Coca-Cola Dials in to New Voice Technology Solution

March 26, 2009

Several months ago, Bob Trebilcock wrote a blog post on Modern Materials Handling discussing a new voice technology solution produced by Datria. Founded in 1997 as a spin-off from Lockheed Martin, Datria originally developed voice technology solutions for defense applications-most notably for soldiers in the field. Now, Datria is commercializing the technology and applying it to mobile warehouse/distribution center workers. Soft drink giant Coca-Cola Enterprises was understandably intrigued.

Here’s how it works: Most of the time, warehouse pickers employing voice technology wear a headset, as well as a voice-enabled portable computer attached to the belt. Then, as Trebilcock explains, “The middleware software solution on the computing device communicates with a Warehouse Management System (WMS) or an ERP solution to get order information or update the system after tasks have been completed and inventory has been picked.”

But Datria loads the software onto a server in the network-which means that the voice solution has an IP address that workers can access by simply dialing in. They can use a portable computer such as a traditional voice system, a PDA, a voice-over IP phone, or even a cell phone.

Coca-Cola Enterprises has 5,000 mobile order pickers, and has launched Datria’s technology to their hundred largest warehouses in North America. As of October 2008, about 2,100 Coca-Cola pickers used voice technology by simply dialing in from wireless phones.

How would voice technology like Datria’s affect your warehouse/distribution center? Does a dial-in system appeal to you?


Top Symbol Group ADM Londis Saves Approximately $375k in First Year of Voice-Picking

March 26, 2009

In the final phase of Irish symbol group ADM Londis’s two-year, $2.5 million warehouse modernization investment, the company incorporated voice-picking technology to its repertoire of advancements. The voice-picking technology replaced the company’s manual, paper-based picking system to astonishing results, in a short amount of time.

Firstly, implementation of the new system took only one month, with warehouse employees quickly learning and embracing the technology. Not surprisingly, picking accuracy has improved dramatically since then, with fewer mispicks and improved sequence of picking. But the bottom line, of course, returns to customers: ADM Londis has seen 50% fewer claims, as well as a 10% reduction in delivery breakage to Londis retailers.

As the Retail Technology Review article notes, voice-picking also gives pick confirmations in real time, thus cutting down on potential delays and ensuring that customers receive their exact orders. In addition, thanks to on-time system reporting and on-screen key performance indicators, warehouse management can ensure that workers’ attention and efforts are focused on crucial tasks.

In the first year of implementing the voice-picking technology, ADM Londis saved $300,000 Euros, or approximately $375,000 USD-a 15% return on its total warehouse improvement investment. Some of those savings, according to the article, were on stock damages and losses, further attesting to voice-picking technology’s ability to reduce merchandise shrinkage.

RFID Enables Hospital to Track Thousands of Assets-and Save Lives

March 24, 2009

At first glance, warehouses and hospitals aren’t exactly two of a kind. But for both, knowing exactly where merchandise lies at all times is crucial to operational efficiencies. At Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, radio frequency identification (RFID) is being employed to track thousands of individual items of medical equipment, all the better to ensure quality care for patients.

The hospital, which encompasses more than 4 million square feet, aims to install 12,000 tags by mid-March, with plans to install another 8,000 in a second phase. The RFID technology has already proved beneficial: In late February, the system enabled doctors to retrieve a ventilator from an area it should not have been. The emergency room was in crisis-mode at the time, with eight critical patients having been flown in simultaneously from a bus accident in Dominica.

According to Beth Bacheldor’s piece in the RFID Journal Jackson Memorial has already affixed 6,500 active RFID tags on everything from infusion pumps to wheelchairs to ultrasound machines. By the time the first installation phase is complete, doctors, nurses, pharmacy personnel, and therapists will be able to track medical equipment to 1.5 meters or less from its location.

Also, similar to the Hawaii Produce Traceability Initiative (link to post), temperature-sensitive assets, as well as refrigerators used to store pharmaceuticals, will be tagged with temperature-monitoring tags. If any of the tags log temperatures over or below the acceptable range, personnel will be alerted via e-mail.

All of these initiatives are relevant to warehouses and distribution centers; how might they be adapted to yours?

RFID Proves a Sweet Option for Produce Distributors

March 24, 2009

February was a fruitful month (pardon the pun) for RFID, as the Hawaii Produce Traceability Initiative and Argenti Lemon both adopted the technology.

Jointly administered by the Hawaii Farm Bureau and Hawaii’s Department of Agriculture, the latest venture by the Hawaii Produce Traceability Initiative aims to track produce shipped to Hawaii from outside the state. Until now, traceability has been limited to in-state growers, distributors, and supermarkets.

