The increased use of voice-directed picking systems and other hands-free technologies is helping to move goods through the warehouse with increased speed and accuracy.
Retailers such as Wal-Mart, Bentonville, Ark., and Kroger, Cincinnati, are using voice-directed systems for order picking at their distribution centers. Most of the retailers that are currently using voice technology are using it for order picking, according to supermarket industry sources.
However, voice technology could also be used for tasks such as putaway, replenishment, receiving, inspection, returns and quality control, to name a few, sources said.
Some retailers told SN that voice technology is not on their radar screen yet, because they don't believe the technology is fully developed, or because their warehouse is fast-moving, with only a small storage area.
Retailers noted that other technology, such as handheld scanners, could keep both hands free and work well in a fast-moving, cross-docking type of environment.
Associated Wholesale Grocers, Kansas City, Kan., said that it looked at voice technology for use in its freezers last year, but has not installed it yet. However, the wholesaler added that it is getting closer to implementing voice technology.
Super Store Industries, Stockton, Calif., weighed the potential picking benefits of voice technology and installed about 60 units over the summer at its Lathrop, Calif., dry-grocery facility.
Super Store was looking to improve its picking efficiency from 175 cases per hour to 185 cases per hour.
"It took us two to three weeks to get comfortable and show pretty dramatic improvement [in picking efficiency]," according to Tom Martineau, chief information officer for Super Store Industries.
However, because the warehouse-management system was being revamped at the same time the voice technology was introduced to the facility, the warehouse supervisory staff spent most of its time learning the new WMS and less time on the floor.
"In putting in a new WMS, we probably taxed our warehouse supervision a little," Martineau added.
However, with the warehouse supervisory staff now up to speed on the new system, productivity should begin to rise, he said.
"I think as we go forward here, we will still see a significant [increase from a] productivity standpoint," Martineau said.
Certified Grocers of California, Los Angeles, is another wholesaler that had been considering voice technology, but ultimately opted for another hands-free approach to improving warehouse productivity.
The wholesaler has implemented wrist technology at its main distribution center, located in Commerce, Calif. Although the new technology is not voice-directed, it allows employees to have both hands free during the picking and putaway process.
The wrist technology is a radio frequency based-computer that attaches to the warehouse worker's wrist for verification of the pick list, said Mark Allison, director of logistics for Certified Grocers. It also verifies that the product is in the correct pick slot.
After an employee registers the item as picked, the warehouse-management system, which is fully integrated with the wrist-worn technology, is updated.
"[It's a] pretty complete system and just a different way of attacking [warehouse efficiency]," Allison said. "[It's a] more proven technology.
"It [voice technology] hasn't gotten where it needs to be," Allison said. "Voice [technology] will be terrific eventually."
He added that although it's not looking to implement voice right now, the wholesaler is interested in it.
BJ's Wholesale Club, Natick, Mass., said that at its high-volume, high-velocity distribution centers in Franklin, Mass., and Bristol, Pa., waist-worn scan guns are the most efficient hands-free way to move product through the warehouse.
The scan guns are use in conjunction with a highly customized warehouse-management system.
"We're in our fourth year with a WMS that is based totally on radio frequency," said Ray Sareeram, senior vice president of logistics for BJ's. "We are believers in radio frequency [technology]."
Sareeram told SN that prior to moving to the totally paperless system, the retailer used a cumbersome paper pick list process that resulted in a high error rate and low productivity.
The retailer said that about 70% of the products processed through the two DCs are cross docked, and therefore pallets don't spend much time in the warehouse.
About 70% of the products are in and out of the distribution center in four hours, he said, noting there isn't a lot of storage. The remaining 30% of products are broken down into mixed pallets for smaller volume stores, according to the retailer.
"We put a license plate on each pallet and enter it into our system through a scan gun, and then from there, wherever it goes in a facility it's also reflected within our data base," Sareeram said.
The scan guns can also be found on the forklifts. The operator can scan the bar code and the terminal will display for the worker where to place an inbound or outbound pallet in the distribution center.
"It's cut shrink virtually to nil and increased velocity,"
Sareeram told SN.
BJ's said it continues to refine and enhance the WMS and expects it to last about another four years before needing replacement.
Sareeram told SN said that the sophistication of voice technology is not necessary in BJ's fast-paced environment, but added he could see voice technology being used in an environment that has a lot of storage.