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Speaking Up

March 1, 2007
Awana Clubs uses voice picking to reduce errors and speed returns and replenishment.

Order errors were having a direct impact on Awana Clubs International's bottom-line performance. Its error rate averaged 9% and climbed as high 40% during its busy season providing youth and children's ministry programs and materials to more than 12,000 churches in the United States.

Awana's ( 82,000sq.-ft. distribution center in Schaumburg, Ill., ships directly to registered churches and stocks 2,400 items ranging from books and pamphlets to games, trophies, apparel, and small novelty items such as pens, pins, stickers and bookmarks. The DC handles more than 160,000 orders per year, with an average of nine-plus items per order. It averages 20 items per order during its peak season from August to October. To better serve customers and improve efficiency the non-profit organization has implemented voice technology throughout the DC.

Seven years ago, it took Awana 11 days to ship an order. "We started making a lot of changes to meet the goal of ‘out the door in 24 [hours],'" explains Steve Hale, director of distribution.

The company added a second shift and hired temporary workers during its busy season. These changes cut shipping time to one day for 99% of orders, but created new problems. "When we brought in temps there were tons of errors," Hale says.

Following its paper-based process, products were picked and sent to packing stations where 70% of orders were audited. During the busy months only 50% were checked before shipping. As a result, many orders were shipped with errors at an estimated $13 cost per error.

The problem was alleviated with the implementation of voice-picking technology from Lucas Systems (Sewickley, Pa., Awana chose to use the voice system from Lucas, named "Jennifer," because of its lower cost, the promise for a faster return on investment, and easy acceptance by employees. Installed in 2004, use of the system expanded incrementally in 2005 and 2006. Awana now uses voice technology to support receiving, replenishment and returns processing.

Flawless implementation
The implementation process was lead by a team of Lucas engineers and Awana staff. Lucas took the lead by asking questions, setting parameters and determining what needed to be accomplished before the system was deployed. The information collected was used to create an engineering study that guided the implementation of the voice-directed picking system.

Lucas customized the technology to fit Awana's order fulfillment processes and requirements. Included were new label printing, short filling and quality control capabilities. Hale says he was pleased that the Lucas engineers did not propose any changes to his operations unless the change could improve processes already in place.

"The implementation was flawless. The key is to manage the project closely and keep an eye on the milestones. You must have someone on your side that knows your system inside and out. You can't just expect the vendor to do it all," Hale says.

The voice system tells order pickers which items and what quantities to pick. Pickers verbally confirm (using a three-digit check string printed on the item location) the quantities and items as they are placed in the appropriate tote for each order. According to Hale, verbal confirmation plays a big part in improving accuracy—incorrect counts used to be his number one cause of errors. Pickers also tell the system if a slot is empty. The system immediately relays that information to managers and employees at a short filling area.

Besides voice picking capabilities, Lucas also helped install quality control functions using bar code scanning at the packing stations. From a maximum of 70% order accuracy before voice technology, Awana is now checking every order that ships. "Our order accuracy out the door is virtually 100%," Hale says.

Accuracy and productivity gains resulting from the voice technology exceeded expectations. "Jennifer paid for itself in less than 13 months, and we didn't even capture the full cost benefits of fewer errors."

Beyond order picking
In 2005 Awana started rolling out the voice-directed technology in other areas. "While accuracy was the main goal of the picking application, productivity was the big driver for adding voice in returns, receiving and replenishment," Hale says.

The voice technology replaced manual, paper-based processes that were inefficient and error-prone. Previously, for example, employees in the returns area would manually look up customer and product codes and tag each returned item with the appropriate location. With the voice technology, they say the customer or invoice number, and the item number, and the system instructs them to place the item in a numbered tote.

Other employees use the same technology to return the items to stock. These employees say the tote number out loud, and the system directs the employee to the first replenishment location. The employee confirms the location and quantity before he or she moves on to the next item in the tote. Similar to picking, verbal confirmation on put-away ensures that the right items are put in the right locations.

"Before Jennifer we had an internal error rate in picking of 9%, and with temps it was more like 35% to 40%," Hale says. Using voice technology in picking and quality control, errors were reduced 80% and order accuracy out the door is approaching 100%. "Although productivity wasn't our driving factor, it went up significantly. We were expecting a 15% productivity increase, but now we are at a 35% improvement. Our average picking productivity was 113 lines per hour per employee. It's now up around 195 to 200 lines per hour, and we've had four employees who have joined the 300 club, picking at the rate of 300 lines per hour for a full shift."

Awana is currently compiling detailed metrics on the returns, replenishment, and receiving functions. In addition to improved productivity, Hale says that better accuracy in replenishment and returns have directly impacted picking accuracy, reducing re-work at the quality control and packing stations.

In addition, the voice technology reduced training time to about two hours, which is important during peak season when the company hires many temporary workers, primarily high school and college students. "Some people are ready to go five minutes after training the system. And most of them say it is so much fun working this way," Hale adds.

Voice technology from Lucas Systems enabled Awana Clubs to improve its picking accuracy to almost 100% and increase its productivity by 35%.

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