July 1, 2006
equipment & applications | Voice Technology

The speed of sound

the speed of sound

United Stationers' new high-tech voice system was supposed to solve problems with picking errors. No one guessed it would boost productivity by a whopping 28 percent.

By David Maloney

When United Stationers first announced plans to convert 33 DCs over to voice technology, the talk was all about accuracy. Frustrated by an ongoing problem with picking errors, management at the $4.4 billion office and stationery supplier had decided the time had come for a change. It would scuttle its paper-based picking system and replace that system with something more accurate.

But ask company executives about their voice system today and you're more likely to hear about productivity than accuracy. "Our picking productivity increased 28 percent," boasts Bill Stark, vice president of engineering. "It has really taken hours out of our day and we have seen true savings."

What Stark learned was something DCs managers across the country have discovered in recent years. Voice systems have a big edge over paper- and scan-based picking systems when it comes to speed. There are a couple of reasons for that. For one thing, voice systems eliminate the need for workers to carry—or consult—paper pick lists or scanners. Instead, voice systems (which convert data from the facility's warehouse management system into audible form) let workers receive picking directions through headsets, leaving their hands free.

For another, today's voice systems make use of voice recognition software, which enables two-way communication. Workers can "talk" to the system simply by speaking into their headsets' microphones, getting instant responses to their requests to confirm a pick or repeat the directions. Beyond that, workers can ask the system for performance updates throughout the day, which allows them to adjust their pace if they find they're in danger of falling short of their goals.

Easy listening
United Stationers' experience with voice technology dates back to 2003. Management was becoming increasingly disillusioned with its paper-based system and was looking for a way to boost picking accuracy in the DCs, which stock everything from pens and pencils to notebooks, computer equipment, filing cabinets and janitorial supplies (more than 40,000 items in all). On the advice of its systems integrator, Dematic, the company volume centers process as many as 32,000. With voice tech- decided to give voice technology a try.

Though the companies considered other picking technologies, voice proved to be the hands-down favorite. Part of its appeal lay in its reputation for accuracy and ease of installation. Scalability was a consideration as well. United Stationers operates 34 DCs of varying sizes. While its smaller facilities might only process 3,000 lines a day, its highestvolume centers process as many as 32,000.With voice technology, the company was able to outfit even the largest facilities simply by adding more units.

Dematic selected Vocollect's Talkman voice-directed system for use in two pilot projects, conducted in 2003. Once everyone was satisfied that the voice system could meet United Stationers' needs, Dematic rolled out the Vocollect system to 31 other facilities during 2004 and 2005, with the last system coming online last summer. Currently, 33 of United Stationers' 34 distribution facilities are using voice systems (the lone holdout is a small, low-volume facility in Texas). Currently, 1,000 Talkman units are in use systemwide.

Stark reports that voice technology has lived up to its reputation for being easy to install and easy to use. Workers had no trouble adapting to the voice systems, he says, noting that they became proficient within a couple of days. "It really has been one of the easiest systems we have implemented," he says. "It was much faster to come up to speed than other warehouse technologies and automation we have had— much quicker than we expected."

Added responsibilities
United Stationers first put the technology to work in its DCs' busy split-case areas (broken-case items account for 85 percent of United Stationers' outbound volume). Later, it expanded the technology to its full-case (bulk) picking and replenishment operations. Stark and his team are currently looking into the viability of using voice technology for put-away and cycle counting. "Once you have the platform in place, it is very easy to expand functionality to other parts of the building," notes Stark.

That's not to say that United Stationers hasn't done some tweaking along the way. For example, with split-case picking, it ended up incorporating bar-code scanning into the process to assure accuracy. In most of the company's centers, the split-case picking areas consist of thousands of small pick faces that hold a vast array of small items, like paper clips, staples and notepads. These pick slots are so small that it's hard to incorporate a multi-digit check system into the process for verifying the pick's location.

Adding a bar-code scan to confirm the location quickly solved that problem. Once the voice system has directed the picker to the required location, it asks the worker to scan a bar code attached to the rack to confirm that it's the proper picking slot. The worker then scans the code using a wrist scanner (wrist models were chosen to keep workers' hands free). After it verifies the location, the system tells the worker how many items to select. After complet ing the task, the worker notifies the system that he or she is ready for the next pick. Combining voice with location scanning has boosted picking accuracy to better than 99.7 percent.

In the full-case pick area, by contrast, scanning is not used. Instead, the worker speaks a check digit into his or her microphone. The check digit consists of a two- or three-digit number or letter combination posted at the rack location. The system uses the check digit to link the location to the product it contains. Once the worker speaks the correct check digit into the system, he or she receives directions regarding how many cases to select.

Fast track
Today, with voice technology in place, merchandise moves through the buildings noticeably faster than it did just three years ago. As a result, the company's DCs have been able to absorb additional growth without increasing facility size or staff.

In addition, the accuracy gains have allowed United Stationers to eliminate several quality control stations in each building that were once needed to verify the accuracy of the split-case picks. That labor has now been reallocated to other parts of the facilities.

The system also allows the company to track errors and take corrective action if necessary. "If a customer reports a short, we can go into the voice system and find the history of who picked it, where the product was located and what time it was picked," says Stark. "We can then make sure the right product is in the right location." He adds that he gets fewer calls from customers now, as the data usually confirm that the "errors" occur on the customers' end.

That performance information isn't confined to a single facility; it's also available systemwide. At any given time, Stark can monitor the performance at any building within his network, which allows him to benchmark one facility against another. That, in itself, represents a major leap forward, he says. "We did not have any of that in the past," he notes. "Having that kind of data in your hands is very powerful."

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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