected that because this type of Big Data information is now more commonly available, it can make people involved in the supply chain feel more comfortable. He explained that they can, for example, receive more alerts concerning possible supply chain constraints in advance, giving them time to plan around the problem.

On the end-customer side, Ball thinks it is useful to monitor the many miscellaneous sources of information that are accessible from social media. "This can help companies to work out what they need to prioritise on the design side, what products they need to offer and where they need to offer them," he said. "On the demand planning side, it's about taking all these pieces of supply chain and social media data to see if any useful correlations can be made using Big Data."

The things Wilson sees being actively implemented are productivity management applications associated with WMSs. "The WMSs of JDA/RedPrairie and Manhattan, for example, have as part of their solutions a very well-developed productivity management capability that is based on transactional data from the WMS," he explained. "WMSs are execution systems and are not designed as BI systems per se, but they can take all the transactional data from Voice applications and scan guns and send that across into the workforce management or labour management module that comes with the WMS. That module is designed to run reports on productivity etc. at an individual level, so this means the core part of the WMS isn't slowed down and its performance remains very good because the labour management or workforce management part holds the performance data at an individual transaction level ready to be analysed."

Wilson added that a company could in principle decide to send that data into their own data lake and extract it in a different way to run reports. "But the leading WMSs have this capability for labour-management already built in, and since it's assigned to do that job that's what we see people using," he said. "It's straightforward, it's relatively easy to configure and it drives value. From a warehouse perspective, that is where the big data is."

Turning data into actionable insights

McCabe believes advanced data analysis should form a major part of any Voice offering today. "The volume of data we're seeing has grown rapidly, yet many operations don't know how to harness it, understand it and turn it into actionable insights," she said. "In 2016, we launched our VoiceMan Data Analysis tool and it's been very popular with our customer base. Being able to clearly see operational data in real-time, view historical records and use predictive analytics using easy-to-understand graphs means that day-to-day activity can be improved; and managers are able to make more informed decisions about the future."

Just believes Big Data is certainly having an impact in supply chain and logistics. However, he added that the use of Big Data to analyse supply chains is an area that Voice enables within the operation rather than controls. "To get the best of this, operations prefer to have a central database so that they have one version of the truth," he said. "Voice systems capture a lot more usable data than traditional handheld scanning solutions as the data is true real time and as such this data can be used by operations to plan warehouse layouts or re-organising operations for instance or even to help plan relocations of warehouses or other operations. Some operations are even using the system to monitor activity within their operations and looking at using voice to advise break times direct to the operator and others are looking at it to assist in safety and security processes within their operations particularly the larger sites where commination can be a problem with people dispersed over many acres of warehouse as well as multiple sites."

Makan commented that business intelligence and predictive analytics are becoming so important and are attracting a lot of interest from WCS customers, that today it is essential that the operations are able to analyse their operations and use the data from their systems to predict and manage issues before they occur. "With our second-generation WMS – which is legacy-based as opposed to our next generation WMS, which is real time – our Voice solutions direct interface to our legacy solution has always captured low-level process data," explained Makan. "Voice allows us to use the Voice data to provide higher-level real-time visibility and control of the operation even in our legacy-based offering."

Makan added that when WCS launched its CSnx platform, decision makers within the supply chain immediately found exacting data from the application simpler, faster and more flexible – even from the front end – giving them the ability to make intelligent, real-time decisions. "CSnx allows the supply chain to collect and connect to any data in real time within the application," Makan explained. "Big Data within the supply chain will certainly enable better decisions and actions, and facilitate a move away from unsupported decision making. We have seen from our own customers that companies that learn to harness the power of their data sources benefit significantly; harnessing the advantages of advanced analytics across supply chains can allow organisations to be responsive, demand-driven and customer-centric. It will enable supply chains to adopt a proactive rather than a reactive response to supply chain risks (e.g. supply failures, delays due to man-made or natural hazards, and operational disruptions)."

Entry level

Bellwood doesn't believe Big Data is making a notable impact on WMS so far. "Most users are at the entry level stage of using it to analyse and advise them from data captured from their own internal systems – stats about pick rates, for example," he said. "In order to maximise the full potential of Big Data, users will need to start monitoring and capturing data from multiple sources; including from within the organisation as well as outside complementary data sources. For example, to analyse despatch operations with view to reducing root causes for unnecessary returns, one might also choose to analyse complaints management data to get a bigger picture; perhaps by using dedicated customer service software solutions such as Zendesk."

Albrecht believes Big Data is having a notable effect in several areas of logistics, but added that Big Data is very often more a buzz-phrase than a real value-add. However, he added that Vanderlande offers a wide range of additional system functionalities and services that use Big Data – e.g. machine learning or predictive maintenance service – and in so doing can offer additional value to its customers. "With our BPI solutions we offer a very powerful package for data analytics, and our VISION software has machine learning capabilities to make our solution more flexible because of self-adopting capabilities," he explained.

Jones considers that many companies realise that Big Data is a game-changing trend for our industry, and companies are looking to put this wealth of information to better use. "Operations have a vast amount of information, but we believe that the challenge has been to capture that Big Data and transform it into simple, actionable and measureable elements that drive real process improvement across workforce productivity." Jones pointed out that Honeywell's Operational Acuity analytics software makes sense of the vast amount of data available from a workflow environment and provides the customer with insights into how they can run their warehouse operations more effectively.

