Who says you have to be a big company to pick orders with voice technology?
Even small companies can now take advantage of the benefits (think higher productivity, better accuracy, and hands-free picking) that voice provides. KPM Exceptional is one company that has learned this first hand.
Founded in 1955, KPM is a wholesale distributor of outdoor power equipment for professional landscapers. Its customers include hundreds of independent dealers located throughout the Northeast.
The company currently serves those customers out of two distribution facilities in Kenvil, N.J. One of the buildings stores equipment and accessories (such as lawn tractors, mowers, leaf blowers, snowplows, and heaters), while a smaller facility nearby holds about 11,000 stock-keeping units (SKUs) of service and replacement parts. This summer, the company will move into a new 100,000-square-foot building that's now under construction. The facility will house KPM's corporate offices as well as a warehouse that will handle both the equipment and the replacement/service parts.
Before upgrading its picking technology last spring, the company relied on a paper-based manual system in both of the facilities. That worked well enough, but KPM felt it could do better, says Jesse Hellyer, the company's IT manager. "Our motto is 'Striving to do what works for your business,' so we have a culture of working to do things better," he explains. "We'd been improving our manual processes to the point where they worked very well for us. However, we needed to make a jump to continue to scale with the business. In order to do that, we started looking at other technologies."
As for what KPM's managers were seeking in a picking system, three things topped the list. First, they wanted a system that would allow for multiple orders to be picked simultaneously (orders in the current buildings are picked one at a time, which creates unnecessary travel and hinders productivity). They also wanted a technology that could easily scale up to allow for growth in the business.
Finally, KPM wanted a technology that would track employee performance and provide management reports on that performance. "Because [the paper-based system] was a manual process, we really did not have our arms around what was going on in the operation in terms of how people were spending their time and ways to optimize their time," says Hellyer.
VOICE IS THE CHOICE
To find the best solution for its needs, KPM investigated radio-frequency (RF), pick-to-light, and voice-directed offerings. But it quickly discovered that most of those technologies require a large capital outlay, putting them beyond a small distributor's reach. The search was further complicated by the fact that while KPM uses sophisticated software designed in-house for managing its orders, inventory, and billing, it does not have a warehouse management system, which is what most warehouses use to direct automated picking operations.
After looking at the alternatives, KPM chose the Lydia Plug and Play voice solution from topVox. The system is designed for small to medium-sized businesses that do not yet possess a lot of sophisticated technology. It allows companies with as few as five pickers to automate their order selection processes, which was one of the attractions for KPM, according to Hellyer. "We are different from the standard voice user," he says. "We have a very small warehouse to be adopting voice technology."
The solution consists of the topVox Lydia software platform working in conjunction with a Voxter voice unit that's worn on the worker's belt. The Voxter unit is connected to a headset that allows the worker to hear verbal directions and respond back. Currently, only five voice units are in use, but the system can be scaled for up to 25 simultaneous users simply by adding more Voxter devices and the accompanying headsets.
As the name implies, the Lydia Plug and Play voice solution features plug-and-play integration and does not require a warehouse management system for operation. For instance, in KPM's case, the company's proprietary software simply exports orders as they are released for shipment into the Plug and Play system. The voice system, in turn, determines the optimal pick paths for gathering the orders.
"The interfacing between our two systems was probably the simplest portion of the project for us," reports Hellyer. On top of that, he says, the Plug and Play software is highly customizable, which meant that KPM didn't have to make wholesale changes to its processes. For instance, the company uses product numbers—rather than the more traditional check digits mounted on a storage rack—to confirm that the right items are being selected. The topVox system was able to accommodate that.
KPM began picking its parts orders with the Lydia voice system in April 2014. The company wanted to give employees experience working with voice through its busy spring and summer seasons, and before moving to the new building. This will avoid the need for associates to learn both a new system and the processes used in a new facility at the same time.
LISTEN, PICK, REPEAT
With the new system in place, order picking is a snap. To begin the process, an associate reads the invoice number for an order into his or her headset. The system then directs the worker to the location of the first pick. Hellyer notes that one of the advantages of voice over RF is its ability to give users instructions on the go—there's no need for them to stop walking to read a screen.
Upon arrival at the appropriate rack or bin, the worker reads off the last two digits of the product number to confirm that the correct part is being picked. The system then tells him or her how many of that item to select.
Since associates no longer have to hold paper, their hands are free to handle the parts—a big plus in an operation that deals in items like sharp mower blades and heavy wheels. Warehouse manager Mark Pobihun says he appreciates that feature. "I really like the hands-free picking," he says. "And I like the call-back of the last two digits. It makes it impossible to make an error."
The parts are brought back to order bins—although in the case of very small parts, workers first make a detour to a counter where they put the parts into plastic bags before placing them in a bin. Once all of the items for an order have been gathered, the bin is pushed along a nonpowered conveyor to a pack station, where the items are confirmed against a packing list and placed in a carton for shipping.
Currently, about 200 orders are processed each day, with the average order consisting of six lines. For now, orders are picked one at a time, though that will change in the new building.
GAINING 'SOUND' BENEFITS
Since moving to Lydia Plug and Play, KPM has begun to realize the many benefits that automation can bring. For instance, workers appreciate the speed and ease of picking. "Before, we [had to grab paper] from the printer and go pick our parts, and it was very slow. Picking up paper all day gets annoying," says Shane Cole, a parts picker at KPM. "With voice, you just say 'next order' and Lydia tells you where to go, and then you put it in a bin and your order is done."
Training new workers is a simple matter with voice. "We had a new guy come in. We set him up with Lydia for maybe an hour and he understood how it worked—like instantly," adds Cole.
Several of the workers at KPM speak Spanish as their first language. The Lydia system offers the option of delivering picking instructions in Spanish, though at this point, all of the workers have chosen to receive commands in English. On top of that, the system understands their accents (and New Jersey accents, at that!) with very high recognition levels. And with the topVox system, there's no need for users to record a voice template beforehand, as is the case with other "speaker-dependent" voice systems.
While workers are picking, Lydia exports performance data back to KPM's labor management software to track their work. "I like the productivity reports and the ability to assign orders to individual pickers," says Pobihun. The performance information has also proved valuable in coaching workers who need extra help.
The picking accuracy achieved with the system has allowed the company to cut back on quality checks for outgoing shipments. Based on the accuracy and productivity improvements alone, KPM calculates that the system paid for itself in only about six months.
Once it relocates to the new building later this year, KPM plans to use voice to pick equipment and accessories in addition to the parts. At that point, the company will also begin using the system to direct the picking of multiple orders simultaneously. The plan is for workers to push wheeled carts outfitted with bins along their pick paths. The items will be picked in batches and separated into the bins, which will represent individual orders. Picking multiple orders at once will boost productivity by eliminating much of the travel time associated with discrete order picking. In later phases of the project, the company will expand the use of voice technology to receiving and putaway.
Making the jump to an automated system has been a huge step for a small distributor like KPM. But it promises to be an investment that will allow the company to grow as its volume increases and as it expands the use of voice to new applications.