Beverage distributors are constantly on the lookout for operational tools and technology to implement in the warehouse that can help boost productivity, increase efficiency and improve customer service. For Dallas, Texas-based beer wholesaler Andrews Distributing, voice pick technology has proven to be a valuable tool in its 300,000-square foot warehouse in Allen, Texas.
The company invested in a number of new technologies and warehouse processes when it opened the doors to its newest facility back in 2011.
“We looked at our current processes in the distribution center and we were, at the time, using a paper-based order picking system so we looked at whether that was good enough or did we need to move to a fully automated system or something in between,” says John Ross, VP of technology and operations at Andrews.
The company had three vital criteria when looking at a new order picking system—low maintenance, the ability to integrate with the current route accounting system and other processes and the ability to quickly digest new SKUs.
The system had to support a growing business, as Andrews Distributing serves 38 North and South Texas counties with four distribution centers and sells 30 million cases of beer annually. The distributor works with 34 suppliers and handles more than 1,000 SKUs.
The company ultimately selected a voice-pick solution from Rutherford and Associates and went online with the new system when the warehouse opened in late 2011.
With the voice-pick system, once an order is placed, order selectors wearing headsets are then verbally directed to a location in the warehouse. The order selector then scans the product’s UPC for validation with a bar code scanner. The system relays the quantity only if the right item is scanned and then the order selector places the order on the scales, which then validates the right quantities for that particular pallet order. This voice pick solution also integrated well with Andrew Distributing’s existing processes, such as being 100 percent pick to order and its layer picking technology. Ten years ago, Andrews Distributing implemented a pay-for-performance program for distribution center employees and a significant benefit of this voice-pick solution is that it automated this process, Ross points out.
And, the learning curve for employees to train to use the new system is less than a week.
“If you think of a new employee, they have so much that they have to learn—they have to learn our SKUs, our warehouse, our policies and procedures—and what we’re doing is that our system now takes the location of the product out of the mix.
They don’t need to know where a product is located, all they do is listen to where they’re told to go and they go to that specific location, pick the product and complete the order. For a new employee, that’s a godsend, as our warehouse is pretty darn large. It’s tough to find a needle in a haystack when you have to do it hundreds of times a day.”
One big payoff of the voice-pick solution has been a boost in productivity for order selectors, up 34 percent since the system was implemented. Order accuracy has improved from 97 percent to 99.5 percent, as there are now fewer hotshots, a reduction on product returns and improved customer service, Ross says.
Distribution center management realized one hiccup to using the voice-pick system. If a product’s location is not entered into the system correctly, then the order selector goes to the location and scans the wrong product, but the system does not have the information to correctly direct the employee to a different location. With a paper-based system, order selectors could “eyeball it” and see if the product is on a nearby pallet
“We learned to make sure our items are right in the system and then the system will flow and work the way it’s supposed to,” Ross says.
And while seasoned vets on the distribution center floor initially felt they could do the order selection process better than the voice-pick system, Ross says employees quickly realized the benefits. “A 34 percent improvement in productivity means a bigger paycheck for them,” he notes.
Kyle Gold, executive account manager at Barcoding Inc., a company specializing in supply chain and mobility systems, says there have been many improvements made to voice-picking systems, making it a good solution for many distribution operations. Voice-picking systems often can work with existing mobile and handheld devices and the use of voice-pick headsets helps create a safe environment in the warehouse as order selectors are both “hands free” and “eyes free” to see where they are going and what they are doing. There is also a misconception that voice pick systems will not work well in warehouses with loud background noises. “From a noise interference standpoint, the technology has evolved and now that is a moot point,” Gold says. Noise canceling microphones along with new software designed to be sensitive to “white nose” have helped make voice pick systems very effective in loud warehouse environments.
Ross says other distributors he talks to who have implemented different picking solutions speak about getting a return on investment in a few years. “My return on investment was in the months,” he says. “If you’re able to improve productivity by 34 percent that means you’re improving your throughput, which means you don’t use as many people or you get more work done in a short period of time. It was a no brainer.”