Pays to be picky with technology

With a wide range of warehouse picking technologies on offer, choosing the appropriate one is essential for increased efficiency.

IMMEDIACY and speed is essential to survival in the modern world and people are impatient when it comes to waiting.

The warehousing and distribution industry is no stranger to this global shift, feeling supplier pressure for faster input and output times. As more and more suppliers demand faster product delivery at a higher volume, it is vital warehouses use appropriate picking technology.

The choice is complex and often a combination is required to meet the different needs of materials being handled.

Mark Faigen, Executive GM of Dexion Integrated Systems believes the decline in proprietary-based products is creating a convergence of voice and pick-to-light technology on a more open platform. He says the move away from proprietary-based devices means voice and light technology can be combined using the same off the shelf RF equipment.

“Customers now have access to open systems where they can apply one technology to the right application and another technology to other functions, right under the same roof,” Faigen said.

“They are no longer forced to make the decision between one or the other, or be tied to a particular provider. It’s more multi-modal, and you should be able to choose the appropriate technology for the particular function.”

While Nathan Taylor, GM of Dematic’s Real Time Logistics Group, agrees that technology convergence and open standards are driving the growth of picking technologies, he believes it is advances in integrated software platforms that really differentiate a mediocre solution from an outstanding one.

Voice picking

According to Taylor, voice represents one of the most significant changes in order fulfilment over the past decade.

“Voice has now become the leading technology for both full case and split case picking and has set itself as the new benchmark,” he said.

“The main advantage of voice is it’s hands-free and eyes-free technology. It’s able to direct work instructions to an operator and receive confirmations back without the need of an operator having to hold a piece of paper to check things off, or an RF terminal in another hand to scan a barcode and then put it down and pick the item.

“When you compare voice to paper, you get picking productivity gains between the 5-10% mark and you get significant accuracy gains because you are able to confirm exactly what the operator is doing. Comparing voice to RF, our clients are experiencing productivity gains in the 20% range.

“The voice terminal interacts wirelessly with the warehouse management system, prompting an operator through a task with audible commands and waiting for a verbal confirmation or request.

“This process creates real time information which is particularly useful for tracking inventory levels and managing replenishments.

Taylor says a drawback to voice technology can be the very feature that sets it apart: its speech recognition accuracy.

“Industrial environments are very noisy and as a result you need a very robust, very reliable recognition platform that’s going to understand what the operator is saying and is going to be fast and responsive,” Taylor told Manufacturers’ Monthly.

Faigen agrees, stressing that companies must choose the appropriate technology for the application. He suggests pick-to-light may be more applicable for high-volume, split-case picking.

Pick-to-light

Pick-to-light technology is designed for systems where high picking speed and low error rate is crucial.

Using light displays, operators are directed to specific stock locations. Within a zone, the operator scans a barcode on the order; the light display shows how many items to pick and where to put them and the operator confirms this has been done.

Faigen says Dexion has a long history with pick-to-light technology since its introduction in the 1980s. He believes it is ideal for fast-medium, split-case picking systems but due to its inflexibility as a stand-alone technology, is more limited in its application.

“Voice is typically more cost-effective to roll out and arguably more flexible in its application,” Faigen said, adding that pick-to-light’s inflexibility is due to its proprietary nature.

To combat this, Dexion has developed an open, multi-modal platform for light and voice technologies, where businesses can realise the benefits of both technologies using the same RF equipment.

Dematic is also looking to converge the two for batch picking applications.

“Rather than having an RF terminal to direct the operator where to go and what to pick, we have voice directing, leaving the operator hands-free and the lights to still provide the confirmation of the quantity to put for that particular store,” Taylor said.

Taylor agrees that for most order profiles, pick-to-light does not provide the flexibility of voice as only one order can be picked in a zone at one time. Another consideration is that pick-to-light systems are driven by cost per SKU whereas voice applications are driven by cost per operator.

“With voice, if you want to add more people into your picking, all you have to do is invest in another unit for that person. If you have pick-to-light, for each product location you have, you have to buy a light for that location and that’s a significant investment.”

Faigen and Taylor say that both technologies will produce an ROI in less than two years but warn customers that the wrong technology in the wrong application will not produce this kind of result.