Mid-South Business Masthead

Memphis Company's Talking Computer Sounds Human,

but Decreases Chances for Human Errors

Mid-South Business pic

By Deborah White Branning

After writing hardware orders in a book all day, the 170 salesmen in 18 states for Orgill Bros. & Co., Inc., go home and finish their work with a computer in Memphis that talks.

They punch the order numbers into a small portable computer terminal about the size of a stenographer's notebook, hook the computer terminal to a phone with a rubber bell-shaped device, and dial the talking computer's number.

"Orgill Brothers order entry," the computer answers in a deep male broadcast-type voice.  "Please transmit at the tone."

The transmission of a day's orders takes about a minute and sounds like a geiger counter.  If all goes well, the computer says, "Your data is correct.  Your acknowledgment number is 1234."

If the computer detects an error, it says:  "Sorry, you have transmission errors.  Hit your send key again."  If it's correct, the computer says so and gives an acknowledgment number.

Developed by Network Systems, Inc., at 755 Crossover Lane, the answering system has more than paid for itself in eight months, says Byrne Whitehead, vice-president of finance for Orgill.

The use of portable data entry terminals for a main computer has been part of the distribution industry about 12 years.  The new developments from Network Systems are a great reduction in errors and a minicomputer that gives voice commands rather than a series of tones, says the company's founder, P. T. Pinckney.

Pinckney and his wife used their own personal resources to start Network in August, 1980, with system designer Mike Hodgetts.

While working for a company that sells the portable data entry terminals, Pinckney says he saw a need to correct the problem of too many orders lost to errors.  "We found error rates of 1 to 2%.  They had been living with that because the phone lines were not designed to transmit data.  Phone lines have static on them, which causes lost characters of an item number," Pinckney says.

This 1-2% error rate seemed normal, he says, because that was the same error rate as in the old key punch days.

But, Network's system has reduced the error rate to one-tenth of a percent, Pinckney says.  Using Datapoint equipment, Network's system checks incoming data for communications errors.  If any are found, the computer tells the caller to send again, then matches the orders character-by-character to produce one error-free order.  Rather than losing one of every 50 or 100 items, users of the Network system lose one of every 3,000, Pinckney claims.

Whitehead says, "Since we are spread over 18 states, we had a lot of transmission errors.  It really corrects an awful lot of errors for us."

Pinckney started selling his systems with only a series of tones from the computer to give commands and responses.  Then in December, 1980, to meet the need of one customer, his firm started manufacturing a voice synthesizer and the software that runs it.  A professional announcer records the messages, then Texas Instruments turns the voice into digital information, he says.  The possible number of words is infinite, but now a list of 64 words and phrases meets the needs of customers, Pinckney says.

Other computer systems talk, Pinckney says, but they use the phonemes method in which the computer duplicates the basic units of the language.  "They can't use intonations, and it sounds like a robot," he says.  Network has the only human-sounding computer in its price range, he adds.

The talking feature is not just a luxury--it decreases errors also.

"The voice, coupled with the acknowledgment number, is very good," Whitehead says.  "Before, we just got a series of tones.  Sometimes the salesmen would think they heard something when they didn't.  They would think the transmission was good when it wasn't, and the errors would go through.  Or they would think it wasn't good when it was, and duplicate orders."

While Orgill Bros. salesmen key the numbers in by hand (because it is more convenient for them), other companies use portable data entry devices with a wand that scans bar codes, automatically entering the numbers.  And, some companies opt for Network's automatic polling feature in which the main computer automatically dials the numbers of the portable terminals and obtains the data without human beings involved.

When the main computer isn't taking data, it can be used for other business activities, such as word processing, inventory, financial statements, or a small payroll, says Glenn Taylor, in charge of operations for Network.

Primarily because of the error reduction, the new system at Orgill Bros. surpassed the original projection of paying for itself in a year to 18 months, Whitehead says.

Cost of the Network system ranges from $19,995 for a basic system with no voice to $250,000.  The typical installation costs $50,000, Pinckney says.  The voice option costs $4,000.  Network does not sell the portable data entry devices, but its system can receive data from all the current models.  These cost $200 and up, Hodgetts says.

Network has made more than 50 cost surveys for potential customers.  In one of these, an unnamed company using its current system was spending $4,000 a year for rental of peripheral equipment and maintenance but losing about $114,000 annually due to errors.  Network determined the company could save $100,000 a year with the cost of a $44,000 system spread over five years.

Network started with one customer, but now has 21 from Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles, Pinckney says.  Orgill Bros. is the only customer so far in Memphis.

Pinckney says he hopes to be in the middle of a major change in the distribution industry.  "We are in a very unusual place in the marketplace," he says.  "Right now in a grocery store the owner deals with about 60 vendors.

"By 1985, there will be hardly any discrimination between drug stores and grocery stores.  We're headed to superstores, dealing with hundreds of vendors.  When the owner wants to order more cigarettes and tissue, it will go into the same machine--to one point."

Wholesalers will become clearinghouses, passing along items they don't carry to other wholesalers, Pinckney says.

"Our wholesalers have that capability now."