Paperless picking technologies, from relatively mainstream pick-to-light systems to newer wearable and voice-activated technology, are helping distributors increase picking efficiency and decrease distribution center error rates.
In addition, these technologies' ability to be networked provide distribution center managers with a better picture of both employees' activities and the progress of specific customer orders.
Wearable scanning systems, which incorporate a ring scanner, a computer unit and radio frequency components in one self-contained unit, allow selectors to read a computer display to determine where in the distribution center to go to pick product.
What this does is "help one person pick an order," said Cheryll Lurtz, project analyst at Associated Wholesale Grocers, Kansas City, Kan. "But if you look at the graphic user interface screens that the supervisors, clerks and warehouse personnel look at, and how it organizes the workload, that's where it becomes impressive."
H.E. Butt Grocery Co., San Antonio, uses a wearable scanning system to pick dry groceries and perishables at all its distribution centers except those that house frozen food. The retailer's error rates have dropped from 4.5 cases per thousand to 0.5 cases per thousand due to the technology, according to a source familiar with the situation.
One of the latest technology advances is voice-directed picking, which employs the use of RF technology in what looks like a Walkman with headphones to direct employees to the product to be picked.
Voice-directed picking technology let selectors keep their hands free, versus being filled with labels and traditional scanning devices. These can be difficult to hold when selectors need to wear gloves to keep their hands warm, so the technology offers the most utility in frozen food areas.
Distributors including H-E-B and Associated Wholesale Grocers are looking into voice-activated picking technologies. H-E-B is reportedly exploring its use at a frozen food facility in San Antonio, because the wearable scanning system is not designed for a -20 degree Fahrenheit environment, according to a source familiar with the situation.
Wal-Mart Stores, Bentonville, Ark., is reportedly already using this technology in the freezers of some of its grocery distribution centers.
The voice-based system takes the same sequence the employee would take with a label-based system. As selectors reach the pick slot, they confirm their location, the item and the quantity to be picked with the system by voice.
Associated Wholesale Grocers is also looking into voice-activated technologies for its freezers for the same reasons. "We believe in the future we'll be deploying voice technology," Lurtz said, noting that she has already seen demonstrations from several technology vendors at Associated's Springfield, Mo., warehouse.
"The systems we looked at create a voice pattern and match it to the selector's voice, so that every time the person speaks, the error rate is minimized," Lurtz said.
Ken Walker, principal, Kurt Salmon Associates, Atlanta, said, voice pick is an "exciting advance," but the cost of implementation is high because it's still a new technology. Pick-to-light systems, while also expensive, are more prevalent in distribution centers because they have been around long enough to demonstrate significant productivity gains.
Pick-to-light systems, typically mounted on stationary case flow racks, use lights to direct workers to the product's location and indicate the quantity to be picked. Such systems are often used for picking less than case orders in general merchandise and health and beauty care products.
Like wearable scanning systems, pick-to-light technology can be networked to allow distribution center managers to coordinate work flow and reduce the number of inactive hours of picking, which increases productivity.
Both the regional distribution center in Anniston, Ala., operated by Supervalu, Minneapolis, and the Progressive Distributors division of Hannaford Bros., Scarborough, Maine, experienced productivity improvements by using pick-to-light systems.
Al Reynolds, general manager for Supervalu's Anniston facility, said accuracy and productivity have increased using this system, which has been in place for two years. Productivity levels were at least double what they would have been without the pick-to-light system, he said.
The technology can result in increases in throughput, or pieces picked per hour, by 25% to 33%, according to a retailer who requested anonymity.
The Anniston facility, which consolidates slow-moving product, uses a pick-to-light system for general merchandise that sells in less than full case quantities.
The general merchandise is picked from four pick modules with conveyer take-aways. The pick-to-light system is mounted on the front of the case flow racks. An LED display in each bay tells the selector how much product to pick out of each case.
"The accuracy really comes into play when the selector doesn't have to read a ticket and match that up with an item that's to be selected," Reynolds explained. "The selector goes to the slot, the light tells him what slot to pick it out of, the display on the bay tells him how much of it to pick. The opportunity for errors is just much less. The selectors are directed step-by-step by the system."
Cart-mounted pick-to-light systems use a batch process that allows an employee to select more than one store's order at a time. H-E-B has been using such a system for picking health and beauty care items at its San Marcos, Texas, distribution center for over a year. The technology increased picking productivity by 50%, according to a source familiar with the situation.