Speaking Out for Better Productivity

March 1, 2004
More material handling managers are turning to voice technology for picking because it can give them immediate visibility of operations, along with its more familiar benefits.

If you thought of using voice technology only for case picking, you may be missing an opportunity.

"We're the fourth-largest manufacturer of contact lenses, which are stored in boxes or small blister packs," says Joe Stannard, vice president, logistics, CooperVision. "Most of those contain unique prescriptions, but on the surface, they all look alike. Our recent implementation of voice-directed small-parts picking improved our operations in several areas. Picking efficiency went up by more than 25 percent. Our error rate went down. And it gave us the flexibility to arrange product by location instead of brand name. We didn't have location control before. We had location by brand.

"Plus, we now know what our pickers are doing every moment of their shift," continues Stannard. "A lot of our people are multifunctional, but we didn't have the visibility before. There's a whole new level of productivity that we can look at now because of voice-picking technology."

Flexible, low cost, easy to learn, capable of delivering high productivity rates and picking accuracies, voice-directed picking offers many benefits for small parts picking as well as case picking.

"Voice was slow when it first came out, and it left a bad impression," says Mike Miller, director of industry marketing and consulting at Vocollect.

"Now it's a solid technology. I began using it when I was director of operations for Groceryworks.com. Grocery tends to lead first with new technologies. Now at Vocollect, just about every grocery customer we have uses voice-directed piece picking. We also have installations in office supply companies and cigarette manufacturers, picking upward of 1,200 pieces per hour."

"A lot of small parts picking applications have used pick-to-light rather than voice, often because it is pretty fast," adds Steve Gerrard, vice president of marketing,Voxware. "It's difficult for alternative technology to match the speed of pick-to-light. With voice, though, we're finding that we can. We're not going to beat it, but we can match it.

"Plus," continues Gerrard, "voice can make managers more efficient in handling exception conditions. Many voice systems offer data on a kind of 'workflow dashboard.' Managers can get information on what's happening immediately and they can hold up work, release it to certain individuals, or reprioritize work in the queue. This is possible because voice has workers telling what was done and when it was done, in real time. Voice can be an immediate form of communication, providing up-to-the-second information, down to a very detailed level."

"And voice does this at a reasonable cost," says Miller. "If everything is integrated to the max level, any system can give you real-time visibility. Most companies, though, have not been able to do that so they haven't achieved that visibility. With voice, it's easier to gain that visibility than with many other systems for the price."

Beyond accuracy

Compared with other picking systems, the cost of voice systems is typically lower, especially when you figure in the costs of maintenance and reconfiguration. Accuracy, however, may depend on how voice is implemented.

"What we found is that implementing voice-directed picking is actually slower than picking with paper, and it's less accurate," says Darin Danelski, president, Innovative Picking Technology Inc. "It takes time to tell someone in the warehouse where to go, whereas reading an aisle number from a piece of paper, you can comprehend in a millisecond. The larger the code, the more likely you will forget what you were told to find. When we looked at the log file of all the transactions done in voice systems, we found that pickers were saying repeat a lot.

"The other problem was that pickers tended to transpose the numbers and letters that they were told, meaning pickers were picking from the wrong location."

Bill Stark, vice president of engineering at United Stationers, has a different take on the issue of pickers frequently asking the system to repeat locations. "Our pickers do that too, but it's more to keep the location fresh in their mind. We don't find that it delays their productivity."

To guarantee that pickers at CooperVision select the right pair of contact or eyeglass lenses, pickers must voice back a two-digit code randomly assigned by the voice system to each location. Once the computer hears the code and verifies that the picker is at the right location, the system tells the picker the quantity to pick.

"By making sure your voice-picking system has the picker confirm and verify location, as well as item, you can take accuracy levels to 99.9, 99.98 percent," says Gerrard. "You can make mistakes with voice, but you have to try to."

Light and sound

An option to guarantee accuracy as well as fast picking speed is to combine voice with either scanning or pick-to-light systems. That's a solution Danelski's company offers to customers. "One of the things people like about the voice is that it's inexpensive," says Danelski, "We use the 80/20 rule. Twenty percent of your products represent 80 percent of your volume. If we can use lights for the portion of your inventory that represents the most volume, the majority of orders will be accurate. So we put lights on the high-volume products. The other 80 percent of your inventory would be picked using voice technology."

"If our customers have large data streams of information that need to be captured," adds Miller, "we suggest they attach a scanner to the system. In some of our piece-picking applications, the tote ID may be nine to 13 digits. A finger, hand-held or wand scanner can be connected to the terminal, and you have the option to batch pick."

Thus, for many applications, a combination of solutions gives you the best of all worlds: affordable, accurate, reliable and fast. Just be sure to add all the costs and weigh the pros and cons.

The flexibility of voice

If you're rearranging SKUs, or undergo frequent operation reconfigurations, voice technology lets you do so economically because the picker wears wireless equipment. You don't have to rip up floors or hire electricians to rewire your picking system.

