Fast talking

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Brakes distribute food products to caterers who require goods from ambient, chilled and frozen environments. These are delivered from a network of 70 warehouses located across the UK and France. The orders comprise a wide range of brands, including Brakes’ own label, J Seafood, Pauleys, Country Choice and A Taste of Italy, to name but a few. The company has built a strong reputation for timely delivery of quality goods since it was first established in 1958. Today it completes more than 30,000 orders each day for restaurants, hotels, hospitals, catering outlets, schools, businesses and pubs. To support this level of activity an efficient and effective supply chain operation is paramount.

Operations that run like clockwork require, not only, precise co-ordination but also precision timing. Brakes’ Thorpe warehouse runs five and a half days each week, from Sunday night through to Friday evening and some deliveries also need to be carried out on Saturdays. Products arrive at the site from suppliers between 7am and 3pm and the pick faces, are replenished from 8am to 4pm. This is just in time for the night staff to pick the orders that arrive from customers via telesales, fax and email throughout the day. These are loaded directly onto a cage container, ready for placement on the delivery lorries for transportation to the various outlets.

In the past Brakes has used a paper-based picking system within its warehouse operations. Whilst this had fulfilled its role, Brakes was aware that greater efficiencies were possible through the application of a more technical solution within this environment. As the supply chain was becoming more complex with growing customer base and an expanding product range, the paper system was reaching the end of its life. A drive to improve accuracy levels, efficiency, and health and safety standards demanded a dramatic change in the warehouse system. In addition, Brakes wanted to be able to achieve greater flexibility in order to deal with the need within grocery to accurately pick part of a full pack of a particular product – ‘split-pack’ picking.

Also, Brakes required a solution that would adapt to different picking methods used in grocery and frozen goods. In the grocery section of the warehouse, goods are picked to order and packed in cages for delivery. However in the frozen section, picking is carried out in warehouse freezers of minus 20 degrees so these products need to be picked in bulk. For example, six turkeys could be ordered by six different companies at one time and this order would be loaded onto a shelf in the freezer lorry. Only on delivery to the customer would the driver pick each order from the shelves.

The challenges to the new system were numerous and Brakes was looking for a very specific solution that could be customised to fit the requirements precisely. Having investigated the alternatives available for the warehouse, Brakes opted for a voice-directed solution from Vocollect.

Pilot project
In the first instance, a pilot project was initiated to test the proposed system and Vocollect’s partner, VoiteQ was instrumental in making this happen. As part of the pilot project, Brakes tested the Vocollect Talkman T2 wearable computer at its Broughton Astley site and, following a successful pilot, the company rolled out the product to a further 15 sites. In total, 400 Talkman T2 wearable computers were installed across the company.

VoiteQ provided full technical assistance throughout the project and delivered its own proprietary middleware, VoiceMan, which enabled a smooth integration between Vocollect’s voice directed work solution and Brakes’ existing Warehouse Management System (WMS).

‘The whole migration from the back-office to front of house operations was very smooth. Full support was provided by VoiteQ, which meant there was minimum disruption to the processes already in place,’ said Neil Heavisides, distribution centre manager at Brakes’ Thorpe site.

The new voice systems are a simple, yet effective, solution to the challenges facing a busy and complex warehouse operation. They enable the worker to communicate directly with the WMS in real-time by using speech recognition and synthesis technologies to translate data from the host computer into spoken directions for the operative. The user then speaks back to the computer and their speech is translated into data. Once the system is configured it can recognise simple commands from operatives irrespective of their accents or grasp of the local language.

The voice system is designed for minimal error in both verbal communication and the physical handling of goods. At Brakes’ Thorpe site, the system tells the picker where to go, what to pick and whether it’s an entire case or a ‘split-pack’. The user then confirms what has been picked, the amount they have picked and the check number (location) they have picked from. As the Talkman T2 wearable computer is worn on a belt, it enables users to work hands-free and eyes-free, fulfilling Brakes’ strict health and safety policies.

Commenting on the improvements Heavisides said: ‘Vocollect’s voice solution and VoiteQ’s VoiceMan middleware have made the warehouse a lot quieter, ordered and more structured.’ He continued, ‘It makes the flow of picking much more natural, as the paper-based system of old would have workers stopping work and returning for new pick lists but with the new system there is no need for this. We have also seen an improvement in staff morale, as our employees enjoy interacting with the voice systems and they become more productive during their working day; after all, speech is the most natural way of communication. The success of the company is shared by everyone, staff morale and retention is boosted by the satisfaction of a job well done and safer working environment.’

Also, just as productivity has improved, so has the level of accuracy of order picking. This has been significant and, as a result, Brakes expects to achieve a full ROI within 12 to 18 months.

With the increased efficiency, Brakes is now  picking as many as four orders in one assignment. Using the solution further, Brakes is able to use the system to report on consignment/order fulfilment and make adjustments should a particular order be behind or incomplete. The whole solution has speeded up operating processes including that of training new staff to use the system.

Heavisides comments, ‘The Talkman solution is really popular with staff because it is so intuitive to use; so much so, that the voice implementation has cut training time from six to three months, down to just two weeks.’ Voice has proved to be so successful in improving the supply chain, warehouse environment and atmosphere amongst staff that  Brakes is already planning further developments using voice. The company expects to extend its

voice implementation into four more sites across the UK. Once this is completed, it will examine each site individually to see where further improvements can be made.

Vocollect’s Talkman combined with VoiteQ’s VoiceMan solutions has introduced a level of flexibility and efficiency into the warehousing facilities at Brakes that could not have been imagined with the old paper-based systems. The ability to use the systems across all areas, from ambient, through chilled, to frozen environments means that operatives can reap the advantages that voice offers in all areas of their work. In fact, the new systems offer the scope for Brakes to expand from using voice for picking alone to using it for full warehouse operations. This includes goods inwards, putaway, replenishment and loading. And, the benefits of these supply chain efficiencies are felt by everyone as Brakes passes them along the chain to its customers. Brakes’ initiative to improve its supply chain and to implement a voice-solution has enabled the company to provide its customers with accurate, fullystocked orders in time, every time.

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