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Warehouse worker working with voice technology

Brakes – VoiceMan and Talkman

June 6, 2010

Brakes is a leading supplier of quality food to the catering industry in the UK and France, with a turnover in excess of £1.6 billion. Its strong understanding of the needs of the catering industry has seen Brakes develop into a leading foodservice solutions provider. Brakes supplies products across all three temperature ranges, to serve a diverse customer base, including independently-owned pubs, restaurants, hotels, fast food outlets, contract caterer, schools, and hospitals. Making nearly 30000 deliveries a day from the largest distribution network in foodservice Brakes is able to offer customers a choice of over 15,000 products.

Employing more than 8,000 people in the UK and France, Brakes constantly strives for, and achieves, high standards of service and delivery.

The Challenge

To provide timely and efficient distribution.

Ensuring the timely and efficient distribution of goods to the catering industry is a complex and often testing process, not made easier by the perishable nature of some of the produce and the high demands of customers.

Due to the quantity of goods involved it is essential that they are handled efficiently to ensure that orders are delivered on time.

“Grantham is the busiest of the Brakes warehouses, supplying not only a large customer base but also many of the other Brakes depots in the group. To cope with the amount of products to be distributed we need to be efficient and accurate in all areas of the supply chain.”
Chris Whinfrey, Distribution Ctr Manager, Brakes

The Solution

A switch from a paper-based picking process to a fully automated voice enabled warehouse.

The Brakes warehouse in Grantham is the company’s largest, supplying chilled and frozen goods, to the food service industry and to other Brakes depots. The sales team takes the customer orders up to 5pm for next day delivery – the pressure is on the warehouse and its staff to load the 1400 delivery vehicles ready for their 6am start.

Once the customer order information is available, the warehouse management system (WMS), SAP, then breaks down the orders further by customer, weight and dimension, and then warehouse picking lists are produced. Traditionally these lists have been created on paper and warehouse operatives had to work from printed sheets.

As a system, paper based picking worked but with the increase in products to be supplied they need a more efficient was needed. The pickers found it clumsy to use, always having their list in their hand, making lifting larger items from shelves difficult at times and potentially posed a risk to safety. There was also a certain amount of lost time, as pickers would be moving back and forth between the operational centre and the warehouse floor to check items, notify out of stock items, then sort and choose which list they wanted to pick.

The margin for error using paper based picking was also large, as there was process in place to prevent incorrect orders being picked and dispatched. These errors then took time to rectify, both physically correcting the items picked, along amending the system and the paperwork, again decreasing the efficiency.

A decision was made to remove paper from the system and the Grantham depot adopted voice picking from Voiteq and integrated it into their SAP WMS. The system consists of a piece of bolt-on middleware that sits between the WMS and the operatives. Taking a standard output file, the system gives Brakes the efficiencies of a two-way voice controlled order picking system.

The Result

Greater accuracy and efficiency in the warehouse.

Grantham first went live with standard voice picking in the warehouse, picking the products onto pallets or into cages for specific orders. This dramatically increased productivity and accuracy, but the pallets and cages were not always packed efficiently so they introduced pick by cube. This method takes into account the volumetric data stored on the products, allowing the operative to make the most of the space available, requiring less new pallets and cages.

Operatives use Vocollect’s Talkman® T2 solution. Each picker wears a headset and microphone that sits easily under the mandatory hard hats worn in the warehouse environment, plus a waist belt to hold the voice unit that connects back to the main system through a wireless network installed in the warehouse.

Once the operative has signed on, the system tells them exactly where to go in the warehouse. A verbal ‘check back’ from the operator confirms that they are in the correct position and then the voice in their ear will tell them how many items to collect and where to place them in the cage, they in turn will give verbal confirmation that the item has been picked. In this way one operative can efficiently pick multiple items for several orders at one time, or several operatives can pick one large order.

The benefits for Brakes have been significant, with productivity gains in excess of 11% and near 100% accuracy in orders. Implementing voice technology has also speeded up the rate at which operatives can pull orders together, a massive benefit when working in such a tight timeframe.

The system recognises sounds rather than words and is trained to understand commands from each individual operative. Pickers can communicate with the Talkman unit in any dialect.

This also has implications for the time it takes to train new employees. Whereas previously it took months for an operative to be picking at full speed it now takes just weeks. The technology is very easy to use and understand. New starters are up and running much more quickly than before and are therefore reaching their targets much more quickly.

More recently Brakes Grantham have introduced ‘pick by line’ to the system. This provides the operatives with the option to select the correct quantity for various orders from the same line of products and place the picked products into specific cages.

Following the improvements and productivity gains from implementing a voice system in the order selection process, Brakes are now looking to use voice in other parts of the business including replenishment.

“Having seen the increase in efficiency that voice has provided to the picking process, we are now looking to deploy voice technology across as many of the warehouse functions as possible.”
Chris Whinfrey, Distribution Ctr Manager, Brakes

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