Next-generation Voice systems allow 20 per cent re-distribution of costs within the average DC

By Andrew Southgate, sales director, Zetes.

The DC is now a highly dynamic environment where inaccurate and labour intensive processes are unacceptable inefficiencies. Research from Intermec has highlighted that across Europe, distribution centre managers share a common goal to achieve cost savings through saving time and working more efficiently. 79 per cent have been tasked by their senior management with identifying ways to achieve so-called 'quick wins' using next-generation technologies.

Picking is one of the most costly processes in a warehouse and can represent up to a third of the total running costs of a DC. It typically consists of three separate stages – the start-up phase, a repetitive line picking process and the end or marshalling stage. Because each element of the picking routine is labour intensive, using technology to optimise this – by achieving improvements to productivity and accuracy – can generate large financial savings.

Picking is a common focus for cost control

Implementing a next-generation Voice picking system in particular can make a big difference to cost control. In addition, its introduction is welcomed by operatives who see their jobs become more straightforward as a result. Since Voice is so easy to use, it's possible for workers with no prior experience of a DC to become effective picking operatives in a very short timeframe.

Ireland's largest food service distributor, Pallas Foods, implemented a next generation, multimodal Voice solution to automate stock management at its Limerick warehouse. The company has a large DC which stocks over 7000 product lines including fresh foods and guarantees a next day delivery service across Ireland to around 6000 customers.

Multimodal working gives operators 100 per cent flexibility

Pallas opted for a ZetesMedea multimodal voice system, which gives users the option of either using Voice technology only, or working Voice-assisted with a combination of keyboards and handheld barcode scanners. The system was rolled out to over 60 warehouse operatives, who now use Voice for real-time stock put away, inventory management and order-picking procedures.

Pallas is now able to maintain lean inventory levels with intelligent inventory management and automatic stock re-ordering when minimum levels are reached. This guarantees the freshest produce is delivered to customers exactly when they need it most.

Strong quantitative evidence to support the financial arguments in favour of voice can be seen in the following examples. These illustrate how introducing Voice picking to optimise a pick to zero process (a.k.a. line picking), allows operators to save time by working faster and with fewer errors, without significantly changing working processes. Within a typical distribution centre currently operating using paper processes, large cost benefits can be achieved across all 3 elements of the picking process around efficiency and accuracy. Contrast this with a distribution centre using hand held terminals (HHTs) to manage these processes. Here only the repetitive 'pick' element can deliver efficiency benefits, with a slight incremental improvement in accuracy.

Strong financial case for Voice

Consider the following example. A warehouse using paper based picking processes records that on average, a warehouse operative picks 60 lines per hour. Introducing Voice into the warehouse would deliver savings to all 3 elements of the picking process:

  • The start process – saves 45 seconds.
  • The repetitive pick process  - saves of 5 seconds per line.
  • The end process – saves 45 seconds.

Multiply these savings up to an average order of 60 lines to see an efficiency gain of 10.8 per cent (45+(5*60)+45 sec). When this is spread over the course of a week and average labour costs are applied, the savings are very clear:

Distribution centre ships 250,000 picked lines per week using voice:

  • 4167 start processes = 52 hours per week.
  • 250,000 repetitive pick tasks = 347 hours per week.
  • 4167 end processes = 52 hours per week.

Total saving per week of 451 hours * 52 weeks * £7.50 = £175,890 Per annum. This provides an opportunity to save around 20 per cent of picking costs, which could be re-allocated to improve other areas of the distribution centre.

Additional savings with untrained voice solution

Further, by opting for an 'untrained' Voice solution, additional savings can be achieved. Untrained Voice technology is a feature of next generation Voice systems and it allows pickers to commence working immediately, without requiring the preliminary stage of training the system to recognise each picker's Voice before operations can commence. The benefit of working in this way means new pickers and temporary warehouse workers can be fully efficient more quickly to cope with peak periods.

This was the experience of Unilever's Greek operation, which worked with Zetes to migrate shopfloor workers at a former manufacturing plant earmarked for closure, to become Voice pickers at its new DC. ZetesMedea Voice was an ideal choice for Unilever because it includes two Voice dialogue levels and can adapt to suit the user's experience. It has a starter level which provides comprehensive instructions and an experienced level where commands are shortened. Data input either can be Voice only or multimodal, combining a touch screen, keyboard or scanner devices. Due to its operators' inexperience, Unilever opted for voice only and the 'untrained' approach, which enables phonetic recognition of complete spoken words. With no need to save Voice profiles, workers were operational in no time and the results were very impressive – so much so that Unilever plans to repeat this strategy in another DC opening soon.

Essential investment for stock and inventory management

Current next generation Voice systems are highly intelligent and can adapt to whatever working environment is required by the user. Whether that is high demand seasonality and rapid turnover of operatives, or introducing the flexibility to utilise a range of different devices with ergonomic multimodal working, there are a wide array of solutions to suit every organisation. In today's business world the concept that 'time is money' is truer than it ever was. Having the ability to save time and therefore cut costs through using a next-generation Voice system for stock picking or inventory management is an essential investment.

Looking even further ahead, as the scale of mobile working continues to grow, so too will the number of devices in circulation. Managing an estate of hundreds of mobile devices - Voice terminals, barcode scanners and wearable devices – identifying their location, upgrading software applications and monitoring licence agreements is a challenging and time consuming task.

Intelligent, adaptive and low cost of ownership

Next generation Voice systems, as developed by Zetes with their MCL technology, offer a practical way to maintain control of a growing hardware estate, with a Cloud-based approach to enable centralised management and deployment of mobile applications. By working independently of the operating system, type of device or physical location, it allows remote, centralised IT control to remotely update applications, add or extend commands, set user profiles and keep track of an ever-expanding mobile estate. Features such as these ensure Voice can sustain its position as the warehouse technology, which delivers the highest financial impact for the lowest total cost of ownership.


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