If you attended Parcel Forum with the intention of finding new ways to improve your order fulfillment operation you weren’t disappointed if you visited the Numina Group booth. Featured at their booth was Pick Execution, the latest in voice directed picking automation combined with X-Press PAL, a modular pack, label, and ship technology. In order to demonstrate how easy it is to use speaker independent voice picking, The Numina Group offered attendees the opportunity to “take a test drive” and try out the equipment for themselves. A few brave attendees took them up on their offer and were easily able to pick an order using voice directed picking. Both products “opened eyes” on how order fulfillment operations can install technology that provides the means to ship more with less labor.

Industry averages show that over 50% of distribution labor is spent picking orders. If your current process is dated, based on 90’s or older picking methods, lacks one-touch pick-pack validation and treats quality as a secondary or exception process, your facility is a candidate for a technology boost. The good news is that the latest picking automation is adaptable for use in small to mid size, (5 to 25 user), and 3PL operations. The lower cost and ease of configuration of the newest technologies provide superior productivity gains and faster ROI than past picking systems. 

Next generation picking systems are referred to as multi-modal. They are flexible and easy to adapt to discrete order and batch picking applications. The technology combines RF terminal based voice directed picking with hands free barcode scanning and the simultaneous use of pick to light. Multi-modal technology improves picking rates, lowers labor costs, and provides pick validation with accuracy reaching up to 99.9%. In the past, advanced technologies were reserved for use at only the “Big Box” high volume operations. Times are changing; the latest picking technology is lower in price, easy to use, and can be more easily justified.

What’s the state of your picking process? Before rushing out and buying new picking automation, it’s best to do a benchmark assessment of your current operation’s performance and practices. Armed with the right data you’ll be able to analyze and determine the throughput and productivity gains automation will provide. Develop a “roadmap” to implement savings and productivity gains so your entire team is focused on process improvements. 

Cost of Errors: Picking automation saves labor, but of equal importance is improving accuracy. Industry studies show that the internal cost of resolving shipping disputes ranges from $50-$75 per incident. Do the math and calculate what errors are costing your business. Factor in the internal costs of customer service, researching the issue internally, formulating a response, and re-shipping the order. Add the internal costs to the actual freight charges, inventory adjustments (or losses!) and the fact that many times the returned items are returned damaged. By closing the loop in the picking process with picking validation you eliminate the cost of errors and the cost of overshipments never acknowledged by the customer.

Lost Customers, Tarnished Reputation: Perhaps the most critical factor in a customer’s 
decision to re-order from the same vendor is the vendor’s ability to deliver accurately and quickly. Customers have little tolerance for errors. They want their deliveries fast and complete. Organizations that excel in superior order fulfillment accuracy gain market share at the expense of those that do not. No organization can afford the cost of losing customers, which can equate to hundreds of thousands of dollars of sales revenue per year.

So, where do you start?
Perform a SKU velocity analysis to determine the highest moving SKU’s. Most distribution operations have an 80/20 or 70/30 product profile; re-slot the high movers into picking area “Golden Zones”. Proper SKU slotting yields instant gains, but it’s a continuous process; fast mover A items quickly become B or C movers, just think about last month’s hot movie! SKU velocity analysis and re-slotting should be an on-going standard operating procedure, not a onetime task. It can be difficult and disruptive, even reserved for the dreaded weekend work, but the pay-back can be tremendous with picking rate gains from 80 to 200 plus lines per man hour pick rates. With your A mover SKU’s in forward picking, stored knee to shoulder, and the pick path optimized to eliminate picker “Wander Time”, you’re ready to move forward. 

Now that your current paper pick or RF terminal directed picking process is performing better, start assessing what blend of next generation technology can work best for your operation. Let’s review the Pros and Cons of the three most prevalent methods and the additional performance improvements that voice and/or pick to light can bring to the picking process. 

Paper Picking
Pick sheets are still the most prevalent picking method. It’s flexible and simple. But simplicity and speed come with a price, picking errors can run as high as 1-2%, and at $75 an error, the costs are too high to ship multi-line orders without duplicating labor through a secondary check at packing. 

