• Most Innovative Use of IT
• Most Effective Use of IT in Retail
Winner: East of England Co-operative Society
Project: Voice-driven warehouse
Business goal: To bring about a set change in the efficiency of warehouse processes
The local Co-operative supermarkets that dot the UK’s retail map are not always associated with IT innovation. But in recent years, Co-ops have had an impressive track record of success at the Information Age Effective IT Awards.
This year, the East of England Co-operative Society proved it had an appetite for working with leading-edge technology when its implementation of voice-driven warehouse management technology brought it the Most Innovative Use of IT award and the accolade for the Most Effective Use of IT in Retail.
The impressive infrastructural implementation represented not only, in the words of one judge, “a strong technological innovation” but also achieved “a labour first”.
Prior to the two-year project, the Co-op’s 140,000 square foot depot in Ipswich, from which the independent retailer dispatches produce to 200 stores across East Anglia, operated through a largely manual, paper-based set of processes, explains the company’s IT manager, Steve Bentley. “We ran a ‘stick and pick’ system : when we produced an order to be picked, a label was printed off and given to a clerk, who had to drive up and down the [warehouse] aisle sticking labels on every case that needed to be shipped.” Inefficient and time-consuming, the system also forced forklift truck drivers to return to the dispatch office after every ‘pick’ to receive their next task, even if their subsequent activity was in the same area of the warehouse.
But the problems did not end there. When operating the forklift trucks, pickers had to check off goods against their pick lists. This process led to errors and delays, as pickers were repeatedly forced to put down their instructions in order to pick and load a product, and also by the need to constantly cross-reference between the list and picking job in hand. Instructions were often misread or mislaid and items wrongly selected, while the dispatch office had limited visibility into the whereabouts of products at any given time. Stock replenishment was consequently slow and few tasks could be prioritised effectively. In short, says Bentley, the operational processes within the warehouse were “long, laborious and manual, with paper everywhere”.
In order to address these issues, Bentley decided to implement the latest version of AquiTec’s SCM Warehouse Management System (WMS), which augmented the software package with an advanced voice interface. “Using voice technology in the warehouse had been mentioned in the past,” explains Bentley, “so we began to assess the potential benefits, and also how we would go about implementing it.” To exploit the benefits of the new technology, Bentley and his team of eight had to integrate the system with two other key technologies – wireless and voice-enabled handheld devices provided by Psion Teklogix, and voice recognition technology from Vocollet. “In all, I estimated that we would make on average 30% savings with the new technology, which would represent £80,000 annually,” adds Bentley.
Under the new system, the handheld PCs are used to check-in and scan goods newly received at the warehouse. When, at a later time, the items are ready for picking, the truck driver is guided to the required pick location by Talkman T5 speech terminals which are worn on the drivers’ belts. Picking instructions are received directly from the WMS via a two-way headset, which instructs the driver both what items to pick and in what quantities. When all the merchandise has been picked, the Psion Workabout Pro handhelds are used again to check the cages onto the waiting dispatch lorries. All the data processed by both the Talkman T5 terminals and the handheld PCs is then transmitted back to the central server via wireless access points located around the warehouse.
At this point, AquiTec’s WMS is able to organise the data in order to provide end-to-end real-time visibility on the location of all goods, as well as constant updates on the progress of assigned tasks.
Now, from the moment merchandise enters the warehouse, to the moment it leaves, it is tracked by the AquiTec system, ensuring accuracy and efficiency at each stage of the warehouse dispatch process. “We hit many of our cost-saving targets straight away,” says Bentley, while overall the Society is set to generate a full return on its modest £300,000 investment through substantial productivity gains.
“Pick rates are increasing, and we now have more defined management structures because the system has refined our business processes,” says Bentley. Inventory management has improved considerably too due to increased visibility into the movement of all stock.
But the project has not only resulted in considerable business benefits, he adds. It has also proved to be a transformational process for individual staff members, explains Bentley.
“Although it was implemented by eight people in IT, everyone from the cleaners up to the management board has had a role in implementing the project: the whole experience was very inclusive and has really boosted morale.”
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