Hard choices at the face

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Whenever the subject of picking comes up these days, it is almost inevitable that discussion will quickly turn to voice picking. A technology that was seen as a bit of a Cinderella only a few years ago is now firmly established as something that must be considered whenever a new system is needed.

TDG recently announced it was investing in voice picking systems in the UK and the Netherlands to maximise the efficiency of operations. The UK systems have been commissioned at two warehouses, and are already improving reporting capabilities and creating a faster pick.

In the Netherlands, voice picking is being used at TDG Nijmegen and TDG Veenendaal. “We needed to replace the scanning equipment and RF network at Veenendaal, and after much research decided on a voice picking system with SAP software,” says Margot Kokke, project leader for voice picking at Veenendaal.

TDG is using systems from Red Prairie and Psion Teklogix.

TDG says that, although minimal, there have been some teething problems in the initial phases of implementation. Most potential problems were foreseen before the systems were in use, like changes to some pick-locations to make the work-flow route more efficient but others have turned up after a few weeks – in particular, the ‘best-phone-voice’ syndrome.

“Some order-pickers had to re-record their voice profile after some days,” says Kokke. “It appears that most colleagues articulate better during recording than when tasks are confirmed during order-picking, making it difficult for the computer to recognise their voices.”

TDG reckons that, apart from minor hiccups, the benefits of having voice picking are considerable – it is easier for new employees to pick up this type of work more rapidly, and employees do not have to carry scanning equipment to identify locations or scanning stickers; and all the sites have seen an increase in productivity and quality.

Where it has been implemented in the UK, TDG warehouse staff pick around 500,000 units a week at each site, which are collated onto pallets for dispatch. Using the old paper based picking-system, pallet integrity was reliant on the experience of operatives to safely construct one using widely differing shapes and sized products – but with 3,500 locations, operatives could be sent to up to 2,000 locations on each shift, which led to the possibility of picking errors.

“I admit there was a bit of apprehension as we moved from traditional pick to the most sophisticated system available, but everyone rose to the challenge and we’re delighted with the results,” says Sue Spencer, TDG IT project manager. “The technology is incredibly flexible, and we are particularly pleased with the scope it gives us to improve our efficiency levels still further.”

Duncan Smillie, managing director of Psion Teklogix, says: “Everybody seems to be talking about voice recognition in the logistics world at the moment as more and more companies realise that the introduction of voice recognition systems that enable order pickers to have their eyes and hands free during their daily routine, can have a dramatic impact on productivity levels.”

Smillie points out that voice technology is not only beneficial in an order picking scenario. The system can also be applied to achieve significant efficiencies throughout the entire supply chain operation – from goods-in to put-away, replenishment and even dispatch. “In fact, one of our clients runs its entire operation on voice technology and the gains have been phenomenal.”

Highlighting the growing acceptance of the technology is a recent order from retailer Wilkinson which is investing some £1.4 million in a new picking solution using Vocollect voice technology running on the Psion Teklogix Workabout Pro Speech multi-purpose data collection terminal.

Voice picking might be grabbing the headlines but there are plenty of other ways companies can improve the efficiency of picking operations. For example, upgrading a fleet of warehouse trucks has paid dividends for a Scottish paper merchant in terms of improved performance, efficiency and reliability.

Donald Murray Paper replaced its narrow aisle stacker/order pickers with the latest Omni DCR model from Atlet. “Uptime is critical to us and with these trucks we are seeing around five per cent less down time,” says warehouse and distribution manager Tom Slater.

The 66,000 sq ft warehouse has narrow aisle racking up to 9.4m high providing storage for almost 15,000 pallet locations holding nearly 6,000 stock lines. Almost three quarters of orders, from a single ream of paper to multiple pallet loads, are delivered the same day with many customers in the Glasgow area taking advantage of Murray’s 60 minute service. In addition to its four Omni DCRs, Murray has seven Atlet TP Select low level order pickers, an Atlet OPM medium level order picker and four counterbalance trucks. Seventy per cent of picking is completed from ground level using the low level order pickers. These have been supplied with a rising platform.

The four Atlet Omni DCRs operate wire guided in the high bay narrow aisle warehouse where they are used for a variety of pallet handling and order picking tasks. Orders picked during daytime tend to involve more items whereas orders processed during the evening, including those for late night delivery, tend to be smaller in number but heavier in total. Picked items are handled to the centre aisle – where there is more space for stacking – ready for collection and transfer to the low bay area for order assembly and despatch.

Specialist toy and gift retailer Tobar has improved the performance of its picking systems with installation of a £1 million conveyor system capable of handling 1,000 orders an hour at its warehouse near Beccles in Suffolk. Tobar moved recently into a £10m head office and warehouse with more than 6,000 pallet spaces. In the new warehouse a conveyor system from European Conveyor Systems links a number of picking zones on two mezzanine floors with consolidation and packing areas on the ground floor. It also delivers products to the picking zones on the upper floors to replenish stocks there.

Each order-pick starts with Tobar’s warehouse management system issuing a unique bar code label that holds the destinations for each carton or tote. An operator based on the second floor mezzanine then places an empty tote/carton with that label on to the conveyor at the order induct station, and the tote and order manifest are ‘married’ by a hand-held scanner.

Each tote is routed automatically to the next appropriate pick zone as its label is read by the bar-code scanners positioned around the conveyor system. Once an order is complete the totes are routed automatically to the correct packing spur. Separate areas are designated for packing single-tote and multi-tote orders.

There are gains in the picking process that can be made for a relatively modest outlay. One possibility is to replace static pick faces with gravity fed live roller tracking such as Span Track from The Live Storage Company.

With gravity fed live storage, static shelving is replaced with sloping roller beds so that items simply roll down from the high to low end. This is ideal where first-in, first-out picking is required because there is a continuous flow of items from the rear to the front of the picking zone.

Because pickers do not need to reach into the storage area no space is required above and beside items. Additional tracking can be installed so that more of the available space or volume is used. Vertical spacing is dictated only by the maximum height of the items being picked. Up to 25 per cent more storage is possible in the same volume. For example, Sortex, which supplies optical sorters for food commodities, reduced the space occupied by line-side storage in sub-assembly production areas by around 10 per cent by installing Span Track.

Flowstore Systems recently designed and installed a storage and order picking system for pharmaceutical distributor Lexon (UK) at its 80,000 square foot warehouse in Redditch. Flowstore installed bays of LS2 carton live storage units and ET2 Ergo-Tilt shelving to provide for sequential and optimum efficiency of order picking of fast and medium throughput products. LS2 enables stock to be continuously fed into the rear of the racking units, without disruption on the order picking face while Ergo-tilt shelving offered increased storage capacity within a slim racking profile.

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