With 3PL clients progressively requiring shorter-term contracts of anywhere between two- to five-years, logistics service providers must calculate any automation investments for a much shorter ROI than a typical industrial user. This makes heavily capitalized equipment a poor option for them. Equally important is the scalability of the automation as a 3PL provider’s client needs increase or decrease, and the flexibility to move the automation for use in a new location, when and if the contract does terminate.
In most DCs, picking is the most labor-intensive function, and usually can provide the greatest cost-savings when automated. IT-based picking options, in particular voice-activated picking systems, can provide the ideal automation solution to streamline a 3PL’s throughput cost-effectively, while realizing a short-term ROI.
The Need for Automated Picking
One 3PL provider that has aggressively embraced IT picking automation is GENCO. This third-party logistics provider manages 80 distribution centers totaling 30 million square feet throughout the United States and Canada. Its clients, representing some of the largest companies in the world, handle diverse product lines, from consumer goods and electronics to medical devices and pet products. These require flexible and scalable automated systems for warehouse management and throughput.
GENCO’s basis for selecting technology improvements is anchored on four criteria:
1) the technology needs to be proven, flexible and scalable to multiple warehouse management system (WMS) platforms;
2) it needs to generate results in productivity, accuracy and waste reduction;
3) it needs to achieve a solid return on investment; and
4) the technology needs to become operational quickly, with minimal disruption to work areas.
“When we consider upgrading automation in one of our DCs, we evaluate what is the most applicable technology,” said Crystal Welker, vice president of solutions design and continuous improvement at GENCO. “It is very specific to the site. We have a variety of technologies that we review to see what makes the most sense.”
GENCO turned to its technology partner, Speech Interface Design (SID), for guidance on the proper application of technologies and industry best practices. After conducting a business process optimization assessment, a key technology that SID recommended was highly automated voice-picking systems for eight of GENCO’s DCs.
These DCs were using RF scanning, paper or less-automated voice systems. SID focused on maximizing the DCs’ throughput, considering the unique business processes of each of GENCO’s clients when optimizing its workflows with voice-based solutions. The DCs’ multiple types of picking activities enhanced by voice included full pallets, layered pallets, case pick-to-pallet, pick-to-conveyor, pick-to-tote, pallet-build, and non-conveyable item picking applications.
“We tend to stay with more flexible systems, which can easily be moved,” said Welker. “Permanent automated systems are difficult to justify because our client contracts are typically only three to five years. That need for flexibility, combined with the fact that our DCs have a high number of piece-picks of relatively slower-moving SKUs, makes voice picking an excellent option for us.”
“Reducing the number of times the picker handles the product is critical to improving efficiency,” explains Welker. “With a big conveyor system, product is being touched twice; once when the picker puts it on the conveyor, and then touching it again to move it off the conveyor to load it onto a pallet load. With voice, the product is picked up only once to put it on the pallet, and then it is done.”
Voice Picking Technology
For GENCO, SID configured and implemented customer-specific voice-based workflow solutions, leveraging latest-generation technology from Vocollect, a business unit of Intermec, Inc., developer and manufacturer of voice solutions for mobile workers. Utilizing Vocollect’s VoiceLink and VoiceDirect enterprise connectors, the solution integrated with multiple different warehouse management systems.
The voice system opens a dynamic dialog between GENCO’s DC pick teams and its WMS, enabling complete operational control. The system platform allows GENCO’s DC managers to monitor activities in real time, alter assignments that are already in progress, generate and evaluate reports, and handle special situations by shifting workers and job priorities. Accessed via a web browser, GENCO’s DC managers can react quickly to everyday exceptions and changes on the floor to better ensure timely and complete order fulfillment.
GENCO workers wear a headset and a portable, belt-mounted speech recognition device (The device also can be mounted to the material handling equipment) which communicates to a host computer or WMS. This is how the voice system works:
1.) an assignment from the WMS is transmitted to the picker’s user-worn voice terminal via WLAN, which translates assignment data into audible commands;
2.) the picker hears instructions and travels to the pick location, eyes up and hands free;
3.) arriving at the pick location, the picker speaks check digits to confirm the correct slot location;
4.) the picker performs the task, then provides spoken responses to confirm the actions taken;
5.) verbal responses are translated to data and transmitted back to the WMS; and
6.) the picker then receives the next assignment while traveling to the next location.
The system eliminates the need for paper, labels, or RF screens to read or handle, and there is no need to key in information, which enables operators to pick with both hands instead of just one. Operators simply listen, pick and speak.
The remote terminals interface with a network controller to provide sub-second response times. The picked product and order are thereafter closely monitored throughout the system, through to shipping.
More than 350 GENCO workers are now using voice systems in eight DCs, across multiple WMS platforms. The minimal disruption to operations and fast user training, combined with improved productivity, accuracy and safety, have helped GENCO reach an ROI of one year or less.
“With our company’s Lean initiative, we are especially pleased that this voice system has helped us save our customers millions of dollars every year with improved performance and waste reduction,” said Welker.