If there is one supply chain technology that has seized people’s imaginations it has to be voice picking. Once it became clear that the technology actually worked, it became clear that there are some obvious advantages – accuracy of some 99 per cent and productivity rising by some 15 per cent.
For a manual operation, the return on investment period can be as short as three months.
Voice picking has been taken up strongly in sectors of the retail market and is now starting to push into further areas such as pharmaceuticals, automotive and speciality retailing. Vocollect now has some 13,000 users in the UK.
One of the big advantages is that it can be set to work in any language so a Romanian can work alongside a Pole or an India as easily as three Scotsmen.
However, says Anton du Preez, Vocollect’s business development manager, some sectors in the UK have been slower to take up voice picking than their continental counterparts. In part at least, he says, this is down to the fact that UK companies were early adopters of RF scanning technology and have felt little need to change.
However, as these systems come up for renewal, companies will have to decide whether to update existing systems or look at alternatives such as voice.
Vocollect has been moving to deal with another issue. Larger companies might want to install systems in distribution centres in several countries in Europe and ensuring that installations are carried out to the same standards at all the sites is an issue.
To meet this need, Vocollect, which works through a network of resellers, has introduced a certification scheme under the name “Vocollect Voice Partner Programme”.
VoiteQ was recently named the first UK partner to be certified under the programme which ensures that voice partners are given the right knowledge, quality training and capabilities to be successful.
VoiteQ chief executive David Stanhope says: “We were Vocollect’s first reseller in the UK and the first certified repair centre in the UK, so it seems fitting that we are now the first certified Vocollect Voice Solution Provider.”
“VoiteQ has been working with Vocollect since 1998, and in fact it is one of Vocollect’s first international partners. This certification validates its experience within the voice industry, and the value provided by Vocollect through the Voice Solution Provider Program,” says Anton du Preez.
There is also increasing interest in using voice in other areas of operation. Anton du Preez points out that, while the RoI for voice picking is measured in months, it is more difficult to make the business case for other sectors of operation such as goods in. Nevertheless, he says, it makes sense for companies, that are using voice picking, to look at voice for other areas of operation.
Neil Whittaker, divisional director warehouse and distribution Europe at FKI Logistex, says: “When performed manually, picking will often be a major source of errors, expense and poor efficiency levels. Automation of the picking function dramatically increases the accuracy and productivity, cutting costs by reducing the time taken to pick an order, as well as reducing the cost of errors.
Today, pick-to-light (and put-to-light for stock replenishment) systems are the dominant system. Although other systems, such as pick-to-voice are technically feasible, the clarity and easy-of-use makes pick-to-light the best approach for most applications. Typically a pick-to-light system will increase productivity by 50 per cent over a paper system and is widely deployed in a range of industries, particularly the rapidly-growing e-commerce and mail-order sectors.
Voice-directed picking is becoming the technology of choice in some applications, particularly where RF-based mobile picking hardware is already in place. With voice-directed systems, computer-generated voice commands give pickers instructions. Voice picking is particularly suited for slower-moving items and for facilities where there are long distances between picking areas.
Voice devices can also complement light-based systems. Light, and voice-automated, systems free pickers from having to carry around paper pick instructions and can dramatically improve accuracy and productivity because of how well they optimise the workflow.
Automation of the picking process will continue to grow, as warehouses find manual systems make their companies uncompetitive. Distribution centres will make use of more comprehensive and integrated software that will integrate the picking with the other systems within the company, helping to further improve efficiency as well as providing valuable management information and clear evidence of the return on investment achieved by automating the picking process.”
Many companies now have multiple distribution channels i.e. retail stores, web sites, catalogues and wholesale outlets. The ability to monitor stock levels from any location and keep to promised delivery time frames is vital to maintaining a competitive advantage. With this in mind, picking systems must deliver more dynamic and flexible results to deal with orders from receipt to dispatch. In 2008 we are seeing growing demand for systems based on service-oriented architecture (SOA).
Graham Boner of Diamond Phoenix says: “We have identified that communicating in real time, allows up-to-the-second data; not only to track specific orders throughout the picking process, but also supply collective data allowing better planning and management decisions throughout the supply chain.”
Boner points to a project for Parker Hannifin, which distributes hydraulic fittings. After analysing the existing system, which was using 6m high, static shelving with man-up order pickers and paper pack lists, the system was to install a single pod of four Diamond Phoenix horizontal carousels with integrated pick and put-to-light. The system also had the ability to pick six orders simultaneously. Completing the package was a take away and order consolidation’ conveyor system.
Using Diamondware software interfaced to the host system produced significant results. Increased picking efficiencies were up by 400 per cent, while order completion times were significantly reduced. Accuracy levels were improved to 99.99 per cent with the new system taking up just 40 per cent of the floor space used by the previous system.
Boner says: “The flexibility of the system allows our client to keep pace with the changing demands of their customers while maintaining a cost-effective and efficient output.”
Tony Beales, director of Business Computer Projects (BCP) points out that the biggest benefits of voice picking are obtained in low margin, high volume, labour intensive case picking operations.
Because of this, the food service industry and grocery retailers and wholesalers are leading the way in adopting the technology. Accuracy and productivity are critical in these low margin, labour intensive operations, and the use of voice technology delivers this by freeing both the hands and the eyes for the picking task. The hands-free operation is also particularly suitable for picking frozen foods and chilled foods, where gloves hamper the handling of paper or radio data terminals.
