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News | Feb. 9, 2020

Distribution Susquehanna implements voice technology in its Eastern Distribution Center

By Diana Dawa DLA Distribution Public Affairs

Under its modernization initiative, the Defense Logistics Agency Distribution’s Future Operations team is always looking for new technology to take to the distribution centers that will make them more efficient in day-to-day operations.

Naim Al-Qaadir, Future Operations management analyst and program manager, found that voice technology was a process improvement that could be utilized throughout the entire enterprise.

“What voice technology basically does is replaces the use of the paper pick ticket,” said Al-Qaadir. “So the process of having managers assign paper pick tickets to the workers, and then them going to complete the tickets is being replaced by an automated voice console that instructs them in how to do that via audio instructions.”

The supervisor will assign the work to the force via the voice system within the Distribution Standard System. Voice technology will prioritize the most proficient path of a user’s workload in the picking of tickets. The user/picker has a headset which is set up to each individual user and has learned the user’s dialect and the way they pronounce certain words, so it’s tailored to that individual employee. 

The user is outfitted with a headset, a printer and a scanning device. The interactive system will speak to them, inform them which location to go to, which item to pick, and how many items. Users will need to give verification after each step. They would verify the quantity that they picked, as well as the materiel they picked, then the system tells the user to go to the next section. 

“We introduced VT as a pilot in the walk and pick environment at Distribution San Joaquin. We ran the pilot out for about nine months, working out the kinks and the bugs, expanding slowly, making sure the technology did as we intended and it was a success. From there we decided to implement it enterprise wide,” said Al-Qaadir. “So, we’re on the second of those sites now which is Susquehanna and we are in the early stages of implementing voice there.”

According to Al-Qaadir, implementation is a success at this point. “We recognized a gain in efficiency and accuracy during the pilot out at San Joaquin, and we realized that those efficiencies will continue over to each distribution center that we implement voice into.”

“Lost pick tickets is an example of inefficiency, where tickets get lost or somehow disappear,” stated Al-Qaadir. “So now we not only have to find out why this order was never filled, we then have to reprint the ticket, and send another person to fill the order which takes up time. The work doesn’t get lost in voice. Also, because of the checks and balance system, the accuracy of the materiel that the users are picking has also increased because of the validation. If the validation is not given by the user, the system will not allow the transaction to be completed.”

The voice technology is predicated off the DSS. The voice link console, which is the intermediate system that connects the user to the inventory and makes it audio for the user to pick, is also synchronized and built to compliment DSS.  The customer’s order begins the process. If our service suppliers put in an order that would be processed in DSS, the information would be dumped into the voice pick system. The supervisor assigns the work that’s ready from the DSS dump to the employees that are working on that shift.

Lisa Peterson, distribution process worker supervisor, Active Bulk Area, has been using voice technology at DDSP since late November 2019. “Before, people had to physically pull tickets, now the tickets are automatically loaded as an assigned task via voice technology when they log on. So, less paper. It’s better on accuracy, too, as the system will ask for numbers to be read back for verification. There may be some errors, but there will be less errors on the voice side because of the verification repeat process.” 

Using VT has helped Peterson and her team find location discrepancies as well. “Through voice pick we’ve found a lot of location discrepancies that we didn’t realize we had, which has helped us out with our inventory accuracy – a big plus.” 

Calandra Black, distribution process worker, was one of the first people at DDSP to learn VT. “The process is not hard to learn. Still, there could be some improvement of the process.” 
Peterson knows the early stages of using VT is a learning process. “It’s still fresh and new. We are learning what words to use, what discrepancy codes to use, but I believe once they get really connected and using it frequently, we’ll move a little faster.”

According to Al-Qaadir the feedback he’s received so far from people who use it has been positive. “The ones that have embraced the technology and use it, love it, it makes their life and their job simpler. It’s a culture change, so someone who has done their job a certain way for a very long time may not be as open initially to change, but of everyone that’s touched voice there is a consensus that this is a better, more efficient, more accurate way of doing business.”

“We worked out most of the kinks during the nine months it was out at San Joaquin, so other than minor programming changes, this is about as commercial off the shelf as you can get at this point as we are introducing it to the distribution centers. It made sense to go out to our two largest centers first. We’ll head to Warner Robins in the spring and then have an aggressive roll out plan through early fiscal year 2021 that prioritizes putting voice technology into the higher volume distribution centers followed by the remainder of sites,” said Al-Qaadir.