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Linfox raises productivity, accuracy through voice pick

Supplier: Dematic
29 September, 2009

Voice-directed computing has improved efficiency and workplace safety at Linfox’s Yennora distribution centre (DC), which provides third-party logistics (3PL) services for grocery retailer Franklins.

Instead of handling and using mobile data computers (RF terminals) to read instructions and input data, Linfox’s DC workers now wear a small headset and a lightweight, voice computer attached to their waist. The workers simply listen and respond to clear, verbal commands instructing them where to go and what to pick.

A significant advantage of voice-directed computing for order picking is that it leaves the user’s hands and eyes free at all times. This makes handling and picking cartons faster and safer, with
the technology delivering productivity, accuracy and OH&S benefits for Linfox since its integration by Dematic earlier this year.

Dematic implemented Vocollect’s Talkman system which seamlessly interfaces with Paperless Warehousing’s (PW’s) warehouse management system (WMS), and directs the DC’s team of up to
150 pickers through tens of thousands of work assignments every day.

Pilot Testing
Prior to implementing voice-directed computing, Dematic ran a pilot project to prove the technology would deliver productivity gains.
Dematic’s Paul Phillips, said: “We equipped 10 pickers of mixed skill and experience levels with voice picking terminals for eight weeks.

“With just a few hours of training, most of them were comfortable with the technology and soon had the hang of voice picking.

“The overall feedback was very positive. The guys really noticed the difference having their hands and eyes free makes when picking, compared to using RF Terminals.

“By the end of the eight week pilot, we demonstrated that a picking productivity increase of up to 10% would be achievable.”

Improved Accuracy
Through its real-time interactivity, PW’s WMS provides users with exceptionally high levels of inventory accuracy. Another feature of PW’s WMS is its stock location quantity verification feature.

Each time stock is picked from a location, PW’s WMS can ask the operator to verify the remaining stock on hand. Should there be any discrepancy in the stock quantity, the WMS alerts a supervisor
who can quickly identify where an error may have occurred. Linfox has the WMS set up to request stock locations quantity verification for around 10% of the site’s higher value SKUs.

“PW’s WMS gives us very accurate operations, day after day,” said Mr Brown.

“The DC was already running at around 99% accuracy, but the voice picking process has helped us to improve on that by further reducing errors.”

Voice-directed computing ensures users are picking the correct product from the correct location by asking them to read a randomly assigned check digit on the pick face. This streamlines the
picking process, and also eliminates the need to scan barcodes on locations and goods, providing further savings.

With the aid of voice-directed computing, Linfox is now achieving an impressive “4 Sigma” in operational accuracy, which means its inventory is 99.95% accurate.

A Safer Workplace
“Every bit as important as the productivity and accuracy gains we have achieved is the positive effect voice has had on improving safety in our DC,” said Mr Brown.

“With voice, mobile equipment operators can concentrate on what they’re doing and never need to take their eyes off the direction they are travelling.

“Because it also leaves their hands free, it lets users lift and handle boxes more naturally, making it more comfortable and reducing the physical impact of the task.

“Voice also eliminates the repetitive hand movements involved in using RF terminals and scanning, and the eyestrain associated with reading a small computer screen in less than ideal lighting
conditions eight hours a day.”

Getting The Best Out Of Voice
“At first, some of the guys were a little bit hesitant about the voice system but, within a couple of weeks, some of them were actually asking to use it instead of RF and that really indicates the level
of acceptance from the shop floor,” said Mr Brown.

Another benefit with voice compared to RF-directed operations is that training is quicker and easier.

“One of the mistakes we made initially was giving the guys too much information,” explained Mr Brown.

“We were basically saying everything that was previously on the screens of their RF terminals. We then realised they didn’t actually require all of the data we were giving them to complete their task
with voice. With Dematic’s assistance, we edited the voice commands down to the bare minimum, and this made the system easier and quicker to operate.”

Optimising Order Fulfilment Efficiency
PW’s WMS processes work orders from Linfox’s SAP ERP business system, allocating and transmitting them the to the DC workforce via the voice-directed computing system for order
picking tasks, and to RF terminals which continue to be used for goods receipt, put-away, replenishment and despatch processes.

“The WMS is like a high level supervisor that just works away all day in the background telling everyone where to go and what to do. Its efficiency is such that is enables us to run the DC with a very high supervisor to worker ratio of up to one to 40. Without it, that ratio would probably be more like one to 12,” said Mr Brown.

Consistent Productivity Gains
Linfox DC Manager Ken Brown speaks highly of the benefits that voice-directed computing has delivered to the Yennora DC.

“It was clear from the start that voice would improve our productivity, but we were unsure to what extent.

“Now that the technology is bedded in, we are achieving consistent productivity gains of between eight and 12%, depending on throughput. When you are picking and shipping hundreds of
thousands of cartons every week that makes a big difference.

“The increased productivity not only helps to reduce our distribution costs, it also gives us the ability to increase throughput volumes during busy periods,” he said.