The biggest cost benefit, says Beales, is increased accuracy, and this is frequently used on its own to cost justify the adoption of voice technology. However, the cost of a picking error is frequently underestimated, and of course differs for wholesalers and for retailers distributing to their own stores.
He points out that for retailers, the greatest cost arising from picking errors is often the cost of checking orders on delivery to stores. In most cases, the improved accuracy arising from the use of voice technology is such that there is no longer any need to perform this check at all.
Terran Churcher, managing director of Codegate, says: “The trend towards providing computing power in the hands of the worker has focused attention on interaction with the individual and process methodology which supports his efforts. This means in some environments a voice activated system best directs the operator, in others active AutoID response ensures error free picking. The key is early involvement of the operators in the design process and adoption of best practice when piloting the proposed solution.
“If you want faster reaction / cycle times, on-time delivery, same-day delivery, high picking accuracy, order fulfilment, manpower savings, store friendly picking, RFID, tracking, tracing, information transparency and visibility with a significant reduction in damaged stock, then automation is the only way forward,” says David Hibbett, business development manager at SSI Schaefer.
“Automation in distribution has matured in the past three years with new concepts, better technology and system integration compatibility. However, there are still many companies who consider automation to be non-beneficial but for all the wrong reasons.
“Project requirements are paramount when considering switching from manual to automated with many pointers to consider, including; economic justification, reviewing overall business processes and validating cost implications, including manpower and cost per unit.”
But ultimately, says Hibbett, automation systems are more cost beneficial than traditional systems. Automation is proven to optimise the supply chain beyond the walls of the warehouse itself. New supply chain concepts require new technologies with different management skills.
He points out that automation replaces staff for replenishment, handling and indirect staffing such as inventory control and cycle counting while uncoupling of work areas for receiving, replenishment, picking and shipping allows sustained, standard performance.
An ergonomic environment can save a distributor as much as £8,000 per lost employee at the distribution centre level, says Hibbett. “Technology to present the product to the picker is no longer the limiting factor to productivity. Ergonomic stations additionally offer accuracy at source and a significant reduction in injury rates.
“Ergonomics means ‘designed to minimise physical effort and discomfort, and hence maximise efficiency.’ This is what each and every one of Schaefer’s picking machines is designed to achieve.”
Schaefer’s ergonomic picking stations include higher picking rates per picker per hour, low error rate during picking and support to the picker by means of technological devices, such as radio frequency, hand-held scanners and light sensors just to name a few. Stations also feature short reaching times allowing optimal working height and limited reaching distance.
Intelligent picking systems assure the highest levels of customer service, reduce cost and are a major factor for company success and growth, says Rudolf Hansl, managing director of TGW Mechanics. However, these systems must pay back typically within three years.
“The choice of design for order preparation and delivery systems is especially important in an integrated supply chain where implementing an optimum picking system that meets the needs of the business can generate significant competitive advantages. However there’s more to consider than simply picking performance – other important criteria include error rates, load security, picking by branch or batch and traceability down to item level. Moreover, costs can be reduced by factors such as optimised personnel deployment, space utilisation, stock reduction and lower volumes of returned items,” says Hansl.
“Highly automated hybrid systems or fully automated picking systems are means of maximising these competitive advantages. ‘Goods-to-man’ is the key concept, particularly where reducing personnel costs is an issue. The basic principle here is to (virtually) eliminate the walking distances the operative has to cover in order assembly and to make use of the entire working time for the core activity of picking. The employee is supplied with the goods for picking via automated transport systems in the required sequence direct to their workstation.”
Hansl points out that ergonomic issues are also given a high priority at these workstations, and together with the presentation of the products this cuts the error rate drastically and also the space requirement is greatly reduced because the system does not need areas for picking gangways. Staff numbers can also be cut significantly. In applications of this kind pick rates of 800 – 1000 picks per hour per employee can be achieved and sustained and an extremely high level of accuracy maintained.
Goods supply “bottlenecks” at the workstations.
“In a Goods-to-Man solution the constant supply of goods is a crucially important factor: the right goods available at the right workstations, at the right time and in the right quantities must be ensured – a logistic challenge par excellence. Providing efficient replenishment and continuous flow will ensure that the picker is kept supplied continuously, reducing searching effort.
“The more dynamic this supply, the more efficient the entire picking system can be. However, it is supply dynamism where high-performance picking systems have, in the past, stumbled and failed. Only a few years ago, automatic storage and retrieval technology applied in small parts warehouse systems reached maximum velocities of 4 m/s with accelerations of 2 m/s2. They were also limited in height, typically to a maximum of 12 metres. However, current warehouse systems are significantly more efficient in this respect. The TGW Mustang mini-load automated storage and retrieval machine for example, achieves maximum velocities of 6 m/s, with an acceleration of 4 m/s2 (similar to super car performance).
Hansl says a further prerequisite for achieving the best performance in highly automated systems is a highly ergonomic design for the picking work stations. The reach and visual ranges needed to perform the tasks must be aligned to the various physical builds of the employees. Tilting the ‘pick from’ totes at the workstation is a good example of how the view offered of the contents can be improved while making the goods easier to reach. The size and weight of the goods also need to be taken into account.
“A further aspect in workstation design is providing the employees with easy to follow instructions in the picking process. Pick-by-light and pick-to-light show what movements need to be made without the employee having to first search for the goods to be picked, while the quantity required is provided on a display,” he says.