Picking for profitability

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There are currently 480 members operating more than 6,000 stores that make up the Nisa retail business. Among them are Budgens, Costcutter and Jacksons. The rapidly expanding Nisa-Today’s group runs a central distribution service (CDS) for member stores, with ambient and licensed products being handled out of three warehouses in Scunthorpe and chilled and frozen foods from a modern, dual temperature facility in Stoke-on-Trent.

In 2003, Nisa-Today’s launched an initiative to introduce the industry’s most advanced technology for order picking within its Scunthorpe facilities. With paper-based picking in use at the time, the group opted to bypass leading RF scanning-based picking technologies in favour of a cutting-edge, yet well- proven voice-recognition system, for maximum future proofing. After a series of phased trials Vocollect’s Talkman voice-directed system was gradually introduced for 360 pickers across five shifts.

Supplied by voice technology specialist VoiteQ, the Talkman system integrates seamlessly with Nisa-Today’s AquiTec SCM/400 WMS, which carries significant benefits for the buying group. Firstly, it has allowed it to retain a high level of familiarity through continued use of existing working processes, such as releasing work assignments. This in turn has meant that users, requiring minimal user training, have readily accepted and welcomed the voice system.

Additionally, the combination of Vocollect’s voice technology with the AquiTec WMS’s in-built performance enhancing features, including the ability to track inventory and to manage the labour efficiency of staff, has resulted in a ‘killer application’ for Nisa-Today’s by providing high accuracy and productivity results.

Stephen Hunter, managing director of logistics at Nisa-Today’s, says: “We realised early on that to introduce innovative, voice-based procedures into the warehouse, we would need a rock solid foundation. Fortunately for us, the SCM/400 WMS that we were already using is one of the market’s most robust offerings, with the stability to easily support the Talkman T2 voice system. VoiteQ provided middleware for integrating the two systems with the minimum of disruption to established working processes.”

Meeting demand

Nisa-Today’s typically has up to 100 concurrent pickers on the warehouse floor at any time, during the early, late, night and weekend shifts. Previously, pickers would use paper label lists, returning to collect a new list after completing each pick assignment. Now pickers wear Talkman T2 terminals on their belts and are instead able to receive picking instructions directly from the WMS via a two-way headset.

The group of ‘Super Users’, who were involved with the voice initiative from the onset, were responsible for training the remaining picking staff, with trainees undergoing a two-week induction period. Super Users were issued with special listening kits enabling them to hear the instructions pickers were receiving and the responses they were feeding back.

“The whole training process was incredibly easy. In some ways it was easier than the procedures we were replacing, as the only change for business users is that they communicate with the system using the most natural form of communication they know – speech,” says Hunter.

Nisa-Today’s chose to run existing Label Pick procedures in parallel with the voice pick application initially, enabling roll out as quickly or as slowly as the business dictated. Hunter explains: “We used a Reference-SRF card, which indicated to the user whether to use voice, labels or both, for any given assignment. Running them simultaneously guaranteed a risk-free implementation for us, allowing a gradual increase in the number of voice pickers as they increased confidence through their training.”

One year on, with the migration to voice picking now complete, Nisa-Today’s is using Talkman voice-directed technology for every picking task. Even though it has retained the use of barcodes as check digits for added contingency with high value items such as cigarettes, the benefits of voice are already shining through.

Pick accuracy

Nisa-Today’s envisages a 10% overall increase in warehouse productivity and an ROI of approximately 12 to 18 months from its voice system. Often lists and handheld devices are responsible for delays through loss of momentum, as users repeatedly put down their instructions to pick and load a product.

As pickers are now able to work ‘hands-free, eyes-free’ the general pace is increased, resulting in greater productivity. The Talkman’s interoperability with the AquiTec WMS also means that order details are fed directly through to the database in real time for easy invoicing with minimal data input.

Additionally Nisa-Today’s has reported a dramatic rise in pick accuracy to 99.8% with the new voice system, up 50% on previous picking methods. Because it will not allow users to progress onto the next pick until it is satisfied with the status of the current pick, it is virtually impossible to make a mistake. This method eliminates the occurrence of mis-keying that is common with handheld terminal methods, and therefore also saves on delivery shortages or over-picks that take time to discover and are costly to rectify.

As safety was also a specific concern for Nisa Today’s, a key factor in its decision to choose a voice-based solution was that it would enable users to focus on the task in hand, without constantly having to look down at a piece of paper or read a display on a hand held terminal. For a large, high-speed operation such as Nisa-Today’s, where a large number of people and pieces of machinery occupy the warehouse floor at all times, this was deemed critical to the safety of staff.

As a result of the impact that the voice-directed system has had on the fluidity of the company’s supply chain and consequent profitability, not to mention the morale of warehouse employees who enjoy using the new system, the Vocollect Talkman and AquiTec WMS is the preferred combination for future development.

Hunter comments: “Competing effectively in such a vociferous marketplace is always a primary focus for us. We are therefore committed to identifying new ways to inject extra efficiency into the supply chain. The introduction of voice recognition technology has helped us to achieve this, whilst also enhancing the working environment for our employees.”

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