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Voice in, product out

Labor turnover challenges food distributors in many of the same ways that it does the truckload carriers that help maintain their inventories. Industry studies have shown that the shortage of drivers that has plagued motor carriers for years is beginning to impact distributors. However, the primary source of labor concern seems to fall on warehouse workers.

At foodservice houses, the majority of warehouse work happens at night — not exactly the work schedule that most workers seek by choice. As one warehouse manager says, “The best thing about a night job is that workers have all day long to look for a day job.”

Humor such as that aside, food distributors face the potential of relatively high turnover among the basic workers in their systems — order selectors. To maintain the high service levels demanded by foodservice customers, distributors must maintain a workforce that performs productively and accurately with relatively low training costs. Numerous distributors, with US Foodservice based in Columbia, Maryland, among them have adopted voice-directed order selection in their warehouses as a method of improving productivity and order accuracy, while reducing the time and expense of training the workforce.

Listen up, pull cases

In concept, voice-directed order selection is fairly simple. The order selector wears a headset with an earphone and a microphone, which are connected to a lightweight receiver-transmitter on the worker's belt. A voice tells the selector to go to a specific warehouse location. Upon arrival, the worker confirms the location by reading back a series of identification or check digits from the warehouse rack. The system then instructs the worker to select a certain number of cases. When the selector confirms the order, the worker is directed to the next warehouse location.

US Foodservice is the second largest foodservice distributor in the US and the largest that has deployed voice-directed order selection on a significant scale. The company has 29,000 employees working from 100 distribution centers spread across 41 states to serve more than 250,000 customers. US Foodservice began installing voice-directed order selection in 2000 and has deployed the system in 43 sites since 2001, giving the company a total of 45 distribution centers operating VoiceLogistics from Voxware, a systems supplier based in Lawrenceville, New Jersey.

The decision to implement voice-directed order selection rests with local distribution center managers and regional executives. If voice-directed selection appears to be an operation benefit to a location, it is installed.

It takes about three weeks to install the Voxware system, start to finish, says Blanca Wong Thomas, manager of vendor applications at US Foodservice. “We start the installation process by putting Voxware into the freezer first, followed by the cooler, and finishing with the dry groceries warehouse,” she says.

Implementation of voice-directed order selection is supported from the top down in US Foodservice. The first installation took place at the company's original location in Pittstown, Pennsylvania, and Bernie Cassetori, a US Foodservice vice-president pulled the first carton from the selection slot.

Reduce shipping errors

The motivation behind voice-directed order selection was an attempt to reduce selection and shipping errors at US Foodservice distribution centers, Thomas says. Not only does the selection system provide greater accuracy, it improves worker productivity as well. This includes workers entering variable product catch weights into the system during order selection.

Warehouse workers on the night order selection crew typically have a high turnover rate, Thomas says. Voice-directed selection helps reduce the worker training cycle. In addition, the system helps reduce the amount of paper required to run a warehouse. “Guys walk through the warehouse with enough stuff in their hands,” she says. “We want to reduce the amount of paper selectors carry.”

In a three-week installation cycle, the first week is spent configuring hardware after it arrives on-site. The last week involves introduction of the system to the workforce. “We try to put the system into the hardest jobs first, which is the reason for starting in the freezer,” Thomas says.

Spanish if needed

US Foodservice has worked with Voxware to produce a version of the system that works in Spanish, Thomas says. To make the system work efficiently for the warehouse crews, the Spanish language version is built around the vernacular many of the workers use rather than more formal, academic Spanish. The dialog function is flexible so that workers with distinct pronunciation patterns can choose words for order verification that are easy for them to use.

Results for the voice-directed order selection system have been impressive, Thomas says. On a company-wide basis, voice direction is credited with a 51.7% decrease in selection errors. At some sites, the error reduction has been as high as 72%. The best results have come in the biggest warehouses that carry the largest inventories and employ the most selectors, she says.

