New Zealand’s largest grocery distributor, Foodstuffs, has implemented voice-directed computing, available from Dematic at its key warehouses in the South Island, Auckland and Wellington. The Vocollect voice picking system, supplied and integrated by Dematic Real Time Logistics, has delivered productivity and accuracy improvements, enhanced workplace safety and helped reduce distribution costs.
Each of the three regional Foodstuffs co-operatives provides supply chain and order fulfilment services to the co-op’s owner-operated stores in their area. Nationally, the group supports a network of more than 630 outlets including New World Supermarkets, Pak’n Save Food Warehouses, WritePrice Food Barns, Four Square convenience stores and several cash and carry operations servicing the needs of dairies, service stations, catering and institutional customers.
Better than expected productivity gains
“We are constantly searching for ways to improve the efficiency of our supply chain. Voice-directed computing’s benefits for order picking, and its ability to be integrated fairly quickly, made a strong business case,” said Egon Guttke, Foodstuffs Wellington Group Manager, Information Systems & Services.
A key objective in implementing voice was enhancing productivity. There was a widespread labour shortage at the time. Finding and keeping people was a challenge. “The increase in productivity that we could achieve by switching to voice from RF was very important for us to improve throughput capacity,” said Mr Guttke. “We are happy to say that the productivity improvement has actually exceeded Dematic’s projections. Accuracy also increased, as has workplace safety.”
A sound return on investment
“It was reassuring that Dematic had already implemented voice for many of the major Australian grocery distributors and retailers,” said Foodstuffs Project Manager, David Bain. “Their experience and advice helped ensure the successful integration of voice picking at our three DC locations in Wellington. “Voice really outperforms RF in high volume order picking applications, and the impressive improvements have been achieved at a realistic cost, making the project a sound investment. “Because Foodstuffs already had WLANs in place for RF operations at all of the DCs, adding voice to the networks didn’t require much effort or expense,” he said.
Voice-directed computing has also reduced Foodstuffs ongoing repair costs associated with RF terminals and scanners. Because these are mostly hand held, rather than worn on the body like voice computers, RF terminals and scanners inevitably get bumped and dropped during use. Repair costs are high and there is the lost productivity, inconvenience, and lost time involved in the repair process.
Integrating NZ’s largest voice picking network
Dematic has also implemented voice-directed computing at three DCs for Foodstuffs South Island, and a further three DCs for Foodstuffs Auckland.
Dematic’s IT systems integration challenge was made more complicated by the fact that all three of the regionally-owned and operated co-operatives run different host computer systems. “This meant we not only had to interface our voice picking system to three separate ERP/WMS systems, but also integrate the system in a way that suited each region’s different business practices and processes,” explained Dematic’s John Botterill.
“Across Foodstuffs’ nine voice-enabled DCs, Dematic has now integrated and supports around 500 voice users, making the co-operative the largest voice-directed computing user in New Zealand,” he said.
Voice-directed computing benefits
Voice-directed computing prompts the operator through a series of tasks with clear, verbal commands, which are transmitted in real time by the user’s WLAN. The voice system is interfaced to the user's host system, with Dematic’s PickDIRECTOR execution software directing all order picking and voice operations.
The operator wears a small headset and a lightweight, portable voice computer is attached to a belt around their waist. This keeps both hands and eyes free at all times while picking, making it easier and reducing the effort involved in lifting and placing cartons. Because the operator doesn't need to waste time looking at and reading data on a computer screen or picking list, or handle and apply labels, productivity increases.
Voice technology also improves order-picking accuracy, with users often achieving accuracy rates over 99.9%. To verify they have reached the correct location, pickers may be asked to read a randomly assigned check digit on the slot. This makes the system virtually foolproof, eliminating costly picking errors. Barcodes, scanners and labels are generally not required, providing further savings.