July 15, 2013
technology review | Voice

Increasing the flow

Increasing the flow

When it needed to rev up operations, Ewing Irrigation Products tapped into voice. The result? Higher productivity and accuracy.

By David Maloney

When it comes to the landscaping and irrigation trades, getting the right products into customers' hands at the right time is more than just good distribution practice. It is critical to operations.

That's because commercial landscapers and contractors schedule jobs, hire workers, and order supplies based on specific construction schedules. If they miss appointments because the materials they need aren't available, the contractors risk being fined for the delays. Therefore, a reliable source of supply is a must for these businesses.

That's where Ewing Irrigation Products comes in. The Phoenix-based company, which describes itself as the largest family-owned supplier of irrigation and landscaping products in the nation, has built its business by focusing on service.

Ewing operates 200 stores throughout the South and Southwest to serve its customers, which include commercial and residential landscapers, parks and golf courses, and water management agencies. The stores (or branches, as Ewing calls them) are fed from the company's main distribution center in Phoenix and eight "micro" DCs (a ninth micro DC will soon open in Heyward, Calif.). Because of the nature of the business, Ewing has to have an extremely flexible fulfillment system. "We offer everything from a 20-foot-long, 10-inch-wide pipe down to small drip emitters used in irrigation," says Terry Williams, Ewing's vice president of customer experience. "So, it can be very challenging in how we handle it all."

In a bid to streamline operations, the company in 2008 replaced the paper-based fulfillment system at the 95,000-square-foot Phoenix DC with a new warehouse management system (WMS) from Manhattan Associates. At the same time, it integrated RF-based scanning to direct the picking operations.

While the move led to some efficiency gains, it quickly became clear the scanners weren't a good fit with Ewing's operations. For one thing, associates found it tough to juggle a scanner while selecting heavy or unwieldy items like wheelbarrows, bags of mulch, and rolls of turf.

"The RF units were cumbersome for our employees," says Tony Saurer, Ewing's supply chain manager. "They had to put down the RF unit, pick the product, then try to pick up the RF unit again. Workers were always worrying about where the RF gun was."

And that wasn't the only drawback. Accuracy levels were falling short of what the company had hoped for. Most of the errors were occurring in the active pick zone, where a lot of small items are jammed into tight pick slots. Many of the items aren't easily distinguishable from one another—for example, an imprint on the top of a nozzle might be the only visible difference between two models. Workers were forced to rely on the error-prone process of matching up numbers on a pick slot and a tiny screen. The source of the problem lay in the break in eye contact as associates glanced between slot and screen—it was all too easy for them to look back to the wrong slot when they made their picks. Over time, it became more and more evident the facility needed a different picking solution.

The answer to Ewing's problems came in the form of voice technology. In 2012, the company rolled out Vocollect's VoiceDirect system at the Phoenix DC. Today, the voice system, working in conjunction with the WMS, directs fulfillment activities in both the active and reserve picking areas of the facility.

The shift to voice has solved the two biggest problems Ewing was experiencing with scanners. Because it provides for hands-free operation (workers receive instructions via headsets), the voice system eliminates the need for associates to juggle a scanner while picking up an item like a 50-pound bag of fertilizer. It has also improved safety by reducing the risk that a worker will drop a heavy item on someone's foot while fumbling with a scanner.

On top of that, the voice technology has nearly eliminated the accuracy problems in the active picking area. With the new system, workers no longer have to glance back and forth between the pick slot and a screen. Instead, they simply read off a check digit attached to the pick location to confirm they're in the right spot. "Voice allows them to maintain a visual with the product and location they are picking from," notes Saurer.

To further enhance accuracy, the picker also reads off the last four digits of the pallet or carton ID to confirm the correct item has been selected.

As a result of the move to voice, picking accuracy has shot up to over 99 percent. That's a hefty 15 percent higher than it was back in the days of the paper-based picking system.

In addition to the accuracy gains, the company reports that the voice system has streamlined the processing of "multipicks," orders that call for multiple cartons of the same stock-keeping unit (SKU). Under the scanner-based system, picking 25 cartons of, say, a particular spray head model was not much different from picking 25 assorted cartons because the picker still had to scan each carton individually to confirm its selection.

With the voice system, the need for repetitive processing is history. When picking a series of cartons, the worker simply confirms the location, and then reads off the last four digits of the ID for the first carton, followed by the corresponding digits for the last carton. That signals to the software that all of the cartons in between have also been selected—there's no longer any need to enter data for each carton. Managers estimate that this capability alone has cut the time needed to pick a series of cartons from two minutes to about 30 seconds.

As for the actual switchover from scanners to voice, Ewing reports that the voice system proved easy for workers to learn. On top of that, voice turned out to be particularly well suited for the Phoenix facility, whose workforce is about 90 percent Latino. Non-native speakers of English often find it easier to follow voice commands than to try to read screen-based data in English. Currently, all workers at Ewing have chosen English for their voice directions, but the system also offers the option of Spanish prompts.

Though the implementation went smoothly overall, Ewing did encounter one initial speed bump. The difficulty concerned large-quantity orders, which Ewing prefers to pick directly from the reserve area rather than first transfer the stock to an active pick zone. The problem was, Manhattan did not offer a workflow to use voice for reserve picking. And writing a customized software interface would have been cost prohibitive.

But the problem didn't prove to be insurmountable. Working with its vendors, Ewing found a workaround using Vocollect's VoiceExpress application, which turns screen data into voice commands. The WMS generates a "green screen" of data, which then can be "screen scraped" into the VoiceExpress software. The software interprets the data and creates text-to-speech directions for workers.

So how has the voice system worked out? Pretty well, by all accounts. In addition to the accuracy improvements, the company has seen picking productivity jump 20 percent since moving from scanning to voice.

As for labor requirements, the facility has realized a significant reduction in labor needs since the days of the paper-based system. Back then, it required 12 people working 12 hours a day, six days a week, to serve just 100 branches. Now, the company serves 200 branches weekly with the same number of people working a standard eight-hour shift, five days a week. Overtime has been eliminated at the Phoenix facility, which currently ships about 2,000 cartons a day.

Best of all, taken together, these advancements have improved service and product availability to Ewing's customers.

"We looked at this implementation as something that would help our employees and also encourage our customers to want to do business with us," says Williams. "Our main goal is service. And from a company standpoint, this is absolutely helping the customers. Everyone is smiling."

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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