The Talk Of The Warehouse
When pallet jack operators at Eastern Bag & Paper Group’s warehouse in Milford, Conn., get instructions to pick an order, there’s no fumbling with cumbersome paper lists or barcode scanners — all they need to do is strap on their headsets and listen.
That’s because the company’s Milford warehouse is operating under voice directed order picking software, which enables the company’s pickers to receive verbal instructions and relay confirmation back to the warehouse management system as they scurry across the 170,000-square-foot warehouse floor.
In the typical voice directed application that Eastern Bag & Paper has implemented, warehouse workers are outfitted with belt-mounted client servers and headsets that connect to the servers, says Don Burton, the company’s vice president of operations. As the company’s pickers go through their workday, they are guided by a computer-controlled voice that tells them where to go in the warehouse and what to do when they get there. And once they’ve finished a task, the pickers confirm their actions by speaking back into their headsets’ microphones, prompting the application to record the transaction.
“For instance, it tells him to go to aisle ‘A’, slot 101,” says Burton. “When he gets to aisle ‘A’, slot 101, there’s a two digit check number, he voices that in and then the system will tell him how many cases to pick. It’ll say ‘pick five cases.’ He’ll take his first case and as he’s putting it on the pallet, he’ll voice in ‘grab one,’ which means he’s picked one case. The system will then tell him to ‘pick four cases’ and it will count down that way.”
So, in effect, the system has minimized the potential for picking error by directing the picker to the correct spot, verifying that by the two-digit check number, and verifying the correct number of cases were picked by the countdown. And once the picker has picked the last case in that slot, the application then will tell him to go to the next slot and the same process starts over again.
With picking inaccuracies a major concern in distribution warehouses, voice directed picking software might be the answer jan/san distributors are looking for.
From a distributor’s perspective, the big draw is voice technology’s potential to boost both speed and accuracy of order picking in the warehouse. In fact, recent studies on the technology show that picking accuracy is dramatic, and an accuracy rate of 99.9 percent is usually achieved. Also, if a warehouse is moving to voice directed picking from a traditional paper-based system, order-picking errors are usually reduced by 80 to 90 percent.
After implementing its voice picking software in May 2007, Eastern Bag & Paper quickly recognized a reduction in picking errors — the company’s main reason for going with the technology, says Burton.
“We had been on a quest to become more accurate before we went to voice picking,” he says. “We had gotten our accuracy rate in the warehouse to 99.5 percent before we went to voice. So that was one error for every 1,000 cases. But with the voice, we’re now at 99.95 percent accuracy, which is one error every 2,000 cases.”
By cutting its picking errors in half, Burton says Eastern Bag has also increased its warehouse productivity by 11 percent.
“Voice picking is a productivity enhancer in several ways,” says Jon Schreibfeder, president of Effective Inventory Management Inc., Coppell, Texas. “First of all, you have verification that your picker is picking the correct items and you have instant updates of your computer records. You don’t stand the chance that you’ll have errors made not only from picking the wrong item but the wrong quantity, but keying the wrong quantity or the wrong item into the computer system.”
Voice picking also makes the data entry operation hands free. Pickers don’t need to hold an RF device or scan a barcode to confirm a pick task, thereby leaving both hands free for physical movement of goods. This alone significantly boosts operator productivity.
Another added bonus to today’s voice picking software is the solution’s multiple language capability, which allows the pickers to perform all aspects of their job using the language in which they are most comfortable. So, if a picker’s native language is Spanish, he can receive orders and communicate with the system in Spanish. It also helps take away the issue of having to read printed labels that are in English, which some Spanish-speaking immigrants may not be able to read. Other common languages offered besides English and Spanish include French, German and Russian to name a few.
“As it turns out, the Spanish speaking workers that we have in our warehouse prefer the English,” says Burton. “And it actually helps them with their English. But we do have it available if someone wants to use Spanish.”
The voice application also helps promote safety in the warehouse, says Burton. When a picker reports to work, the system instructs the picker to do a pre-trip inspection on the pallet jack.
“It will actually take him through all of the items he’s supposed to check on the machine for safety sake and correct operation,” says Burton. “And once he’s verified everything is in good operating order that will actually generate for us a vehicle condition report for that machine for the night. So, that also helps us comply with OSHA regulations and it gives us a record of checking the machine and signing off that everything is OK.”
Software developers also say voice picking software helps reduce or eliminate revenue spent on material costs in the warehouse such as printers, paper and other material associated with alternate methods.
Although voice picking can be advantageous for a distributor’s warehouse operation, most have balked at implementation.
“It’s the cost,” Schreibfeder explains. “It’s a significant expense. And what you’re looking at with a payback is usually 12 to 18 months. Unless you have a significant amount of orders that you’re picking, you’re not going to get that. It will work, but it’s not going to be a cost-effective system. Typically, it makes sense to go to this type of technology if you’re picking 400 to 500 line items a day.”
In fact, the cost of implementation for Eastern Bag & Paper, including the hardware, the software and the training came in at about $231,000, says Burton — not exactly what many distributors envision paying for a warehouse application.
Besides cost, another reason most distributors have been hesitant to adopt the technology is because of the down time and training that is typically associated with installing new software.
“That was my biggest concern going in,” says Burton. “It is such a big change that you think people are going to be reluctant to do it and they’re going to be complaining about it and resisting it. That didn’t happen and I was pleasantly surprised by that. They embraced it pretty quickly and the training was quick — a couple days and a guy was trained.”
Because Eastern Bag & Paper has had so much success with its current voice application they are considering introducing it into their other two warehouse locations. And, with software developers working feverishly on adding to the list of voice directed warehouse applications, the company’s Milford warehouse could soon be completely voice driven, says Burton.
“Right now we’re just using it for picking, but they’re developing programs for us that we can also use for receiving, for putting away product, replenishing and cycle counting,” he says.
With a complete voice-driven warehouse on the horizon, one can only imagine the benefits.
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