March 22, 2010
strategic insight | Systems Integration

Sound in a hurry: Owens & Minor's high-speed voice rollout

With just one year to convert 40 DC operations from RF to voice, medical supplier Owens & Minor decided its only chance lay in developing a completely bulletproof plan.

By James A. Cooke

To anyone familiar with Owens & Minor's distribution operations, news that the medical supplier was planning to convert its DCs over to voice technology came as little surprise. It had been apparent for quite some time that the company's radio frequency (RF) order picking system was falling well short of the mark.

What did raise some eyebrows, however, was the aggressive timetable set for the voice technology's rollout. Eager to make the changeover as quickly as possible, senior management set an ambitious goal of implementing voice technology in 40 sites across the country in just one year.

Given the tight timeline, there would be no point in trying to customize the process for individual facilities. Instead, the medical supplier would have to develop a set of standard procedures for introducing the technology. The goal was to design a kind of cookie-cutter approach that could be repeated quickly and easily at each of the locations, recalls Doug Farley, the company's vice president of supply chain operations.

Sound arguments
Based in Richmond, Va., Owens & Minor is a distributor of name-brand medical and surgical supplies. It operates a network of 52 distribution centers throughout the United States to serve its customers, which include hospitals, healthcare systems, group purchasing organizations, and the federal government.

For over a decade, the supplier had used an RF-based system to direct all of its warehousing activities, but as business expanded, it became clear that the old system could no longer keep up. "Having a picker lugging around an RF device with one hand, and picking with another, we were losing efficiencies," explains Farley. "And we were at the point where we were looking for the extra boost in performance and quality."

The way to get that boost, company executives decided, would be to replace the RF system with voice technology. One of voice's biggest selling points is that it allows workers to receive their instructions via headsets, leaving their hands and eyes free to select items or perform other warehouse tasks. After evaluating vendors, the company chose the Jennifer voice-recognition software program from Lucas Systems Inc. of Sewickley, Pa.

All systems go
With the selection decision out of the way, the company turned its attention to the mechanics of the implementation. To expedite the rollout, Owens & Minor decided to avoid making wholesale changes to its operations, Farley says. Instead, it would keep the "business rules" that were already written into its warehouse management system (WMS)—a system from North Charleston, S.C.-based Cambar Solutions that directs activities in all of the company's DCs. These business rules are used to make such determinations as the sequence in which orders will be picked.Among other advantages, keeping the existing rules would allow Owens & Minor to avoid the work of configuring business rules in Lucas Systems' middleware—software that's generally used to pass data from a WMS to a device like a voice terminal. Ultimately, the medical supplier decided to bypass the Lucas middleware altogether in favor of modifying its WMS to enable it to "talk" directly to the client application software on the voice units. "I knew that if we were customizing and changing business rules in the middleware, it would have taken us multiple years to do the project," says Farley.

But there would still be some integration work to do. For one thing, Owens & Minor had to find a way to get its WMS to communicate with the voice system. The medical supplier contracted with Dell Perot Systems, a Plano, Texas-based systems integrator, to write the interfaces needed to integrate the voice recognition application into the WMS. Once the special interface code was written for the first WMS, it was a simple matter to install it in the warehouse management systems at the other DCs.

In order to standardize operations as much as possible, Owens & Minor decided to use the same hardware in all of the facilities. For the order pickers' terminals, it chose the Intermec CK3 unit, a device that can handle both radio frequency and voice systems. Because some of the DCs were already using the CK3, all the company had to do on the hardware side was reprogram the existing terminals and buy additional units as needed.

In January 2009, Owens & Minor piloted the new voice system at its Jacksonville, Fla., distribution center. Once it had the Jacksonville facility up and running on voice, the company established four teams to roll out the technology to the other DCs. The teams, which included both Owens & Minor personnel and implementation engineers from Lucas Systems, spent two weeks at each site. In the first week, the team made the necessary software adjustments and trained workers on the use of the system. In the second week, when the system went live, the team remained on site to provide user support.

Hands and eyes free
By the end of 2009, Owens & Minor had completed all 40 of its planned voice implementations. But the project isn't over yet. Farley says Owens & Minor plans to convert two or three more DCs from radio frequency to voice technology this year.

So how has the voice system worked out to date? Although Farley declined to release specific numbers, he reports that the company has seen improvements in both worker productivity and accuracy in the 40 distribution centers where the technology is in use. "The productivity we're seeing as a result of the implementation is consistent with our expectations, and early indications are that we are on track to achieve our goals," he says.

Although it's using the voice system only for order picking right now, Owens & Minor has plans to expand it to other applications. The second phase of the project will involve the use of voice technology for item putaway, inventory control, and truck loading. "We've found that workers who are "hands free"—and "eyes free"—are more efficient because of voice systems," says Farley.

About the Author

James A. Cooke
James Cooke is a principal analyst with Nucleus Research in Boston, covering supply chain planning software. He was previously the editor of CSCMP’s Supply Chain Quarterly and a staff writer for DC Velocity.

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