Though many would be surprised to hear it, voice-directed technology is well into its second decade of use in distribution operations. And it's undergone something of a transformation during the past 20 years. For one thing, the technology, which was once used mainly for order picking, has branched out into a variety of other application. Today it's being used for receiving, put-away, replenishment, cycle counting, shipping, and more. Plus, it's no longer limited to dedicated voice devices; these days, the technology is being integrated into multimodal portable computer units that also offer wireless communications, scanning, label printing, and RFID capabilities.
What follows are profiles of four companies that have harnessed the power of voice—using the technology's advanced capabilities to solve specific problems in their distribution operations. Although each uses a different system and procedures, they can all agree on one thing: for them, the choice is voice.
Keeping on task
For the Mexican grocery company Comercial Mexicana, problems with incomplete orders prompted the switch to voice. Employees at the retailer's two Mexico City distribution centers would often skip picking tasks, which meant that orders went out with items missing. Not only did that result in customer service problems, but it also made it tough for the company to keep track of inventory.
Comercial Mexicana, which is Mexico's third-largest grocery retailer, operates two distribution centers in Mexico City: a 538,000-square-foot building that handles dry goods and a new 377,000-square- foot facility for processing perishables. Together, the facilities serve 176 company stores located in 42 cities.
Until this year, Comercial Mexicana's dry goods facility used radio-frequency scanners and pick-to-light equipment to direct picking, while its former perishable goods facility relied on paper pick lists. But as it began planning for the new perishables facility, the company started looking at alternatives. What it wanted was a system that would keep workers on task as well as boost throughput and eliminate bottlenecks. In the end, the company was so impressed with voice technology that it decided to use voice for nearly all of the labor-direction applications in the new building, which opened last October.
Workers at the new facility wear dedicated Vocollect Talkman T-5 units for directing and confirming each step in the receiving and put-away process. As trucks roll up to the receiving dock, workers validate the delivery drivers' appointment times and record the loads' temperatures by speaking into the microphones on their headsets. They then read the product code of each pallet into the system while attaching pre-printed license plates.
The voice system then issues instructions to the facility's lift-truck drivers for moving loads to pre-assigned put-tostore locations. As the drivers pick up the loads, they receive their directions through their headsets. Upon arrival, they speak the check digits posted at the location into the system to confirm that they're in the proper spot.
The voice system then tells them how many cases to deposit for that store. The pallet jack also has a scale that weighs the loads. Right now, operators read the weights into the system, but this step will be eliminated in the near future. Instead, a Bluetooth transmitter connected to the scale will automatically transmit the data to the Vocollect voice terminal.
In January, Comercial Mexicana expanded the voice system to its dry goods facility, where it's used for receiving and picking. In the receiving area, employees use voice technology in combination with scanners. The voice system guides workers through each receiving step, instructing them when to scan the bar codes on incoming goods to record their stock-keeping unit (SKU) numbers, lot control numbers, and expiration dates.
Voice is also used to direct the picking of most of the facility's fast-moving products, while a pick-to-light system is used for some of the slower-moving goods. "For jobs where workers need their hands free, it is better to use voice," says Carlos Ramos, the company's director of logistics and distribution. "With voice, they are completely focused and are not distracted." Comercial Mexicana is currently piloting a program to use voice in the shipping area, where it will be used to provide directions to workers loading outbound trucks.
So far, the results have been impressive. In the dry goods facility, picking throughput has increased by nearly 50 percent. Accuracy is now at 99.6 percent, up 0.04 percent from the previous systems. Workers can no longer take short cuts, since the system won't allow them to move on to a new task until they've confirmed that they've completed the last one by reading the check digits into the system. Order fulfillment is more accurate and dependable, and customer service has greatly improved. The company also now has much better control of its inventory.
The results in the perishables facility are equally impressive. For example, training time for new employees has dropped from two weeks to just two days. Accuracy in the perishables building now stands at 99.7 percent.
And the ROI? The company expects the system to pay for itself within the first 12 months of operation.
Radio: over and out
At electrical supplier Thomas & Betts' distribution center in Bromont, Quebec, the switch to voice was largely a response to ergonomic concerns.
"I was trying to increase health and safety in our pick environment," recalls Pierre David, the director of the distribution center. At the time, the company was using a radio-frequency system to direct picking at the 250,000-square- foot DC, which ships electrical boxes, parts, fittings, and connectors throughout Canada. But workers were complaining of wrist and shoulder aches caused by picking up and putting down heavy RF guns several hundred times during their shifts.
Those health concerns prompted David to initiate a pilot program with Inther Integrated Systems. "I needed proof that voice would work within our warehouse environment and also work in French. Inther was the only company that would risk a pilot at a low cost to us," he says.
The Inther solution is somewhat unique in the voice logistics market. Instead of using customized voice terminals, it uses consumer-grade HP IPAQ PDAs (personal digital assistants) that users can wear around their waists. The PDAs, which are connected to a headset, operate with TopSystem voice software. The entire solution is also integrated wirelessly with the company's RedPrairie warehouse management system.
