April 1, 2005
equipment & applications | Pick to Light

Picture this

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Say goodbye to language barriers and guesswork. Today's newest pick-to-light systems feature tiny TV-like display screens that show order pickers exactly which tube of lipstick or bottle of anti-aging serum to retrieve.

By John R. Johnson

Should you happen to find yourself cruising down the aisles of health-care products manufacturer Melaleuca's brand new distribution center in Idaho Falls this fall, you'll almost certainly notice the tiny TV-like screens mounted all over the place. Peer into one of these tiny screens with its artfully lit photos of cosmetics or cleaning products and you might think you'd stumbled onto the set of "The Price Is Right." But you won't hear Bob Barker's booming voiceover inviting you to guess the price of the tube of Sugarplum lipstick or bottles of Vitality multivitamins, Classic Tooth Polish or EcoSense cleaners. The items displayed on the 1.2-inch "pick to display" monitors won't be game-show props; they'll be there to serve as visual guides to show order pickers working in Melaleuca's distribution center exactly what to pick.

Pressured by the success of rival voice technology, makers of pick-to-light systems have unleashed a flurry of innovation, resulting in such advances as the PictureView pick-to-display system that will be installed in Melaleuca's DC. "Voice has taken a lot of the pick-to-light market over the last couple years, and I think we'll continue to see that happen," says Howard Hammer, vice president of sales for the Eastern region at Fortna, an integrator of logistics and distribution systems.

To fend off the competition, pick-to-light vendors have taken several other steps as well: First, they've dropped the price of their systems, which today cost a fraction of what they did as recently as three years ago. They've also made them easier to install. Manufacturers have introduced both track-mounted displays that let users simply plug the lights into the panel without the miles of wiring, and modular snap-on displays that can be swapped out in a heartbeat when a new product is introduced into a pick location.

They've even made their systems smarter. Siemens Logistics and Assembly, for example, has designed a pick-to-light package that includes workload balancing software to analyze individual work loads and adjust picking assignments when necessary, reports Tony Wright, a systems sales manager for the company. In a typical picking operation, a picker starts at one end of an aisle and follows the lights to the end of the picking zone (perhaps 150 feet from where he started), where he passes off his tote to the next picker. Instead of sending him back to the beginning of the pick zone, the pick-tolight software can assign the next round of picks in reverse sequence, thereby increasing picker productivity. The software can also adjust picking assignments to accommodate slow or inexperienced pickers and adjust the size of the picking zones to balance work flow better.

What you see is what you get
Still, for all the innovation, the most eye-catching, at least, is the PictureView system developed by ASAP Automation and slated for installation this fall in Melaleuca's brand new 155,000-square-foot distribution center. Executives at Melaleuca believe that once it's up and running, the pick-to-display system, which features a 170-degree viewable screen, will help pickers work faster and more accurately than in the past. That's critical to the company's business strategy, says Jace Poole, Melaleuca's director of property development. To compete in a crowded market, Melaleuca, which manufactures and markets health care, pharmaceutical and home care products,must offer fast deliveries and accurate orders.

It's not that Melaleuca is having a particular problem with picking accuracy at the moment. Poole reports that his company's accuracy rates run above 99 percent using the pick-to-light system currently in place. It's just that Melaleuca wants to be even better, and it's convinced that the ability to show order pickers a photo of the actual product to be picked will enhance picking accuracy even further.

That visual aid promises to be particularly useful to new employees, temp workers and the corps of part-time workers the company employs. "We have a force of part-time workers [who] usually only work a few days a month during our busy times," says Poole. "Given that they don't work here full time, their familiarity with our products is not as great as full-time workers'. The pick-to-display system will help them be more accurate since they can see a picture of the product they need to pick." In addition, the system can alert workers when products are slotted incorrectly. Poole is nothing if not optimistic. "With a picture of the product, it'll be hard for pickers not to pick the right item," he says. "We looked at some other systems, including voice picking, but in the end this seems to fit our operations and employees better because of our high throughput.We think this is really going to help [us] service the customer better just through pure accuracy since the recognition of a product visually is easier than finding a light."

But is the price right?
Though outfitting a DC with the tiny PictureView monitors might sound expensive, the developer reports that it's surprisingly affordable. True, the display screens cost about 70 percent more than traditional pick-to-light beacons, but the system's added features help offset the added cost. For example, traditional pick-to-light systems require a light for each row of product. With pick-to-display technology, by contrast, the monitor can be set up with an arrow to direct pickers either up or down, which means that fewer terminals are needed.

In addition, the PictureView technology is wireless. Workers can load it onto a cart and wheel it to remote sections of the distribution center if needed. And while the technology remains more expensive than a traditional pick-to-light system, the price is expected to drop as the cost of producing LCD screens in Asia falls.

Price aside, the ASAP system is surprisingly versatile, offering options for both text display and voice. That means workers in an assembly or kitting operation could actually turn to the screen for instructions for carrying out their picking and assembly assignments.

That's not to say that the technology's right for everybody, however. Says ASAP Automation's operations vice president, Andy Brinkmeier: "It's not the right product for every application. But if you can use one device for multiple pick locations or you need to hit isolated parts of your picking floor, this product, with its wireless capabilities and high accuracy, could be beneficial."

About the Author

John R. Johnson
John Johnson joined the DC Velocity team in March 2004. A veteran business journalist, John has over a dozen years of experience covering the supply chain field, including time as chief editor of Warehousing Management. In addition, he has covered the venture capital community and previously was a sports reporter covering professional and collegiate sports in the Boston area. John served as senior editor and chief editor of DC Velocity until April 2008.

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