Radio Frequency (RF) Wireless Terminal
RF terminals have been the traditional path to upgrading paper picking. RF can replace or be used to enhance paper picking and to validate the pick. Pick rates are typically 190 lines per man hour, 5-10% below typical paper pick rates. For RF to work efficiently, approximately 98% plus of SKU’s need bar-codes. Without bar-codes, RF productivity gains are greatly diminished. RF works by directing operators with message display instructions to the proper location and displays the line item and pick quantity. Using the integral barcode scanner, the pick location and/or the SKU barcode is scanned to verify the item and quantity picked. RF Picking can improve accuracy to 99.2% to 99.7%. However, the improved picking accuracy has a price! Picking rates for RF are typically lower than paper pick rates. 

Pick to Light (PTL)
Pick to Light is the fastest and easiest picking technology to train operators to use. It is ideally suited to very high volume SKU’s where the picking density is higher than 3-4 SKU picks per order in an eight to ten foot walk path. PTL uses channels installed on the rack or shelf with the pick activity displays plugged into the channel for power and communication. Pick displays guide the pick process. The picker initiates the pick by using a gun scanner to scan a pick sheet or order barcode to energize the lights. The operator walks to each energized location, picks the quantity displayed and pushes the acknowledgement button. Pick rates increase to 400 to 550 lines per man hour. The main disadvantage is cost, ranging from $55 to $150 per location. This limits the use of PTL to the highest mover SKU’s. Picking accuracy in general is slightly less than RF. 

Voice Directed Picking
Voice is quickly gaining recognition for the best blend of speed, accuracy and ease of use. The picking operators use an RF terminal equipped with a headset and speaker. First generation voice picking uses verbal commands to direct the operator to the pick location. The operator responds by voice and acknowledges the pick location by stating the check digit location ID. Upon location verification the SKU quantity to pick is commanded. Voice’s advantages include hands free-eyes free picking, improved operator safety, and order pick accuracy to as high as 99.9%. Picking speed increases 15%-30% as compared to RF only picking. A disadvantage of first generation voice systems is the requirement to voice train each picker. This increases training time and implementation services, driving costs beyond the reach of smaller and midsize order fulfillment and 3 PL operations. These disadvantages have been eliminated by the latest advancements in voice technology.

Next Generation Software + Technology
The latest multi-modal picking systems can simultaneously support any mix of the three picking automation technologies. Order Fulfillment Operations change, just like slotting requirements, so don’t limit choices to a system that limits your flexibility. The latest generation of RF terminals are lighter, faster, and more powerful, supporting the voice engine. Equipped with a Blue-tooth, wrist mounted, hands free bar-code scanner, the location, SKU and/or lot capture occurs in combination with the voice directed picking. The scanner eliminates a voice location verification command, boosting traditional voice technology by 15-20%. Adding hands free scanning improves picking accuracy up to 99.9%. Pick to light, when added to the highest movers, brings performance to 300 plus line picks per man hour pick rates. 

Pick Execution by the Numina Group
Pick Execution by the Numina Group is an example of next generation picking technology. The software supports RF, voice directed picking, and pick to light. It’s a pure Java application, able to be deployed on multiple operating systems; is database independent, and can be deployed stand alone or easily integrated to existing ERP or WMS Systems. Pick Execution supports pick to carton, pick to cart, and pick to pallet applications. The product supports a full family of advanced and reliable pick to light display modules coupled with topVox topSpeech Lydia, a speaker independent, natural voice command and recognition engine with over 30,000 installed Worldwide Users. To watch a video of Pick Execution in action visit http://www.numinagroup.com

Super Charge Manifesting and Labeling
Perhaps the lowest cost robotic available to the distribution industry is print and apply label applicators. Applied correctly, print and apply automates the application and verification of compliance, packing lists, and shipping labels. A single print and apply label applicator system using data captured from an in-motion scale and dimensioning system automates rate shopping and manifesting by automatically printing, applying, and verifying each shipment.

X-Press PAL Plus is an automated system for packing, in-line void fill, taping, weighing, dimensioning, order validation, labeling and shipping. It applies first a removable packing slip and the second shipping label is precisely applied over the packing list; with both labels removable at the customer receipt. This technology automates the application of packing slips required on the outside of the carton, eliminating on average an additional 30 seconds of manual labor from the shipping and manifesting process.

Pick Execution and X-Press PAL are trademarks of the Numina Group.
topVox and topSpeech Lydia are trademarks of Top Systems.

The Numina Group brings 23 years of expertise to the Order Fulfillment Industry. They are focused on pick, pack, and ship process improvements. For more information visit www.numinagroup.com or email Dan Hanrahan at dhanrahan@numinagroup.com