Among all of the job activities in Perkins Paper's warehouse, order picking arguably garners the most attention. That's because when customers place an order with the Taunton, Mass.-based distributor, they expect their order to be delivered on time and to be accurate.

Unfortunately, like every other jan/san distributor across the country, incorrect amounts or worse, wrong products, slip through the cracks and make their way onto customers' doorsteps as a result of picking errors by warehouse personnel when filling orders.

With mispicks being a significant customer service issue, not to mention a costly mistake, Perkins recently found a way to eliminate these business snafus — by implementing voice directed picking software.

"Like other companies, we're always trying to improve service to our customers," says Walter Harrigan, the company's senior vice president. "Our main goal moving to voice was to reduce shorts and wrongs, which improves customer service and also reduces our costs. If you don't send the right item to a customer, you have to taxi it out to them and that costs a lot, probably $50 to $60 per error."

With warehouse mispicks straining customer relationships and bogging down warehousing operations, more distributors in the jan/san industry are slowly starting to recognize that voice directed picking is a logical solution for the future.

Smooth Operators

Voice picking technology is by no means new, but in the jan/san industry those who have implemented this technology are still in the minority. For these select few, they say order picking is now quite simple and dummy-proof.

Using voice recognition and speech synthesis, voice-picking technology allows a distributor's warehouse pickers to communicate directly with its warehouse management system (WMS). Using a wireless, wearable computer coupled with a headset and microphone, warehouse workers are able to receive instructions and verbally confirm their actions back to the host system.

Before every product retrieval, the order picker is instructed by a computer-controlled voice to go to the storage position of a particular product. After arriving at the storage position, to ensure that the picker is at the correct slot, the picker verbally relays the storage position's number into their microphone. The system will then instruct the picker to select the number of items to be picked. For instance, if a picker is told to select five cases, the picker would speak into his or her microphone, "grab one," and the system would continue to count down until the appropriate number of products are picked.

So, in effect, the system has minimized the potential for picking error by directing the picker to the correct location, confirming the location with a check number, and verifying the correct numbers of cases were picked by the countdown. And once the picker has picked the last case in that slot, the software application then will instruct the picker to go to the next slot where the process starts over again.

Voice's potential to boost both the accuracy and speed of picking orders in the warehouse is a big draw, says Pat Haray, director of operations for Milford, Conn.-based Eastern Bag & Paper Group. Studies released by voice picking software manufacturers 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 — which the majority of jan/san distributors still use today — order-picking errors can be reduced by upwards of 80 to 90 percent over time.

After implementing voice picking software in its 150,000 square foot warehouse in May of 2007, Eastern Bag & Paper quickly recognized a reduction in picking errors that continues to decrease as years go on. Nearly four years after scrapping its paper pick tickets for voice, the company is making just .45 errors for every 1,000 cases picked (upwards of 16,000 cases per day are being picked).

Paper picking, by nature, is subject to human inaccuracy. But with voice, warehouse pickers are receiving instructions verbally via their headsets, so they don't have to return to the warehouse office to get the next pick list. They also don't have to read picking slips while operating forklifts. This keeps the picker concentrating fully on picking and translates into considerable improvements in productivity over the course of a shift, says Harrigan. In fact, Perkins Paper, who implemented voice technology in its main distribution center in 2009, has reduced its picking errors by more than 60 percent and boosted picking productivity by 17 percent over its prior paper picking method.

Voice picking software also helps reduce or eliminate revenue spent on material costs in the warehouse such as printers, paper and other items associated with alternate picking methods.

Another popular method distributors use for product selection is radio frequency (RF) picking. RF, a step above paper picking, is still time consuming and inefficient when compared to voice picking, says Tom Schmid, vice president of operations for Indianapolis-based HP Products, which currently uses RF, but is considering the switch to voice in the near future. Picking up a hand-held terminal, reading the instruction from the screen, pressing a few keys and then scanning a bar code all takes time — time that does not contribute to the real task of picking product. RF terminals also are susceptible to get damaged in a warehouse setting, as they are being picked up and put down constantly, which increases the risk of them being dropped or crushed.

"What I don't like about RF picking is the fact that it's not hands free," says Schmid. "If you're trying to pick five gallon pales or pick giant boxes of tissues or towels, you need a couple of hands. So what a picker finds himself doing is setting the guns down, using his two hands to pick the order, put it on his pallet and then he picks up his gun again and he pushes the button and then he goes on to the next item."

Breaking Through, But Still A Little Muffled

Although voice can be advantageous for distributors from a customer service and productivity standpoint, most distributors are still hesitant to adopt the technology. Distributors say the hefty price tag associated with the technology is one concern, but Eastern Bag & Paper and Perkins have seen a return on investment in less than a year after implementation.

The possibility for a quick ROI has distributors taking serious second looks at the technology nowadays instead of passing it by. In fact, Dade Paper, Miami, is currently installing a new WMS with voice picking. Set to go live in October of 2011, the company envisions better productivity and increased safety in its 180,000 square foot warehouse.

"I think it's going to work tremendously," says Andy Baltzell, general manager of the company's Miami branch. "It's going to pick up productivity, it's a lot safer, and it will reduce accidents. It just makes sense that you're not reading a piece of paper and driving. Instead you're listening to someone talk. It makes sense that it would be safer."

Another reason distributors were hesitant to move to this technology in the past was the time it took for implementation and the misconceived notion that training workers on voice is difficult and time-consuming.

Distributors who have implemented voice-based order picking in their warehouses say the technology is the easiest of any picking method to train warehouse personnel on.

"The training period is much easier with the voice system," says Haray. "We can get somebody going and selecting in less than a week. While before on paper-based picking the training period would take anywhere from three to five weeks."

Voice systems require each user to "train" the system for his or her individual speech pattern, dialect or language. Voice training usually takes only a few minutes per user. Most solutions have a multiple language capability, which allows pickers to perform all aspects of their job using the language they are most comfortable with. So, if a picker's native tongue is Spanish, he or she can receive orders and communicate with the system entirely in Spanish. Other common languages offered include French, German, Chinese and Russian to name a few.

Because training and getting warehouse workers to embrace the technology is quite easy, distributors say it is a major selling point.

"It's by far the easiest training vehicle I've ever seen," says Schmid. "In terms of training the people, all you do is just talk. The system will tell you what to do and you just tell it what you did. It doesn't get any simpler than that. You don't have to know what buttons to press and what function key to bring up on a RF gun or how to toggle out or toggle back."

As distributors search for ways to streamline their warehousing operations, voice picking technology is considered a seamless solution to decrease errors and improve productivity. All it takes is for distributors to start lending an ear.