Bartlett brews up success with Pick-to-Voice system

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Bartlett is the largest distributor of fresh milk in the Northeast of the US, serving retailers such as Barnes & Noble and the Great Atlantic & Pacific Co., along with schools, hospitals, restaurants and grocery stores, throughout New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and Pennsylvania. However, the distributor's biggest customer is Starbucks, and Bartlett is the exclusive tri-state distributor to some 500 Starbucks stores. For more than a decade, the company has been delivering coffee, milk, pastries, fresh sandwiches, fruit and other products for the java giant. Last summer, the distributor evaluated its picking operations and decided to move from a paper-based system to a Pick-by-Voice solution.

Heeding the call

The Voice solution was installed in a warehouse that Bartlett bought in Newark, NJ, in December 2011. Originally, Bartlett serviced Starbucks from its headquarters in Queens, NY, but they eventually outgrew that facility. Operations were temporarily moved to Clifton, NJ, and then to the present location, which is less than 12 miles from Manhattan.

Dubbed Bartlett Distribution Services LLC, the warehouse is the dedicated logistics hub for all of the Starbucks stores in New York City, as well as the tri-state area. Bartlett and Starbucks worked together to update the 105,000-sq-ft facility and develop an efficient product flow, and added refrigerated and freezer areas, expanded the loading dock, and installed sensor-activated lighting. They also built an area to cross-dock coffee and slow moving products between Starbucks' roasting plants and the stores. With the new facility up and running, Kanis focused on improving operations, starting with order picking. The warehouse handles 80 to 100 high-volume SKUs each day, which are received in the morning and then shipped to Starbucks stores in the evening.

At that time, the order pickers were using clipboards, averaging about 450 picks per hour. "Our pickers were very fast and our goal was to get them up to 475 picks per hour—I didn't think it was humanly possible to go any faster," says Kanis. "Plus, they were fairly accurate—we didn't have many mis-picks, so initially we were wondering if we would really see an ROI."

But Bartlett wanted to be able to report performance metrics back to Starbucks, such as order picking and inventory accuracy, and it knew that it would have to use a software solution to get that kind of information. The company met with a number of vendors and chose the Lydia voice solution from topVOX Corp., Barrington, IL. Lydia works by directing order pickers throughout the picking process by Voice commands and checks. Wearing headsets, pickers are guided through their picking activities with their hands and eyes free. "A big reason we chose topVOX is that they were the only vendor that would do a pilot with us," explained Kanis. "They took the time to evaluate our operations and answer our questions. We tested the system and within a couple of days I was sold – I liked the safety features, the reporting capabilities and the fact that employees could be fully trained within three days."

What Kanis wasn't sold on, however, was the system's highly touted productivity benefits. But his concerns were short lived—within weeks of installing topVOX, the workers were averaging 800 picks per hour, with the fastest going as high as 1200. "We knew the system was working well because we actually started to finish two hours earlier each day," he said. "So we reduced the number of pickers, down from 18 to 12, and re-organised some of the workers into other areas of the warehouse. We realised we were going to have a ROI in a very short time."

Keeping it simple

Most of Starbucks' stores are open daily, so that means that Bartlett's warehouse runs seven days a week, 365 days a year. Product is received Monday through Friday, except for milk, which is received every day, and trucks start dispatching around 6 pm. Bartlett's picking operation is divided into two areas—the 'pastry' side handles fresh pastry items, and the 'paper' side handles cases of paper products, such as cups and napkins, as well as high service SKUs, such as cases of Water, Espresso, and Syrups. "When we implemented topVOX, we didn't want to change anything in our pick area – change is very disruptive and we wanted to avoid that at all costs," said Kanis. "The only thing that changed was that our employees were now wearing a headset, instead of using a clipboard."

On the pastry side, items are unloaded and staged in three large aisles. These items include baked goods, cakes, muffins, and fresh bananas products typically found in a Starbucks café. There, pickers go up and down the aisle, directed by topVOX's Lydia, selecting items and loading them into trays for each store. The crates are stacked, and as each order is filled, the system generates a store label, which is attached to the stack, and then moved to the loading dock. On the paper side, the pickers select the cases by store directed by Lydia, stacking the boxes onto crates, which are shrink wrapped and moved to the loading dock. The pastry orders and paper orders are then combined to be send to the store.

For the most part, Kanis says the work is fairly level throughout the year. "It spikes up around the summer and during the holidays, but not enough that we need to hire seasonal employees. The topVOX  solution has really helped us balance the workload." Although some of Bartlett's order pickers speak Spanish, the company elected to use only English words. "We've kept our commands very simple and the system is really good at recognizing the workers responses—even with their accents," says Kanis.

In addition, Bartlett has taken advantage of topVOX's Co-Pilot, a touch-screen device that allows a manager to log in on a computer to listen to a worker receive Voice commands and provide additional coaching if necessary. "It really helped us with workers who needed more training—it allowed us to identify specific problems and quickly address those issues."

Although the topVOX solution can be used in any type of hardware, Bartlett chose the Voxter devices because of their ruggedness. "I found the Voxters to be very durable, but if we do decide to expand down the line and use different hardware, topVOX will be able to support it," said Kanis. In addition to the huge gains in productivity, Bartlett has also experienced a significant increase in accuracy. "We were accurate before using the system, but when we do audits now, we rarely find a mistake," Kanis pointed out.

Bartlett now plans to expand the topVOX system for use in inventory and putaway applications. "There are so many opportunities for Voice – it was one of the best investments we've ever made," concluded Kanis.

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