Voice technology is easy for pickers to learn. Typical learning curves are a day or two for the picker to get used to speaking into the system and for the system to learn the picker's pronunciations. This short learning curve is also beneficial in DCs or warehouses that experience high employee turnover.

In addition, voice can take on other warehousing tasks. "Many people, when they're looking into voice, initially focus on selector accuracy and productivity," says Miller. "But there are auxiliary benefits and we're finding that many of our customers are interested in voice beyond picking. They selected voice for picking first because that's where most of their labor dollars are spent. Now, however, most are asking 'where do we go from here?' They are turning to voice for receiving, flow-through, putaway, replenishment and cycle counting, as well as for piece picking. We've seen productivity gains from 25 percent to 50 percent in these applications. Plus, there are the auxiliary benefits that come from saving paper stock, administrative effort, and eliminating auditing. Voice is very scalable." MHM

Voice Offers a Clear View

As part of a capital improvement project, CooperVision chose voice for its piece-picking operations. "We selected Voxware for our voice systems," says Joe Stannard, vice president, Logistics, CooperVision. "We have three contact lens plants that ship their goods into our Rochester, New York, distribution center. We house more than 600,000 prescriptions in the building and label 38,000 locations. We ship about 10,000 orders per day to eye care professionals, primarily in the U.S.

"We chose voice because of the number of locations," continues Stannard. "And 38,000 pick-to-light units would have been expensive. In addition, we wouldn't be able to move racking because everything is electrified and tied in."

The first step for CooperVision was to conduct a pilot, which was done in November 2003. "We went live with a full implementation in the middle of January of this year. We bought 25 hardware units and 75 headsets. Everyone has his own headset. We do a three-shift operation with 25 pickers each shift."

Before the voice system, pickers used pick tickets. "Now, though, I've rigged our ERP system to the voice system," says Stannard. "We plan on installing a WMS system as we move further along with our capital improvements. We hope to double our output to 20,000 orders per day when the WMS system is in place."

Each batch is associated with a cart. A typical batch is 32 orders; each order consists of about seven items. "The computer's knowing what's supposed to be on the cart has allowed us to change to the voice system," adds Stannard. "The system stops the picker at one location, has him pick a quantity, then disperse that quantity among the 32 orders. Voice is so simple, you don't have to think. This system checks the productivity, so you know what everyone did at every hour of the day. There's a whole new level of productivity that we can look at. And you get to see what the learning curve might be."

Before choosing voice, Stannard and his people visited several sites. "We picked up a few hints when we visited other companies that had implemented voice. For example, we have two batteries per unit. They last about four hours. We tied the batteries to the base units and we labeled the headsets. And we log in who has each headset, so we know who might be having productivity problems.

"Installation took only a few days, programming into the ERP system took a few days, and training a few days," says Stannard. All in all, voice turned out to be an easy system to meet this material handling application.

A Better Way To Manage

United Stationers supplies companies with all kinds of office products. Management is in the process of implementing voice in broken-case picking in its facilities throughout the country. "We use voice in the orderpicking function," says Bill Stark, vice president of engineering at United Stationers. "All the pick directives are given to the voice system, which helps pickers prepare the optimal pick path, pick the right items and put them in the right boxes. When picking is done, the totes go to the packing area.

"We started looking at voice as a means to mainly improve our accuracy and ensure we have a good-quality order going out the door," adds Stark. "At first, we were hesitant to expect productivity improvement as well. We mainly started a pilot just on accuracy, and thought that productivity improvement would be an added bonus. As it turned out, we achieved a 20 percent productivity improvement. Some of that was through improvements in the picking process and being able to eliminate checkers on the back end of the picking."

Pickers must go through about 25,000 broken-case items. They can pick up to 30,000 lines per night.

"Employees like how easy it was to come up to speed," says Stark. "It took just a day or two. And we've found that it's easier to get a consistent approach of picking because the voice system is very structured. The voice system gives the commands and leads employees through the process. It's easier to standardize the process now. There are prompts, driving the employee to go to the right location and do the right steps. It's almost foolproof about picking the right product and putting it in the right box." Wrist scanners are used by the pickers to verify that they are at the right location.

An unexpected benefit of the voice system has been the visibility it gives management. "We now have individual productivity for each picker, so we know how many lines each picker does," says Stark. "That was something we never had and it enlightened our management. In the past they judged people by observation as to who was a good picker. Now they have hard data to base their assessments on and it's given them a different way to manage their employment base. Now they need to coach employees based on productivity numbers that are documented. And there's also some competition out there in that the pickers know their individual picking rates. A lot of them are in a competition among themselves. Now the supervisors have another tool to manage employees."

For more information:

CooperVision www.coopervision.com

Vocollect www.vocollect.com

Voxware www.voxware.com

Innovative Picking Technology Inc. www.ipti.net

United Stationers www.unitedstationers.com

Siemens Dematic www.siemens-dematic.us