Voice systems for pharmaceutical warehousing

INFORMATION: Free information is available from VOCOLLECT on the subject in this story. Click here to request a copy

Flexibility, accuracy, efficiencyjust some of the benefits that voice-directed picking offers pharmaceutical warehousing and distribution operations.

Pharmaceuticals are one of Britains leading manufacturing sectors, bringing in a trade surplus of 3.4 billion in 2004. The value of UK pharmaceutical exports in 2004 was an estimated 12.2 billion, more than 140,000 per employee. The UKs two largest pharmaceutical companies are among the most successful in the world.

In a global industry such as pharmaceuticals, it is important to be in the big league. An analysis of the worlds top 100 medicines reveals that, after the USA, Britains pharmaceutical companies market share is more than all its European competitors combined Within the UK economy; pharmaceuticals are consistently in the top three industrial sectors in terms of trade surplus. And the industry is a major employer, with around 83,000 people employed directly and many more in feeder industries. (The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry [ABPI]).

In fact, the story in Europe is similarly impressive. Here the pharmaceutical industry is the second largest contributor to gross domestic product (GDP) in the EU, after financial services. The wholesale and distribution sector alone is striking, with the EU market segment boasting around 3000 pharmaceutical manufacturers producing 50,000 products, for 130,000 retail outlets every year.1 Wholesale distributors generally operate on lower profit margins than in other areas of the pharmaceutical industry; therefore the pressure to improve the cost/productivity ratio is intense.

It is perhaps for this reason that this industry sector is following the lead of its retail and automotive counterparts by embracing new IT techniques and solutions in a bid to raise the bar for supply chain efficiency. Among the areas under review are delivery consolidation, transport and storage efficiency, inventory management and regulatory compliance.

The root of many of these processes lies within the central warehouse or distribution centre, pharmaceutical wholesalers are starting to realise that investment in warehouse processes has an enormous positive impact on the whole supply chain; which ultimately pays dividends.

Perhaps the most welcome benefit of voice within the pharmaceutical warehouse is its ability to introduce a high degree of flexibility into the sometimes complex picking process. Pharmaceutical distribution centres deal with literally thousands upon thousands of products that need to be handled efficiently and accurately. The best methodology for a fast-moving product may not apply to the slow-moving products, which means that applying a single methodology (such as pick-to-light, or RF picking) across all SKUs can lead to overinvestment and reduced return on investment. What pharmaceutical companies need is a technology that can be effectively used to handle fast-movers in one way, yet can also adapt to medium or slow-movers while maintaining accuracy and efficiency.

As an example, the fast-moving products may benefit by being placed in high-density pick-faces. In this instance, a zone-based methodology is required. Prior to the success of voice in such environments, pick-to-light may have been the natural choice. Now; however, voice is being chosen due to the impressive pick rates combined with its ability to handle multiple orders or multiple pickers (or both) in a single zone, at the same time.

At the other end of the spectrum, slow moving products (and there can be thousands) are often best managed by implementing batch picking to reduce travel distances. Once again, voice shows its flexibility and adaptability.

Bearing in mind that expired medication must be returned and disposed of properly and accidental stock shortages can cause serious problems to patients, ensuring high accuracy during order picking is an excellent way of injecting efficacy into the entire distribution process. Voice systems truly come into their own as far as accuracy is concerned for pharmaceutical environments where there is a low error tolerance.

Inventory management
The pharmaceutical sector is not unlike its grocery counterpart in calling for more visibility of products as they travel through the supply chain. When dangerous, or regulated drugs such as narcotics, are flowing through the system, the ability to monitor the flow of inventory through every stage of its journey from manufacture to retail is critical. Capable of delivering up-to-the-minute stats on pick status at all times, voice offers the ideal solution.

Temperature controlled environments
Temperature control where pharmaceutical products are concerned is crucial to GMP regulation compliance, which is in place to protect the consumer by providing guarantees that medication is not only manufactured correctly, but stored and handled correctly too.

Nevertheless, many data capture devices dont operate optimally within refrigeration units. Low temperatures can adversely affect LED screens and heavy gloves are not conducive to data input or writing. Relaying information via speech instead, users can maintain a similar pick rate within these challenging environments as elsewhere in the warehouse. Voice systems can also be programmed to provide product specific handling instructions, thereby facilitating GMP compliance.

Efficiency booster
Voice has already proven its ability to deliver clear operational and financial benefits for major retail organisations; where better to capitalise on those benefits than within a fast moving, heavily regulated industry like pharmaceutical? Regardless of whether voice is deployed to achieve near-perfect accuracy, or to reduce labour costs through productivity gains, the role of voice in boosting warehouse efficiency in the future is sure to be both widespread and dramatic.

1. The World Pharmaceutical Wholesale and Distribution Industry 2005, Visiongain.

Tim Wheeler is business development manager for Vocollect Europe.He started his career with Ascomation, a subsidiary of Emerson Electric marketing process control equipment throughout Australia. Following this he spent over five years with Siemens Dematic in a number of different roles. He project managed the first voice recognition project in Australia then grew the business to over $3m in three years. As a logistics consultant he was a key member of teams selling integrated systems projects ($1m to $20m+) of which Vocollect voice was often an important component. He joined Vocollect at the start of 2004 to help the company enter new markets and grow existing markets, and to help Vocollect's partner companies build successful voice businesses that can support Vocollect's growing global customer base.

INFORMATION: Free information is available from VOCOLLECT on the subject in this story. Click here to request a copy

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