When a do-it-yourselfer drops by the local hardware store to pick up a few things for a weekend project, he or she's not likely to give much thought to how those items got there in the first place. But if that store is one of the 4,100 members of the Do It Best cooperative, chances are it involved the intricately choreographed interplay of sophisticated software systems, radio-frequency systems, and advanced voice technology.
But that wasn't always the case. In the past, the Fort Wayne, Ind.-based co-op, which was founded in 1945, relied on a manual order fulfillment process. "We had a very rudimentary system where we picked with labels and a lot of data entry," recalls Brian Etzler, logistics operations manager at Do It Best.
That may have been sufficient in the early days, but over the years, Do It Best has undergone a rapid expansion. It is now the hardware industry's second-largest cooperative (after Ace Hardware), with a membership that includes 4,100 independently owned hardware and lumber retailers in all 50 states and 45 other countries worldwide. Today, the co-op distributes more than 65,000 different products, ranging from hammers to home décor, from lawn equipment to pet supplies—just about anything the do-it-yourselfer needs to complete projects around the house and yard.
Given the co-op's brisk growth, it's no surprise that by 2002, the rudimentary order fulfillment system was creating headaches at its eight distribution centers. The main problem was order accuracy. As the co-op was learning, the higher the SKU count climbed, the greater the potential for errors. "About half of the errors we had in order filling when using paper were because of picking from the wrong locations," Etzler says, "and the other half were picking the wrong quantity."
To correct the situation, the co-op implemented a homegrown warehouse management system in 2002. At the same time, it invested in radio-frequency (RF) terminals for the order picking operations.
Once the new system was up and running, the co-op saw an immediate reduction in picking errors. But it still wasn't satisfied. Though the RF devices boosted accuracy, they didn't provide the speed Do It Best was looking for. So it began casting around for other solutions.
In 2005, Do It Best began a voice pilot program at its Dixon, Ill., distribution center, using the Jennifer voice-directed warehouse solution from Lucas Systems. For the next two years, the co-op subjected the system to rigorous testing.
This time, Do It Best got the results it was seeking, says Etzler. "The RF did give us better accuracy, but it did not give us the productivity we wanted," he notes. "But we found that voice could give us both accuracy and productivity." Satisfied with the results, the co-op rolled the voice system out to the remaining seven facilities.
The sound of success
Today, somewhere between 35 and 80 workers at each of Do It Best's eight DCs are using the voice system. Although the co-op is considering expanding the technology to other applications, it is currently only using voice to direct the picking of split-case items, or "eaches," and full cases. (Instructions for full pallet picking are still delivered via RF.) Split-case picks account for 65 to 70 percent of the total lines picked within the company's distribution facilities. Member stores are able to order about 90 percent of the company's 65,000 SKUs as individual items or less-than-case quantities.
At the Do It Best facilities, workers receive their picking instructions via microphone-equipped headsets connected to Motorola 9090 terminals worn as belt packs. These multimodal terminals, which also offer scanning capabilities and screen displays, were a big factor in the co-op's choice of the Lucas system, Etzler reports. "Our workers are cross-functional. A person might select orders using the device with voice and then later in the day do auditing or another function using scanning and the screen display. Being able to do all of that in one terminal was a feature that we liked."
The split-case picking process begins when the warehouse management system sends the Lucas voice system an order file, which it uses to build work assignments for picking. These assignments are organized either as single store picks or batch picks, depending on the quantity and the products to be selected. Workers select the split-case items, which are stored in flow racks or on shelving, into customer-assigned totes riding on wheeled carts (with the exception of the Medina, Ohio, facility, where picks are made to totes transported by conveyor). On average, each facility picks and ships about 30,000 lines daily.
When an assignment is ready, the Jennifer software relays the location of the first pick to the worker. As soon as he or she reaches the location, the worker reads into the microphone a "check digit," a series of two or three numbers attached to the rack, to confirm that he or she is in the right place. If the check digit is correct, the system provides instructions on the quantity to pick and which tote to put the items in. (Every cart holds four to six totes.) The worker then confirms the amount picked and deposits the items into the tote. If additional items are needed, the system next provides instructions for those picks, which are sequenced to reduce travel time and to optimize worker productivity.
Among other advantages, the software is programmed to convey instructions regarding picking quantities in terminology appropriate to that individual product—for instance, boxes of fittings, pounds of nails, or bags of grass seed. That capability can help eliminate confusion when it comes to picking bulk items. The software also boasts a "countdown" feature designed to eliminate picking quantity errors. Say, for instance, that a worker has to select 50 bolts from a bin. Rather than counting out all 50 at once, he or she can reach in, grab a handful, and then tell the system how many he or she has picked—say, 11. The system then subtracts that number from the total and tells him to pick 39 more. This process is repeated until all 50 items have been gathered.
Once all of the eaches are picked, the totes are brought to a consolidation area. There, workers transfer them onto pallets for shipment.
Making the case
Voice is also used to direct the picking of full cases and oddshaped items like shovels and rakes that aren't easily conveyed on carts. Most of these are selected to pallets, though some full cases may be picked to the carts.
The full case orders are collected in much the same way as the split-case items, except that the worker attaches a shipping label to each case as he or she retrieves it. This allows the picking of more than one store order at a time onto a pallet.
Even though labels are deployed in the full case area, the co-op has found there are definite advantages to using the voice system to direct picking, as opposed to relying on labels. First of all, the voice system helps to organize and balance the work assignments within the case pick area. Second, the voice system's check digit feature assures that the worker picks from the correct storage racks or shelves, virtually eliminating location errors.
Currently, the labels are printed and grouped by store orders, so a worker performing batch picks must carry several sets of labels at a time, then thumb through them to find the right label to attach to each carton. But in the coming months, the facilities will begin printing labels according to pick sequence. Once that happens, workers will only have to carry around one stack of combined customer labels, which is expected to further boost productivity.
After they're selected, the cases are transported to the consolidation area, where they are manually sorted and then combined with the individual store totes from the split-case area. A little more than half of the stores can receive pallets, so their orders are palletized. For the remainder, workers hand load the cases and totes onto trucks. Currently, consolidation and loading are paper-based operations, but the co-op will be evaluating these activities to see if they are suitable for conversion to voice.
Once order filling is completed, a number of the workers remove their Motorola terminals from their belt packs and begin using them for other RF and screen-based applications. These include receiving, putaway, and replenishment.
As for how the voice system is working out, the reports to date are positive. Since moving to the system, Do It Best has seen order filling errors drop by 50 to 70 percent across its distribution network. Accuracy now stands at 99.8 to 99.9 percent in each facility. Productivity has jumped 15 percent in the eaches area alone, and has seen a 10-percent increase overall.
Another benefit the voice system brings is improved work flow monitoring. "That has been a big part of the gains for us," says Etzler. "The utilities in the Lucas system allow us to see everything going on across the pick zones. That helps us keep work balanced. We can easily see where we are and how to make adjustments. That was a lengthy process before, when we had to balance our work manually."
Workers have responded well to the new technology, Etzler adds. "For some, it has been exciting, like they got a new toy and not just a tool," he says. "The voice system is also very intuitive, so it allows them to get up to productive speed very quickly."