January 16, 2012
material handling update | Picking & Packing

Raise a glass!

Raise a glass!

Since switching to voice, beverage distributor Trinks has seen DC productivity surge 18 percent.

By David Maloney

Founded in 1735 in Berlin, Germany, beverage supplier Trinks has had a long time to figure out how to do distribution. But even long-standing processes need a change from time to time.

For example, take the picking process used at the Gosler, Germany-based company's regional distribution facilities. Trinks maintains 16 DCs within Germany from which it supplies some 7,000 customers—including restaurants, bars, and convenience stores—with beer, soft drinks, juices, and water. Up until 2006, the company used paper lists to pick orders, but it was becoming increasingly clear that paper could not provide the kind of performance it desired.

"Our workers had to pick up the paper to see the next item they needed to select, but it is hard to pick up a beverage case while holding papers," says Pascal Brettin, the logistics director at Trinks' distribution center in Niederbrechen.

After reviewing its options for upgrading its picking system, Trinks settled on voice. What led the distributor to pick voice was the technology's reputation for boosting productivity and accuracy. Because voice systems let workers receive picking instructions through headsets, rather than looking at a screen, they free up workers' eyes and hands for picking tasks. Trinks was also persuaded the technology would help cut down on picking and labeling errors.

The system Trinks eventually chose is the topVOX voice solution. Today, about 300 workers use the system daily to pick orders as well as conduct inventory and cycle counts. The company has installed the same systems in all 16 of its DCs, Brettin says. The decision to stick with a single system has brought "nothing but advantages" from an IT perspective, he adds.

Fast-flowing orders
Operations at the 75,350-square-foot Niederbrechen warehouse are fairly typical of those throughout the Trinks network. Some 1,300 SKUs of beverages are picked as case quantities at Niederbrechen each day during two or three shifts, depending on the season and demand. Inventory at the site turns swiftly, with the entire building turning every four days and top movers turning in just half a day, so the facility needs a quick, responsive system.

Typically, 12 workers on each shift are equipped with topVOX's VOXter hardware, which includes a compact dedicated computer unit worn on the belt or placed in a pocket along with a lightweight headset.

Picking is directed by the topSpeech-Lydia voice picking software, which interfaces in real time with the company's warehouse management system (WMS). Workers can select a male or female voice and are able to easily adjust the speed of the spoken directions.

"Lydia" directs a worker to the location of each pick and instructs the picker to select the appropriate number of cases from a bottom rack level. Upon arrival at the location, the worker must read off a check digit displayed at each rack position to verify he's in the correct spot. He selects the required number of cases, placing them onto a pallet jack capable of holding two pallets.

Once a pallet is full or the order is complete, the worker uses the voice system to direct the WMS to print a pallet label, which he collects from a printer next to the shipping area. This label, which he attaches to the pallet, contains basic shipping information, including how many cases should be on the pallet. The worker counts the cases and verifies that the number is correct. The pallet is then staged until it's ready to be loaded onto a truck.

No training required
One particular advantage of the topVOX solution for the Niederbrechen site is the "speaker independent" nature of the Lydia software. Speaker independent means there's no need to create a template for each user, as is the case with some voice systems. That's important at this facility, which relies on a temp agency to staff its picking operations. Though many workers return day after day, the agency can always assign new workers who are not familiar with warehouse work.

"There is absolutely no training required to use the voice system," says Brettin. "Once we show someone where the locations are, we can have them up and running within minutes."

The voice commands are simple and the system has proved to be exceptionally good at recognizing the workers' responses, according to Brettin. That is extremely important, as all of the current workers provided to Trinks are Latvian.

"The pickers do not even speak German," Brettin says. "They learn the few commands they need in German and learn to respond in German. And even with their heavy accents, the system is able to understand them." Should any of the workers require extra assistance, the Lydia software includes a feature called Co-Pilot that allows managers to log in on a computer to listen to a worker receive and respond to voice commands so they can provide additional coaching.

The system has proved so reliable that picking accuracy currently stands at 99.99 percent, according to Brettin. That represents a 20-percent reduction in errors since the facility moved from paper to voice.

The system also provides real-time data on picking, so that managers and the workers themselves can track their daily progress. That is significant, because workers are paid a bonus for any cases they pick above a threshold of 213 cases per hour. Currently, workers average around 300 cases per hour on the system. About 30,000 total cases are picked each day at Niederbrechen using voice, selected from 1,400 picking locations.

And the results? By all accounts, the new system is achieving exactly what the distributor had hoped. Brettin reports that productivity is up 18 percent over the paper-based system. "Everything with the voice system works impeccably," he adds. "We like the VOXter hardware, and we see the results. The voice system has been a huge improvement for us."

About the Author

David Maloney
Editorial Director
David Maloney has been a journalist for more than 35 years and is currently the editorial director for DC Velocity and Supply Chain Quarterly magazines. In this role, he is responsible for the editorial content of both brands of Agile Business Media. Dave joined DC Velocity in April of 2004. Prior to that, he was a senior editor for Modern Materials Handling magazine. Dave also has extensive experience as a broadcast journalist. Before writing for supply chain publications, he was a journalist, television producer and director in Pittsburgh. Dave combines a background of reporting on logistics with his video production experience to bring new opportunities to DC Velocity readers, including web videos highlighting top distribution and logistics facilities, webcasts and other cross-media projects. He continues to live and work in the Pittsburgh area.

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