When lift-truck drivers at Southeast Frozen Foods' Miami DC need directions for storing incoming cases of ice cream or frozen vegetables, they don't have to fumble with paper lists or scanners. All they have to do is listen. The drivers, all participants in a voice technology pilot project, wear headsets that allow them to receive spoken instructions as they cruise through the facility unencumbered by radio-frequency devices or clipboards.When it comes time to respond back to the system, they simply speak into the headset's microphone.
Much the same thing is happening over in the facility's replenishment area. There, too, instructions are relayed to workers via their headsets. There's no more need for drivers to stop and consult a list or a scanner for directions. A voice in their ear tells them exactly where to find the items they need to restock the picking areas and precisely where those items should go.
Add replenishment and putaway to the growing list of DC tasks that are being directed by voice systems nowadays. Once confined largely to picking applications, voice technology is making the leap into other operational areas of the DC as users discover the benefits of a system that frees up their hands and eyes.
Part of the attraction lies in voice's simplicity and ease of use. In a typical application, workers wear belt-mounted terminals and headsets connected to the terminals by cables. (Wireless headset models that use Bluetooth connectivity and systems that allow voice to be deployed onto handheld terminals are also available.) As they go through their workday, workers are guided by a computer-controlled voice that tells them where to go and what to do when they get there. Once they've finished a task, workers confirm their actions by speaking back into their headsets' microphones, prompting the system to record the transaction.
From DC management's perspective, however, the big draw is voice technology's potential to boost both speed and accuracy. Many companies that have switched to voice-directed picking report productivity gains of 20 percent or more, depending on their previous picking method. And it's not unusual for voice users to report near-perfect accuracy rates.
Word gets out
Like most voice users, Southeast Frozen Foods started out by implementing the technology in its picking operations. Two years ago, it began experimenting with voice as part of its search for an alternative to its label-based picking system. Though labels were working perfectly well with the drygoods portion of its business, they were proving to be less than ideal for its frozen-foods operations. Southeast Frozen Foods, a division of Southeast Food Distribution, is a thirdparty warehouse and transportation service provider that supplies customers in 16 states with dry goods, refrigerated items, and frozen foods—the latter from freezer warehouses in Richmond, Va.; Columbia, S.C.; Cordele, Ga.; New Orleans; and Miami.
One problem with labels was that they didn't stick well in freezer environments where temperatures dropped down to 20 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.As a result, they tended to fall off the cases. Another was that workers wearing gloves found it difficult to peel and apply the labels. A third drawback was that the sheets of labels were easily mislaid, which sometimes resulted in a shortage of picks.
In June 2005, Southeast launched its first voice pilot, working in conjunction with its supplier, Vocollect. The pilot took place at the Columbia facility, which at the time was providing third-party services to two customers. Though Southeast had intended to start out slowly, implementing voice to pick cases for just one of those customers, it wasn't long before managers began talking about accelerating the rollout. "It did not take us long to be convinced that voice was the way we wanted to go," recalls Danny Payne, the company's vice president of operations. Within days, Southeast had added the second customer to the mix.
In fact, after only a month of testing, Southeast decided to forge ahead with full deployment of voice technology for all picking operations in both its Columbia and Richmond facilities. Then, in February 2006, it rolled out voice technology at its frozen-foods warehouse in Miami. Later this year, the company will implement the system at its other Miami facility, which handles dry goods. Currently, 90 selectors use voice across the company's three voice-enabled DCs. Most are picking full cases onto pallets. The only exception is the Miami frozen-foods DC, where order pickers also select split case items, such as candy and spices, to fill cartons on order pallets.
As for the voice pilot's outcome, the results speak for themselves. Almost immediately, Southeast saw order turn times drop. That's largely because the wait period has been nearly eliminated.With voice, workers can begin picking within 30 to 45 minutes of receiving an order, whereas with paper, it could take up to eight hours to print all of the labels needed. And once they get going, workers tend to be more productive than they were under the previous system because the headsets free up their eyes and hands.
