The Problem: Last summer, Hawaiian food distributor Suisan Corp. was experiencing what might be described as a bit of trouble in paradise. The problem for the Hilo-based company lay in its order fulfillment operations. At the time, the company was relying on manual procedures to fill orders for the restaurants, supermarkets, and institutions that make up its client base. While that might have worked well enough in another line of business, the system wasn't cutting it in the low-margin yet service-sensitive world of food distribution. Basically, the manual picking procedures were proving too slow, too error-prone, and too costly.
That led to the decision to seek an order picking technology that could boost service levels. "In today's economy, we needed to get productivity to the point where it would drive our costs down while improving service and increasing accuracy," recalls Paul Agamata, Suisan's director of information technology. "Our manual processes were tedious and cumbersome, and we had too many errors."
Customer: Suisan Corp.
Primary business: Distributor of dry, frozen, and refrigerated food to supermarkets, restaurants, hotels, and institutions throughout Hawaii's Big Island
Headquarters: Hilo, Hawaii
Supplier: topVox Corp.
Solution: Voxter compact computers with Lydia software
The Solution: Last September, Suisan installed a voice system to direct picking in all areas of the Hilo DC. The system it chose was the Lydia voice solution from topVox. Along with the Lydia software, the company invested in 15 Voxter compact computer units for use by order selectors.
In a somewhat unusual twist, Suisan also outfitted the workers with handheld bar-code scanners. That's because the company decided to incorporate scanning into the picking process as a way to guarantee near-perfect accuracy. Because of space constraints at the Hilo site, up to five different products can be stored within a single storage location. Scanning helps ensure the right product is selected from the slot.
In daily operations, the Lydia voice system directs the worker to the appropriate slot via a headset and tells him the quantity to select. He reads back a check digit to confirm the location as well as the number of items to be picked, then selects the item, scanning the bar code to assure that the right item has been pulled and placed onto the pallet.
For Suisan, one of the biggest selling points of the topVox solution is that it's speaker independent, which means that workers do not have to record a voice template before they begin using the equipment. This allows order selectors to start work within 15 minutes of putting on a headset, even though many of them are non-native speakers of English.
"Before, it took two weeks to train someone," says Agamata. "That is dramatically less now, and it has not been a problem to have someone from another country using the voice system even with their dialects. Lydia does such a good job working with them."
Agamata and his team had expected a return on investment in about two years, but the results so far have them on track for an ROI in less than a year. Suisan has improved service with 30 percent greater picking accuracy and a 20-percent increase in picks per hour. Agamata hopes to duplicate that success in other areas of the operation. The next phase will be to roll out voice to direct loading activities, beginning this month. Later, he hopes to expand voice technology to receiving, internal product movement, and inventory control tasks.
"Our entire team adopted this to make it work, and the old pick system has been long forgotten," says Agamata. "It has been a very pleasant experience to work with [the technology]. It has elevated our employees' feelings about working here, as they see that the company is investing in technology and in them."