The advantages to using PDAs include low cost and ease of replacement. The PDAs only cost about $400 apiece and can be purchased at most office supply stores or mass retailers. David sees that as a big plus. "Our old RF units would sometimes cost $1,000 to repair," he says. "But if one of these PDAs would break, I could just replace it with a new PDA." So far, however, he has not had to replace a single PDA, even though the system has been in use at the Bromont facility for over a year. In fact, the system has proved so cost effective that the company saw a return on its investment in just six months.
Currently, there are 18 units in use in the facility, whose workforce is multilingual. About 80 percent of the workers speak and receive their instructions in French, while the remaining 20 percent interact with the system in English. The voice units are used to direct about 75 percent of the total picks in the building, including full cases and piece picks.
Although improved ergonomics was the primary goal of moving to voice, David says he has also seen improvements in productivity. "That was the bonus," he says. "We figured we would get some productivity gains with workers no longer putting down and picking up their guns while picking. But now with their hands free and their eyes focused, we find we have increased productivity 22 percent overall, with some workers doubling their productivity." What's more, the productivity increase has come without any sacrifice in accuracy. Picking accuracy stands at 99.9 percent.
Right now, the voice system is used solely for picking. But David has plans for expansion. He expects to begin using the technology for replenishment and putaway in the near future, with cycle counting to be added later.
"We are very pleased," David says of the new system. "There is not one negative aspect in our voice process."
In Oriental Trading Co.'s case, the move to voice was primarily an attempt to boost productivity. The catalog and online retailer, which sells art supplies, party goods, toys, and novelties, moved into a new 750,000-square-foot facility in La Vista, Neb., last year. As the company prepared for the move, Deon Wagner, the retailer's director of warehouse operations, started looking at options for upgrading the picking system.
At the former facility, the company had relied on a paper-based system, with workers picking products into totes on pick carts. For the new facility, Wagner wanted to find an alternative system that would allow workers, who did a significant amount of walking, to pick more items, faster.
After weighing his options, Wagner settled on voice, choosing the Jennifer voice software package from Lucas Systems. The voice system is able to optimize workers' travel and pick sequences, as well as reduce their time within the pick zones. "Voice is a more-directed system that reduces the walking. So we have seen increases in both pick productivity and accuracy," says Wagner.
The software operates on 70 MC 9000 Motorola mobile computer units. These are multimodal devices that offer both voice and scanning capabilities. Two shifts of workers pick about 300,000 items daily using the voice system.
Order selection takes place in pick modules that contain flow racks for fast-moving items and static shelves for slower movers. Workers deposit the items they select into totes placed on pick carts.
Products are selected in waves of 2,000 orders at a time. To begin the process, workers scan the bar codes on each of the totes to marry them to specific locations on the cart. The Lucas voice system then directs the workers to pick locations. The workers read off check digits at the locations to confirm that they're in the proper place. The system then tells them the quantity needed and which totes should receive the products. As the workers deposit the items into the tote, they recite a check digit to verify the tote location on the cart. Completed totes are then sent to staging, where they are held until the pick wave is completed. The voice system then directs workers to use their Motorola devices to scan and release the totes onto a takeaway conveyor for transport to the sorting area.
Wagner reports that he's so pleased with the results that he's now considering using voice for replenishment and receiving tasks. "The hands-free environment with voice is very important to us," he says. "The system has also been very reliable and productive."
Food for thought
Like Thomas & Betts, U.S. Foodservice shifted to voice largely out of concerns for worker comfort.
Only in this case, the voice units replaced wrist scanners, not RF guns. "We had a lot of issues from workers with the wrist scanners we had been using," says Alex Olejniczak, vice president of operations for U.S. Foodservice, which is the nation's second- largest food distributor. "There were dependability issues with all of the wires, and workers did not feel comfortable wearing the scanners."
The company, which supplies meat, fish, and other grocery items to restaurants and institutions, implemented voice three years ago at its 350,000-square-foot distribution center in Bensenville, Ill. The facility now uses about 60 voice-directed units supplied by Voxware. The units are lightweight and fit around workers' waists. A headset is attached to each device.
Though the switch to voice was intended to address ergonomic concerns, the company initially encountered some resistance from workers. "Our workforce was at first apprehensive," recalls Olejniczak. "But once we started using them, people were standing in line to get certified on the units."
The voice system directs the picking of customer orders, mostly full cases with some split case items. It's also set up to capture catch weights (weight data for individual items sold by weight), which workers read into the system as they pick cartons. In the past, workers had to write down the weight of each case on a piece of paper and then hand the paper to a clerk, who entered the data into the computer system. Using voice has eliminated both manual processes.
Olejniczak likes the reporting capabilities offered by the voice system. "The reports help us plan what we will process each day by showing us demand," he says.
Since moving to voice, the Bensenville DC has improved its inventory and order accuracy. Shorts have decreased, and product damage has been reduced because the hands-free system makes it easier for workers to handle cases.
"The use of Voxware has been significant in increasing our service levels," says Olejniczak. "We don't have customers who are upset, and we don't have to issue them a credit or handle their returns. It has increased our productivity and accuracy, while improving our overall operations."