Order accuracy has soared as well—a critical consideration for a third-party service provider like Southeast. That came as an unexpected bonus. Shortly before the voice pilot was launched, Southeast had introduced a program designed to detect picking errors by comparing the actual weight of outbound shipments against the expected weight. Though the program resulted in a significant drop in errors, it soon became apparent that it wasn't infallible. Once the voice system was introduced, picking errors dropped by half again.
Voice has an edge over paper when it comes to accuracy partly because it's able to bridge language barriers. In Southeast's case, for example, some members of the largely Hispanic workforce are unable to read English, which occasionally led to errors with the old label-based pick system. Voice eliminates that problem by allowing associates to use the language of their choice. Before they begin using the system, associates record their responses to standard work commands to "train" the system to recognize their individual speech patterns. What language they use is immaterial as long as they respond consistently. In addition, employees in the Miami frozen-foods facility have the choice of receiving their instructions in English or Spanish.
Boosting accuracy has paid off in ways that go beyond customer satisfaction. "The accuracy we have has allowed us to reduce our auditing, which has saved labor," says Payne. "Throughput is also better. Our only limitation now is the size of the building." Overall, Payne says, average worker productivity is up about 5 percent and accuracy is now better than 99.9 percent.
Buoyed by its success using voice to direct order picking, Southeast is now preparing to expand its use of voice into other areas of its operation. The company is currently conducting tests in the Miami frozen-foods facility to see how voice stacks up against its existing scanner-based system for replenishment and putaway.
The pilot has required very little in the way of capital investment. Since picking is performed on a separate shift from putaway and replenishment, workers can share the voice terminals, although they have their own earpieces and mouthpiece screens.
With both replenishment and putaway, the voice system works on pretty much the same principle as the picking application. When used in replenishment, for example, the voice system first directs a lift-truck driver to the specific location in the reserve storage area that houses the items needed to restock the picking area. Reserve stock is normally stored on the upper levels of the racking system above the floor-level picking locations.
Once he or she arrives at the storage location, the driver recites the check digit printed on the rack into the system to confirm the location. The system then directs the driver to move the load into a floor-level pick location. The pattern is repeated at the destination location, with the driver reading the destination location's check digit back into the system to confirm that the load is being deposited in the correct pick slot.
With putaway, the procedure begins when a truck arrives and workers begin reading six-digit codes into the system to notify it which pallet loads have been delivered. The voice system then informs the drivers of the goods' assigned storage location so they can whisk the cases off the dock and directly into the freezer. Received products must be processed quickly, since, as Payne puts it, "Ten minutes on the dock with ice cream is too long."
When they arrive at the storage location, drivers read the rack position's check digit into the microphone to confirm the position. Although storage locations are often assigned by Southeast's homegrown warehouse management system, drivers also have the freedom to place loads into other locations at their discretion. In that event, they simply notify the voice system where they've deposited the load and provide the location's check digit.
Payne notes that voice devices have several advantages over scanners in freezers with sub-zero temperatures. For one thing, he says, scanners aren't always reliable at low temperatures. For another, they tend to become brittle when exposed to extreme cold, which makes them more susceptible to damage when dropped.
Turning up the volume
As for the ongoing story of Southeast's voice deployment, it's unlikely that replenishment and putaway will be the last chapter. By the end of the year, Southeast expects to have a pilot program under way using voice to direct the loading of outbound trucks. Weight and dimensional data on all of its products have already been entered into the system. Once the pilot is up and running, the voice system will guide workers through the loading process, providing information on the proper sequence. When they're finished, workers will read check digits back into the system to confirm that they've loaded the merchandise onto the right truck and in the right order.
Down the road, Payne plans to look into the possibility of using voice to direct cycle counting and receiving activities. And there could be more to come. Payne says that he'll push to use voice for any application where he sees an opportunity to improve accuracy and obtain a solid return on investment (ROI).
What kind of returns has Southeast seen to date? So far, they've exceeded expectations, Payne reports. "When the Vocollect salesman told me to expect an ROI in just 12 months, my head was spinning," he says. "And it actually ended up [being] less than that. We can live each day off of the money we're [saving] and can now invest that in new applications."