Picking the right solution

With a growing selection of warehouse picking solutions in the Middle East, can these products really help to boost your supply chain productivity?
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With a growing selection of warehouse picking solutions in the Middle East, can these products really help to boost your supply chain productivity?

A burly warehouse operator leans over a pallet of boxes wearing a headset and microphone. A robotic female voice comes over the headphones: "pick three". The warehouse worker dutifully leans over and humps three boxes from the pallet onto the truck. "Pick three, alpha" he says, confirming that the request has been met.

The video, shown recently at a trade conference in Dubai, aims to showcase a relatively new phenomenon in the regional logistics industry - pick by voice.

Indeed, a young market and the low cost of labour have meant that the Middle East has largely been free of the pressures that have driven European and US providers to adopt sophisticated picking technologies.

But all that could be changing. Rising fuel costs have meant that logistics managers are having to make savings wherever they can and this has led to a greater shift towards inventory transparency.

"Picking errors can cause major and costly problems for retailers as wrong goods are provided in the delivery," says Geoff Wheatley, regional director of SSI Schaefer in the Middle East and Africa. "This leads to some products being out of stock, thus resulting in disgruntled customers. It also means that costs are effectively doubled as the problem will need to be rectified."

To combat this concern, managers in the region are looking to picking solutions in order to cut losses.

Pick by voice is one of many solutions currently on offer for warehouse managers looking to boost productivity and reduce labour costs. Others range from handheld RFID scanners to the space-age looking ‘pick by light' solution.

The way RFID works is by having a small ‘tag' attached to each product. Scanners are then attached to the doors of the warehouse or forklift trucks to record the movement of goods as they enter or leave the warehouse. Similarly, when retrieving goods from shelves, handheld scanners register an item as ‘picked' on the wider warehouse management system. The system has advantages over barcode scanners as it does not require the tag to be in physical contact with the scanner in order to register it.

"Most of these technologies for picking have come from real challenges faced in warehouse environments," says Hemal Shah, director of Logistixware in Dubai. "For example, RFID's use in supply chain management was a result of the big manual labour process that was involved in identifying individual cases and pallets."

However, RFID is not without its detractors. Many operators complain that RFID scanners are unwieldy, especially in cases where operators need to lift goods with both hands. Not only is this method awkward, it can also lead to scanners being dropped and damaged.

"Every technology used in the warehouse has its advantages," says Steve Gerrard, regional managing director for Voxware in the EMEA region. "Mistakes are sometimes made when a single technology is stretched to becomes a universal solution, because this inevitably results in forcing the technology to accommodate workflows that are outside of its ‘sweet spot'. RFID is fantastic for tracking the bulk movement of goods. However, it is not a good solution for manual operations at the pick face where items must be moved by hand."

In July, a representative from Voxware sparked debate at a conference organised by Dubai-based material handling specialist Span Group after its video presentation on pick by voice technologies. The company specialises exclusively in the solution and although it does not currently have any clients in the Middle East, it is one of the top names in the business in the US and Europe. It is clear that the niche focus reflects an unswerving faith in the superiority of the solution over others.

"Voice picking is the most accurate way to direct manual labourers in the warehouse, because voice applications require workers to verify their activities," says Gerrard.

"In addition, workers can be more productive because their hands are free and their eyes are focused on the job itself. This motif also contributes to improved workforce safety. Because workers are directed as they perform tasks, new employees can be trained by the system itself, thus freeing managers for other duties while getting new workers up to speed in record time."
 

Another solution that gives operators free use of their hands is pick by light. This gives the operator visual guidance in picking.

Each pick location is equipped with a small LCD panel and a confirmation button. The panel shows the exact number of items that the worker has to pick from the given location. Once all the items are taken, he confirms the pick by pushing the confirmation button.

However, the technology requires massive investment in racks and lights and cannot be reconfigured without a similar investment. Therefore it has attracted criticism for being inflexible. Moreover, pick by light can also be costly for operations where the number of SKUs is high, as the infrastructure required outweighs the potential benefits that can be achieved.

However, the solution comes into its own when applied in operations where a high number of picks are required. It is also best used as a solution for picking small products, typically those used in pharmaceutical operations - whereas pick by voice is more suitable when large, heavy products, like those in the beverage industry need to be picked.

It is also worth noting that these three solutions - RFID, pick by voice and pick by light - only fall within the category of ‘man to goods'. When coupled with pick by light, automation such as conveyor belts can radically increase the number of picks.

"With a fully automated storage system in the background, the worker no longer walks into the shelving but the goods are instead transported to a centralised workstation," says Wheatley. "At this workstation, the goods are ergonomically displayed to the worker by the use of conveyor systems. With the combination of goods to men and pick by light, very high performances of up to 1000 picks an hour, per worker, can be achieved."

So how accurate can picking possibly be? It seems that the answer would depend on who you speak to. According to Wheatley, automation markedly improves the accuracy of the picking up from ‘man to goods' picking. Success rates of "in excess of" 99.9% can be achieved. Similarly, Gerrard claims that voice picking can achieve rates of over 99.5%.

However, it would seem that the success of the solution would depend on the appropriateness of its application. "The value a picking system brings completely depends on how it is applied," says Shah.

In a similar vein, how soon payback can be expected after the system is installed would seem to depend on a variety of factors. "The speed of payback will vary widely, depending upon the cost of labour, the cost of an error or mispick to the operation, and the cost of the voice solution," explains Gerrard. "Payback in less than 12 months is not unusual."

The issue of picking solutions was discussed at length in several seminars during the recent Span Group conference. That such a debate took place speaks volumes about the impact of such technologies in the region after so long in the wilderness.

It has been said that one of the reasons why companies are put off is the time it takes for picking systems to bed down. "Typically, a distribution centre will see a decrease in productivity for a period of two to three weeks, followed by a large increase when compared to operations before the technology was installed," says Gerrard.

However it is clear that many organisations are looking at these technologies as a result of rising labour costs. Moreover, the maturation of the market has also put pressure on companies to gain the edge by improving efficiency.

SSI Schaefer has been a popular provider in the region, especially as the operator already has an established presence. The company recently installed an automated full-pallet picking system into the Gulf Pharma facility in Ras Al Khaimah, and also implemented a semi-automated garment picking system for Paris Fashions in Dubai. However, voice technologies have been slower to catch on, although both Shah and Gerrard believe that companies are starting to look in the right direction.

"The Middle East has not deployed voice technology in any volume, perhaps due to a relatively low cost of labour," says Gerrard. "However, as operational excellence has become more important and even a competitive necessity, numerous organisations have initiated studies of the technology with a view to reducing their error rates to zero."

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