Briggs explained that much of the business intelligence in 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."

Melville pointed out that a new breed of WMS software is emerging, which has the ability to use Big Data to mirror the forecasting capabilities of manufacturing solutions. "This allows producers to accurately forecast, for instance, the impact of increased production levels on their existing warehouse operations," he said. "By overlaying forecast data with other third-party data and internal models, greater efficiency and accuracy can be achieved – and it also enables contingency planning to ensure additional vehicles or warehouse space is available if necessary."

Melville added that Martijn Bertisen, Google's sales director, once described data as the 'secret sauce' to maximise sales. Melville believes this is also true in a supply chain and warehousing context. "Information is always key to supply chain efficiency and the earlier it can be accessed, the more readable and usable it is, the more likely it can be acted upon for decision making," he said. "Given that margins in so many manufacturing industries are shrinking due to increased competition, currency pressures and the cost of raw materials, achieving more with less must be a primary goal and data plays an essential part. However, most companies produce and have access to terabytes of data, so it needs to be integrated to be of value to a business. In a warehouse context, this means integrating sources and repositories of information with essential sales, manufacturing and logistics functions, to maximise stock visibility. Doing this ensures, for example, more effective use of information, better productivity, more streamlined operations, faster throughput and improved ability to cope with seasonality. In effect, it is being able to achieve more using fewer resources."

Things to watch

What might be the next innovations or developments to look out for in the world of Voice and WMS in the near future? Husain anticipates three key areas of future development: First, he cites, the integration of modules to control/execute instructions to robotics and automation solutions. "WMS solutions today are continuing their evolution towards what MES solutions are today for manufacturers," he said. Secondly, Husain believes there will be a greater shift to the Cloud, but added that security concerns are/will be a roadblock. Thirdly, he foresees further development regarding open APIs for better communication between SCM systems and devices.

One type of technology Wilson sees on the horizon is integration of Voice and vision; specifically, augmented reality type glasses. "This has Voice plus the vision element, and it may prove to be a challenge to Voice solutions," he said. "I don't know of any place in the UK that has implemented this yet, but I do know of one implementation in the US that is using Google Glass integrated with one of the leading WMSs. It gives an increased level of capability beyond Voice. It allows the picking operator to scan barcodes by just looking at them; because of the way the glasses work they know what you're looking at and so are able to pass commands through vision."

Annaswamy anticipates that warehouse robotics is going to continue to be one of the key developments within increasingly autonomous warehouses. "I think that within five to ten years we will see warehouses either completely automated or completely autonomous," she said. "If you put that together with Big Data analytics, warehouse managers will just need to monitor their phones to know what's happening in the warehouse. That would be one big leap for warehouse management systems." Annaswamy also believes there will continue to be moves in the direction of biometrics and towards augmented reality with respect to data capture-type devices.

McCabe reiterated that machine learning is one to watch out for, as well as real-time 2D and 3D positioning visualisations. Furthermore, she is seeing the use of Voice grow outside the warehouse into markets such as inspections and in-store retail.

Briggs believes Voice could spread from warehousing into manufacturing for assembly, inspections etc., while Bellwood thinks that, without doubt, software robots offer a great opportunity for deployment in warehouses. "No holidays, sick days, even sleep – and they don't need supervision or further 'training' once programmed to do a specific task," he said. "Clearly, robots have the potential to remove human error from the warehouse workplace as well as do certain tasks more efficiently."

Just explained that topVOX is already working on the next generation of Voice solutions. "The key here is in the power of the recognition engine alongside the development of increasingly smart devices and hardware," he said. "The more powerful the recognition engine the more you can do with it. Then there is additional logic within the engine itself and how that can be developed in a way to make it simpler and easier to use in more and more complex processes."

According to Bellwood, packing is a good example where robots are already at work on conveyors; deciding which carrier receives which package – e.g 'push parcel left for Royal Mail and right for DPD'. "They can also decide and deliver to the pack bench which size/type packaging is correct for a particular item or items, and seal the parcel," he added.

New skills

Melville also maintains that due to the recent advances in AI for robotic systems, it is becoming more straightforward to integrate robots with WMS software. "This will potentially mean warehouse workers having to work alongside robots and automated technology and potentially having to develop a new set of skills and perform activities that complement the work being carried out by robots," he said. "Although labour costs can be relatively low and the entry point for a robotics investment remains relatively high, there is clearly a strong ROI for these investments. It's actually not such a big transition for those companies who already use some form of automation." Melville added that IoT & AI is going to be have a major impact over the next two to three years.

Albrecht expects further innovation in the area of machine learning and user experience (UX). "We see UX is a very important area of WMS for two reasons: the first is that a new kind of man-machine-interfaces will offer a new of collaboration between humans and WMS/WCS application," he said. "The second reason why we think that further innovation in this area will help to offer more values to our customers is that we think an improved UX will help our customer to manage a more complex logistics world."

Makan foresees Voice and visual glasses working together to provide the users with even a better use experience and taking this technology efficiency to the next level. With regard to WMS, Makan believes that over the next year or two we will see further enhancements of slotting capability to allow for dynamic slotting as well as mobile innovation. This, she said, will include wearable glasses picking, drone inventory checks, driverless forklift trucks, automations and AI. "In essence, the next two years will see technology businesses like ourselves work hard to meet the demands of our customers and the use of technology will be fundamental to their success," she remarked.

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