US Foodservice uses fairly simple tactics to maintain selection accuracy. For instance, selectors have a tendency to memorize the check digits on the selection slots, Thomas says. To prevent workers from reading back the check digits from memory and picking from the wrong location, the company simply changes the check digits from time to time. Check digits on loading doors are changed periodically as well. With fewer doors on a warehouse than selection slots, the check digits on doors are fairly easy to memorize.

Check digits can be changed without physically putting up new stickers throughout a warehouse. “In our Allentown facility, we have the selectors read the three-digit verification numbers in standard order for one week and then switch to reading them in reverse order the following week,” Thomas says. “That seems to work fairly well. However, individual location managers have the authority to change check digits as often as they feel necessary.”

Improved productivity

Improved selection accuracy also results in better shipping accuracy. A shorts management system helps reduce the number of incomplete orders actually shipped. Company-wide the reduction of incomplete orders shipped has been 17.6%, Thomas says. Across the board, the company has seen a 5% to 8% increase in productivity for those sites using voice-directed order selection.

Voice direction makes order selection into an easier job, Thomas says. In most cases, new workers can be trained to meet performance standards up to 35% faster than before voice direction was installed. In addition, worker retention is higher, because the learning curve for top performance is easier to master. A worker can be consider fully trained after six weeks on the job with voice direction compared to an average of nine months with the company's previous systems, she says.

“To validate the system, we periodically run a selection sequence without voice direction,” Thomas says. “The result is something approaching hysteria with managers and workers all trying to find a way to avoid using the old system. The reason for the dry runs on the old system is to train selectors to use the previous selection procedures.”

Labels for drivers

Although many US Foodservice locations now utilize voice-directed selection, the company still operates with the industry-standard gummed label order identification system. The voice system directs workers to the selection slots and states how much product must be selected, but labels still have a place in the distribution system. Essentially, labels are for the delivery driver who still has to know what is in a given box, who is supposed to get the box, and how many boxes to unload at a delivery stop.

Order selectors use double pallet jacks during picking, which allows workers to select multiple orders on a single pass through the warehouse. One added benefit of voice-directed selection is that the system tracks in-use warehouse equipment. This allows warehouse personnel to know how many hours a pallet jack has been in use and to confirm that it has been working properly, Thomas says.

The system provides instant gratification to the workforce, Thomas says. At the start of a selection shift, the system informs the selector what work is in store and provides an estimate of the time required. Throughout a shift, a selector or lift truck operator is kept informed of how much work has been done and how that work compares to a projected goal, she says.

The Voxware system has the flexibility to allow workers to vary their routine. Rather than requiring a fixed selection sequence, the system allows workers to skip some selections and return for that product later, Thomas says. It also keeps track of variable weight products sold by the pound such as meat. In addition, the system can direct workers to select partial or split cases, keeping track of those partial cases as the order progresses.

Protection from damage

The system also helps protect orders against physical damage. Items weighing more than 100 lb are defined as heavy, Thomas says. Selection is sequenced so that heavy items get placed on a pallet first rather than getting stacked on top of more fragile parts of the order. “We don't want something heavy squishing the apples,” she says.

Once a picking location is verified by reading back the check digits, the worker is directed to pull the order. If the selection slot does not have enough product to fill the order, the system alerts a lift operator to replenish the slot. In the meantime, the order selector is sent on through the selection sequence and is notified when the slot has been refilled. At the end of the picking sequence, the system directs the worker to drop the full pallets at a loading door. Each door on the warehouse has a series of check digits that must be read into the system to ensure accurate load staging, Thomas says.

To keep the selection system running most efficiently, selectors can drop orders at the loading doors with parts of the order incomplete if the selection slots are empty. An empty selection slot triggers an automatic replenishment from warehouse reserve stock. A shorts management routine in the Voxware system takes over filling incomplete orders. The system sends selectors back through the warehouse to pick product in batches for directed quantity drops at the loading doors. The same method of door verification is used.

“With the system of check digits on the selection slots and at the doors, we are confident that the correct product is staged for loading,” Thomas says. “From that point, it's the driver's responsibility to deliver the right product at the right stop.”

The next step in voice-directed systems is to expand the technology to the warehouse put-away systems, to loaders, and to automated cycle counts.

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