In the pilot phase, a California distributor will attach semi-passive RFID tags with temperature sensors to the produce shipped to Hawaii via ocean liners. Before accepting the shipment in Hawaii, another distributor will identify the pallets with RFID and check the temperature sensor readings to confirm that proper temperatures were maintained throughout the trip. The process will ensure that the produce is safe for human consumption.

Meanwhile, Argentinean exporter Argenti Lemon is expanding an RFID system to track production, ensure accurate productivity-based pay for pickers, and improve traceability. The exporter has installed RFID tags, worker wristbands, and mobile computers to help achieve these goals.

Here’s how it works: Field workers are photographed and their identification information input to an RFID tag embedded in a removable wristband. The workers also use RFID-tagged bins to carry the lemons they pick. When the workers return, full bins in hand, the bins are weighed and the amount picked credited to that worker. The information is then sent wirelessly to an Argenti processing facility responsible for payroll and production planning.

What do you think about these applications for RFID?

Minimum Inventory, Maximum Throughput: RFID Helps Thermo King Achieve It

March 19, 2009

Thermo King a manufacturer of heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning equipment for buses, trains, trailers, and trucks, has installed an active RFID system to help streamline its inventory management process at assembly lines. The company’s goal? To increase space at assembly lines and stations by only taking inventory from the warehouse when needed. In other words, no surplus, but no shortage either.

How it works is surprisingly simple. Thermo King installed about 100 RFID tags next to each container of parts at the assembly line in its Galway, Ireland, production facility. When a container begins emptying, an employee pushes a button on that container’s tag, and the tag’s unique ID number runs through Wi-Fi access points (which Thermo King already had) throughout the facility. Then the staff responsible for merchandise replenishment receives an e-mail alert with the station number and part number required. The e-mail is also stamped with the time the order was sent.

Before adopting RFID, Thermo King utilized a manual part-replenishment system, in which workers had to contact management by phone or in person when parts ran low during the assembly process. Naturally, if the on-floor inventory ran out, assembly stopped until more could be procured from the warehouse.

According to Claire Swedberg’s article in the RFID Journal, Thermo King has responded to the system’s initial success by tagging about 500 more pieces of equipment, which employees will be able to track and locate in real time via the same Wi-Fi infrastructure used by the RFID part-replenishment system.

What kind of part-replenishment system does your warehouse/DC currently use? How effective is it?

With voice technology, miscommunication could be history

March 19, 2009

Effective communication between employers, managers, and employees is one of the most crucial requirements for a company’s success. Even in typical office settings, miscommunication occurs daily. But in warehouses and distribution centers (DC), where the ratio of managers to workers is much lower and manual labor occurs at a rapid pace, errors based on miscommunication can be far-reaching.

Fortunately, voice technology could be the solution—at least for reducing picking errors. In his book Facing the Forces of Change, Adam J. Fein, Ph.D. and president of Pembroke Consulting Inc., predicts that more warehouses and DCs will soon be reaping the benefits of wireless technologies—such as voice—that transmit data from warehouse floor to business system.

As warehouses and DCs consistently find an increase in productivity by up to 25% and accuracy up to 99.9% with voice-picking, Fein’s projection seems on target.

If you haven’t yet incorporated voice technology into your warehouse management system, you can still reduce miscommunication errors the old-fashioned way, as points out:

  • Watch your language. Keep metaphors to a minimum, and speak to your employees clearly and positively.
  • Give feedback—positive and negative. And be specific. Explain why you feel the way you do or have interpreted the situation the way you have.
  • Connect personally with employees. Incorporate sincere face-to-face meetings as well as relaying information through managers, or via phone, e-mail, etc.

In what ways do you work to keep miscommunication errors to a minimum?

Reduce employee training time with voice-picking technology

March 17, 2009

If the thought of reducing employee training time from weeks to minutes appeals to you, here’s another reason to consider implementing voice-picking technology. We’ve discussed on this blog how voice-picking poses a strong alternative to paper-based picking processes, and one of the reasons is that voice-picking is highly intuitive, requiring virtually no training time.

With voice-picking, the Warehouse Management System (WMS) generates assignments for merchandise selection, replacement, and inventory, and transmits those assignments through a wireless network. Workers then receive verbal commands via a wearable or mounted computer, and confirm their movements back into their speech recognition headsets—effectively freeing their hands and eyes for increased productivity.

The explanation for voice-picking may sound more complicated than employees find it is to actually learn. Indeed, training can be accomplished within 15 minutes, during which time the voice technology will learn individual workers’ unique accents and speech patterns. Workers can even “teach” the system to recognize responses in a foreign language. The only hiccup in training is that workers occasionally speak differently than they would in a warehouse environment, which later affects the system’s recognition of their responses. However, retraining, if necessary, also only takes a few minutes.

The bottom line: Instead of training your employees for days or weeks to learn a paper-based picking system—and paying for their time—voice-picking can save you money almost immediately.

What is your current picking method, and how long does it take for you to train your workers to use it?