July 15, 2010
technology review | Voice Technology

Voice system smoothes order flow in beverage distributor's DCs

A voice picking system solved problems that had long been brewing in Odom Corp.'s beverage distribution operation. Two years later, an equipment upgrade made things even better.

By David Maloney

In April 2007, after 75 years in business, liquor distributor Odom Corp. took its first steps toward automating its order fulfillment operations. By all accounts, the move was long overdue. Eleven years earlier, the company had embarked on a string of acquisitions, buying up 21 beverage distributors around the Pacific Northwest in just over a decade's time. And while it was great for the bottom line, the expansion also created some headaches. For one thing, the acquisition binge left the distribution end of the business with the operational equivalent of a nasty hangover.

A big part of the problem was that the company's 13 DCs were still largely manual operations, with workers picking orders from paper lists. As volume grew, the DCs were finding it more and more difficult to keep up with orders. Not only that, but accuracy was becoming a concern. Nearly every order shipped out contained at least one mis-pick.

To gain better control over its operations, the company in 2007 installed a warehouse management system (WMS) from Retalix. With the software in place, it is now able to manage its distribution operations in real time. But Odom didn't stop there. In order to take full advantage of the WMS's capabilities, it decided to automate several aspects of its operations. After weighing its options, Odom purchased a voice system to direct its order picking activities and a radio-frequency system to handle everything else.

A clear call
Since its founding in 1933, Odom Corp. has grown from a one-man bourbon and dry goods distributor to a major force in beverage distribution. Today, the Bellevue, Wash.-based company is one of the biggest beverage distributors in the Pacific Northwest, supplying soft drinks, beer, wine, and spirits to wholesalers, grocery stores, restaurants, and bars throughout the region. And its growth has not cooled off in recent years. "During the past seven years, we have quadrupled the size of our company," says Julie Taylor, Odom Corp.'s manager of mobile media. "We went from 466 employees in 2003 to nearly 1,600 today."

The company now ships 30,000 bottles per day on average. But in contrast to the situation just a few years back, it is no longer getting complaints about its shipments from customers. Today, Odom is shipping with near perfect accuracy. For that, it credits the WMS and the Vocollect voice system that directs its bottle and case picking operations.

For an operation like Odom's, one obvious advantage of voice is its hands-free operation. Because workers receive verbal instructions through headsets connected to terminals worn at the waist, they are no longer forced to juggle paper pick lists and bottles or cases. As a result, workers in the bottle picking area can now handle up to four bottles at a time. Over on the case picking side, workers are now dropping fewer of the heavy cases, which has cut down on product damage.

Another advantage is that the voice system contains built-in checks for accuracy. At the start of the order picking process, the voice system directs the worker to the location for his or her first pick—for example, with orders that include bottles, the rack where the bottles are stored in a pick module. Once he or she arrives at the location, the worker reads the rack's check digit into the headset's microphone to confirm that it's the right spot. The system anticipates the correct response, and if the worker provides the expected reply, the system then tells him or her how many bottles to pick. If the worker reads off the wrong check digit (for example, the number from an adjacent slot), the system redirects the worker to the correct location.

After the worker selects the assigned number of bottles, he or she confirms that number by speaking into the microphone. Because the system is able to quickly confirm the correct location and quantity, a high degree of accuracy is maintained.

Along with improving accuracy, the voice system has greatly simplified the picking process, Taylor says. For instance, under the old paper picking system, when workers went to pick wines, they had to match up the name on the bottle's label with the name on the paper list to make certain they had pulled the right item. "Now, the workers can just focus on the slots and quantities," she says.

The net result has been a major boost in productivity at Odom's DCs. Almost immediately after the voice system was installed, picking productivity jumped by nearly 50 percent. "Voice has been amazing for us," Taylor says.

Multimodal moves
At the same time that Odom installed the voice system for order picking, it also invested in equipment to automate some of its other DC tasks, including receiving, replenishment, and cycle counting. For those operations, the company chose Intermec CV30 terminals connected to SR61ex Bluetooth scanners. Although that proved to be a workable solution, it also meant that in order to make full use of its WMS's capabilities, Odom had to invest in three separate devices—a computer terminal, a scanner, and a voice terminal.

Last year, things got quite a bit simpler when Odom upgraded to Intermec's newly introduced CK3 mobile computer. This multimodal device allows workers to use the same unit for voice picking, scanning, and screen-based tasks. Today, Odom workers use the CK3 during the day shift for receiving, putaway, and replenishment. At night, the unit is placed into a holster and connected to a headset, and the terminal is ready for voice-based picking.

Among other advantages, the multimodal device gives the DCs more flexibility in managing their operations, Taylor says. For instance, if a facility receives a rush order that cannot wait until the normal nighttime picking cycle, it's a simple matter to convert a CK3 unit from, say, cycle counting mode into a picking terminal.

In addition to providing flexibility, the multimodal unit has shortened the learning curve for workers, Taylor says. Instead of having to learn to use three separate pieces of equipment, they only have to be trained on one device. She adds that the new terminal has also simplified many tasks. In the past, for example, a lift truck driver might have to get down off the vehicle to scan a product, then jump back onto the forklift to view the screen. Now, he can simply look at the screen on the multimodal computer.

On top of that, replacing three separate devices with a single multimodal terminal has saved the company some serious money. Odom estimates that the move has slashed its equipment expenditures by about 75 percent.

"The cost decrease was really the home run for us," Taylor says. "It was a very practical decision to go multimodal."

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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