by Jamie Alexander
Vocollect and Speech Interface Design team up to upgrade picking operations with next-generation voice picking technology at eight GENCO distribution centers, improving speed of throughput and order accuracy, while accommodating scalable growth.
For many third-party logistics (3PL) providers, the selection of automation to improve distribution center (DC) operational performance takes on specialized challenges when compared to manufacturer-operated DCs. A DC operated by a manufacturer may very well opt to build out highly capitalized automation where the return is expected over a 15 to 20 year time frame. But 3PL providers are finding that their clients are progressively requiring shorter-term contracts – where once five- and 10-year-plus contracts were typical, now two- to five-year contracts have become the standard. 3PL providers need to factor their automation investment for a much shorter ROI, which makes heavily capitalized equipment a poor option. 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.
Upgrading to automation does not necessarily mean having to automate the operation with extensive sortation and conveying equipment. In most DCs, picking is the most labor-intensive function, and usually can provide the greatest cost-savings when automated. IT-based picking options exist that have significantly lower capitalization costs and can exert a sizable positive impact on a DC’s throughput efficiency, while reducing operating costs. For many DCs, and especially for 3PL providers, IT-based picking options, in particular voice-activated picking systems, can provide the ideal automation solution to streamline their throughput cost-effectively, while realizing a short-term ROI.
GENCO – the Need for Automated Picking
One 3PL provider that has aggressively embraced IT picking automation is GENCO. As the second largest third-party logistics provider in North America, responsible for managing 80 distribution centers totaling 30 million square feet throughout the United States and Canada, GENCO clients represent some of the largest and most successful companies in the world. Implementing highly efficient automated systems for warehouse management and throughput for handling its diverse product lines – from consumer goods and electronics to medical devices and pet products – is critically important for GENCO to achieve timely and accurate order delivery, while maintaining profitability.
In looking at ways to achieve continuous improvement in its client’s DCs, GENCO turned to its technology partner, Speech Interface Design (SID), for guidance on the proper application of technologies and industry best practices.
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;
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.”
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 pick by 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, Speech Interface Design configured and implemented customer-specific voice-based workflow solutions, leveraging latest-generation technology from Vocollect, a business unit of Intermec, Inc., the leading developer and manufacturer of pick by voice solutions for mobile workers. Utilizing Vocollect’s VoiceLink® and VoiceDirect® enterprise connectors, the Vocollect Voice® solution seamlessly integrated with multiple different warehouse management systems. The flexibility of Vocollect Voice allowed it to work exceptionally well across these varied WMS platforms.
The voice system opens a dynamic dialog between GENCO’s DC pick teams and its WMS, enabling complete operational control. The Vocollect Voice platform allows GENCO’s DC managers to monitor activities in real time, alter assignments that are already in progress, generate and evaluate sophisticated reports, and effectively handle special situations by shifting workers and job priorities. Accessed simply 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.
With Vocollect Voice, 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.
a) an assignment from the WMS is transmitted to the picker’s user-worn voice terminal via WLAN, which translates assignment data into audible commands;
b) the picker hears instructions and travels to the pick location, eyes up and hands free;
c) arriving at the pick location, the picker speaks check digits to confirm the correct slot location;
d) the picker performs the task, then provides spoken responses to confirm the actions taken;
e) verbal responses are translated to data and transmitted back to the WMS;
f) 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, right through to shipping.
Businesses and 3PL providers are increasingly looking to voice systems to help them achieve greater accuracy, increased productivity and efficiency gains. Such is the case with GENCO, where more than 350 GENCO workers are now using Vocollect solutions. The flexibility of GENCO’s new voice systems implemented within its eight DCs, and across multiple WMS platforms, enabled minimal disruption to operations and fast user training. Improved productivity, accuracy and safety, coupled with minimized material costs, have helped GENCO reach a rapid one year, or less ROI.
“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 reductions,” said Welker. "Vocollect Voice has helped us provide significant bottom-line payback to our customers,” Welker added. “It works well across multiple industries, with a flexibility and scalability that helps us easily integrate the solution with many different customer warehouse management systems.”
Vocollect, a business unit of Intermec, Inc. (NYSE:IN), is the leading provider of innovative, high-quality voice solutions for mobile workers around the world. Vocollect’s market-leading technology, products and services help customers achieve a higher level of business performance through voice. Together with a global team of over 1,700 certified voice professionals, we enable nearly 500,000 workers at almost 2,000 companies around the world to distribute US$4 billion in goods every day. Vocollect Voice integrates with all major WMS and ERP systems and supports the industry’s leading mobile computing devices. For more information, visit www.vocollect.com. Vocollect® and Vocollect Voice® are registered trademarks of Intermec IP Corp. All rights reserved.
GENCO is North America’s second largest, third-party logistics provider, a Global Top 25 third-party logistics provider, the leading logistics provider to the consumer electronics industry, and a recognized leader in reverse logistics. GENCO manages more than 130 operations and 38 million square feet of warehouse space throughout North America. GENCO’s diverse range of customers include many Fortune 500 companies in the technology, consumer goods, retail and healthcare industries, as well as the Federal Government. GENCO’s complete range of solutions include inbound logistics, warehousing and distribution, fulfillment, packaging and kitting, transportation management, systems integration, returns processing and disposition, test, repair, refurbishment, product liquidation and recycling. For more information, visit www.GENCO.com.
Jamie Alexander writes on material handling automation.