Dematic , logistics systems integrators, have helped Dick Smith Electronics (DSE) to successfully make the switch from radio frequency (RF) terminals to Voice Picking.
Now in its sixth month of operation, Dematic’s Voice Picking solution has already delivered DSE with a substantially better than expected productivity gain of over 20%.
DSE’s National Supply Chain Manager, Alan Hicks, is satisfied with the results. “We knew Voice Picking would improve our order picking productivity, but not to the extent it has,” he said.
Improving productivity to reduce costs and increase capacity
When DSE began looking at ways to improve the efficiency of their order picking operations, the electronics retailers turned to their logistics partners Dematic for advice.
Dematic have been responsible for the design and implementation of DSE’s award-winning national distribution centre at Chullora in Sydney some five years earlier.
DSE have been using RF Picking and were achieving good order accuracy rates of 99.7%, but needed to find a way to increase productivity to reduce costs and increase throughput capacity.
Higher productivity, shorter ROI
“After seeing Voice Picking in operation at a number of other Dematic customer sites, we decided it would be a great fit for our application. However, to justify the capital investment necessary to switch over to Voice Picking, we had to show that we could achieve sustained productivity gains,” said Alan Hicks.
DSE budgeted on a 5-7% productivity improvement in picking, which would have given the company an ROI of around three years.
“It appears we were a bit conservative in our thinking,” said Alan Hicks, “because within the first month, we were already achieving a productivity improvement of about 20%.
“Given that we have achieved much higher productivity gains than expected, the ROI on the project will be considerably shorter than budgeted for,” he said.
“One of the concerns we had when evaluating the suitability of Voice Picking for our business was whether or not we could maintain the high picking accuracy rates we achieved with RF picking. Our accuracy rate with RF picking was typically over 99.7%, so we thought there was little Voice Picking could do to improve on that,” added Alan Hicks.
“But I am delighted to say it has, with our accuracy rate continuing to trend upwards following the implementation of Voice Picking,” he said.
To ensure accuracy without the need for scanning locations and products, DSE’s pickers verify they have reached the correct location by reading a randomly assigned check digit on the slot. This makes the system virtually fool-proof, eliminating costly picking errors and improving customer service levels.
OH&S benefits of Voice Picking
“Our people really enjoy the freedom of having both their eyes and hands-free when picking,” said DSE’s DC Operations Manager, Rod Guthrie.
With RF, the picker has to carry their RF terminal, read instructions from the terminal screen, work out where to go and what to do when they get there, scan the location and the products they pick, enter more data via the keypad to confirm picks and to get their next set of instructions.
With Voice Picking, the picker wears a headset and the Voice computer is attached to a belt worn around the waist. The Voice picking system provides clear verbal commands and the picker responds with a few simple words like ‘check’, ‘ok’ and ‘ready’.
From an OH&S perspective, Voice is considerably safer than RF in picking applications. Being able to pick with both hands significantly reduces the incidence of straining during lifting actions and, by negating the need to carry, read and enter data into a terminal, Voice also eliminates repetitive keystrokes and repetitive actions such as scanning.
Pickers are also far more aware of their surroundings (e.g. passing forklifts, empty pallets, etc) as they are not distracted while looking at an RF terminal screen.
Training and setting up Voice Templates
A major benefit with Voice-Directed Computing compared to conventional RF technology, is that it is easy and quick to learn, and requires little training.
The operator simply puts on the headset and voice-computer, spends around 15 minutes familiarising the computer with their voice, creates their own voice template of around 30 words and they can begin work almost immediately.
This is attractive in distribution operations, where a large number of casual staff are often required during peak periods.
“At the moment, we have not started training casuals on Voice, preferring to leave them on the RF system they are familiar with, however, we expect we will begin to switch regular casuals over to Voice in the very near future,” said Rod Guthrie.
DSE Project teams
A critical aspect of the success of this project was the direct involvement of DSE’s people. “Right from when we first began investigating the viability of Voice, we started talking to our people and involved them at every stage of the process,” said Rod Guthrie.
“We set up a consultative committee with six representatives from the warehouse, headed up by DC Supervisor, Craig Valentine. The committee was responsible for communicating all information relating to the Voice Picking project to our people in the warehouse and for raising any issues that came up with management,” he said.
The committee was also responsible for coordinating training and bringing a new group of six people online every couple of days.
The six original members of the committee then ‘buddied-up’ with each new wave of Voice trainees to assist them during their first couple of days on Voice Picking.
Positive employee feedback to Voice Picking
“Because we involved all of our people in the Voice project right from the outset, we have enjoyed excellent support and buy-in,” said Rod Guthrie.
“Almost without exception, the response has been very positive,” he said. “Some people are quicker than others at making the switch, with some fully operational in a couple of hours, while for others it may take a couple of days before they are up and running.”
Typical of the comments from the warehouse is the following statement by DSE’s DC Supervisor, Craig Valentine:
“While a few of us were skeptical at first, everyone has quickly become accustomed to Voice and I don’t think any of us would like to go back to the old way of picking.
“Voice quite simply makes the job easier, it makes the job safer, and it also makes the job more satisfying because you don’t need to stuff about as much as you did with RF. The computer just tells you where to go and what to pick, nothing could be easier!”
Voice Picking vs RF Picking at DSE
“This project has only been possible through the exceptional support we have received from Dematic,” said Alan Hicks.
“Dematic really understands our business and the way we work, and their people add a lot of value to our logistics activities by suggesting alternative strategies, procedures and processes,” he said.
“They are also very easy to deal with. I sat in on the first couple of meetings we had about the Voice Picking project and that was about the extent of my involvement. Dematic just got on with it and did whatever was necessary to deliver the job, including facilitating overseas training for one of our IT specialists with the Voice Picking equipment supplier, Vocollect.”
Dematic’s Business Development Manager responsible for the project was Nathan Taylor.
“While Voice Picking has quickly become a preferred method of order picking in larger scale distribution operations in Australia,” said Nathan Taylor, “the industry has been waiting for an application like this that gives us the opportunity to directly compare the performance of RF and Voice Picking.
“This is the first time to my knowledge that an operation of this scale in Australia has made the switch from RF to Voice Picking and the results speak for themselves.
“Voice Picking has delivered substantially higher productivity and throughput than RF Picking, and it has also enabled DSE to maintain or increase accuracy, improve worker safety and reduce labour and on-going operating costs,” said Nathan Taylor.
DSE began using Voice for picking in March, 2006, deliberately taking time to switch people over from RF to Voice Picking, putting groups of six people through at a time. By June 2006 the entire system was fully operational, with 85 Voice terminals online.
DSE still use RF for picking certain SKU profiles, and RF continues to be used for all other wireless data communications, directing goods receipt, putaway, replenishment and despatch.
DSE’s Alan Hicks said: “We budgeted for a 5-7% productivity gain. In actual terms we are consistently achieving productivity gains of around 22%.
“As a result of this, we have significantly increased throughput, reduced the cost per pick, and actually lowered our overall labour costs despite increasing throughput.
“By phasing out RF terminals and replacing them with Voice terminals, we have also reduced our annual equipment maintenance bills by around $80,000/annum.
“Not only that, we now have a less physically demanding and safer workplace, and the value of that in enhanced job satisfaction for many of our people is real bonus,” he said.
“We are very happy that we have made the switch from RF to Voice Picking and look forward to further incremental gains in productivity as we become more proficient at getting the most out of the system.
“We are also re-evaluating our internal logistics processes to shift replenishment to Voice and that will be the next stage in the implementation of Voice technology at DSE,” concluded Alan Hicks.