HEINEKEN’s eight wholesale distribution centres have traded barcode scanning for voice picking. Operators now have their hands free to pick up heavy products more easily, reducing stress on their backs. They work more productively and efficiently through better ergonomics, better control of picking and a minimal number of speech commands.
At the HEINEKEN Wholesale distribution centre in Deventer, a team of operators process orders for 18,000 customers. They pick beer products, soft drinks, wine and other items like beer mats, sweets and chip trays. Products are supplied to food service establishments and sports canteens in the area, which covers the cities of Lelystad, Zwolle, Enschede and Arnhem.
It is a physically demanding process, states Team Leader Winston Lowijs from HEINEKEN. “The average age of our permanent employees is 58. This includes men who have been carrying out physical labour since the age of fifteen.” Project Manager Ciske Zaal from HEINEKEN Wholesale confirms this. “Scanning barcodes takes quite a bit of effort. A picker processes an average of 400 order lines per day, which translates into 400 scans. Barcode labels are attached to the first beam at a height of two metres. This means they have to scan everything above shoulder height, which can lead to shoulder problems.”
Both hands free
Ergonomics is the most important reason for HEINEKEN Wholesale swapping barcode scanning for voice recognition. Since the summer of 2016, pickers at all eight distribution centres have been working with a headset that lets them communicate with the Consafe Logistics Warehouse Management System (WMS). As a result, barcodes no longer need to be scanned above shoulder height.
“Our pickers now also have both hands free. This lets them pick our products more easily and is less stressful on their backs,” says Zaal. “And pickers no longer need to remember their scanner. They often used to place the device next to them to pick a product, resulting in lost time,” says Lowijs.
HEINEKEN began its search for a new picking technique when existing barcode scanners were approaching the end of their service life. These scanners were put into use at the same time as the Consafe Logistics Warehouse Management System (WMS) back in 2007.
“They normally last for seven to eight years, but we’ve now used them for nine. Many of the scanners have started failing lately. To prevent work from coming to a standstill, we needed new hardware,” explains Zaal.
After a long selection process, HEINEKEN chose the Vocollect speech technology from Honeywell, a Consafe Logistics partner. “Vocollect is a voice-directed system. Pickers first need to undergo training before working with the system, but the system can better understand dialects and give commands in their own dialect. Training takes no longer than 15 minutes. And staff turnover is not so high that we need to train new people every day,” says Zaal.
An added advantage of Vocollect is that the headset communicates with the waist-worn speech terminal by means of wireless transmission. With other systems, communication goes through a cable that can easily get caught when turning, bending or twisting. “The Vocollect system is very robust and has more than proven itself in practice,” claims Zaal.
Having a single partner for both the WMS and speech system makes us more adaptable. This avoids any misunderstandings about the integration of both systems, which lowers the risk of errors and saves us considerable time and, consequently, money.
A final advantage is that the Vocollect system could be implemented by Consafe Logistics. “Having a single partner for both the WMS and speech system makes us more adaptable. This avoids any misunderstandings about the integration of both systems, which lowers the risk of errors and saves us considerable time and, consequently, money.”
According to plan
HEINEKEN deliberately choose Deventer as the first location for the implementation process, given that this distribution centre along the A1 motorway has stable operations and fewer seasonal peaks than other locations. The location also has a very experienced team leader , Winston Lowijs, who has a considerable knowledge of the WMS. “We started the implementation process in January and spent the first two months defining work flows and then tested the system in March and April. The system went live on 20 May,” explains Lowijs.
No problems were encountered when putting the system into operation. On the first day, each picker was paired up with a supervisor who walked behind him with a laptop, but there was little need for assistance. Zaal continues, “A few minor obstacles arose during week two, but were resolved quickly. The speech recognition function works a lot faster now and the speech aspect has approved.”
The other distribution centres made the switch to voice picking three weeks after Deventer, two each week. The transition also went smoothly here. “Most distribution centres were at normal productivity levels after only three or four days,” says Lowijs.
Consafe Logistics contributed significantly to a successful implementation. “Consafe is well-known with our operations and played an important role in translating our requirements into the speech system. They prepared and outlined workflows, which we then tested. If we had any questions, Consafe Logistics answered them quickly. Thanks in part to the good cooperation, the implementation process went according to plan.”
When pickers start work in the morning, they start by logging in and saying their name and password. They then indicate the warehouse where they work: either beer/soft drink or wine/liquor. When they state the check digit, or control number, three labels roll out for the three roll containers they work with.
The system states the picking location, which employees then confirm by stating the check digit on the location label. This is followed by the number of products and then by the letter of the roll container in which the products are to be placed: A for the first, B for the second or C for the third roll container.
The label on every roll container also has a check digit that the picker states for verification purposes. “We don’t work with roll containers in the wine/liquor warehouse, but with carts. Once the partial order for this warehouse is ready, we place it on a table and it is included with the order from the beer/soft drink warehouse,” explains Lowijs.
It took a little while for staff in the distribution centre to get accustomed to working with voice picking, says Lowijs. “This is usually the case with employees who have been working here for a longer time. Until recently, they had a complete overview of the order and could see which customer it was intended for. That information is no longer available and they need to learn to trust system instructions. They also have fewer opportunities now to chat with colleagues. Obviously, that social aspect is important, but it does not outweigh the ergonomic improvement we’ve achieved.”
The use of voice is a step forward in technological development. The system brings improvements on three fronts: ergonomics, delivery reliability and profitability.
Reduced number of commands
According to Zaal, operations in the eight HEINEKEN distribution centres are highly suitable for voice. “Voice works well because the process is simple. We have a relatively straightforward order picking process without too many customer-specific requirements or complicated stacking patterns. Good slotting also helps. The products are placed so that pickers do not have to think about product stackability during their picking route.”
HEINEKEN, supplier Honeywell and implementation partner Consafe Logistics have also succeeded in further simplifying the voice picking process. The number of commands has been reduced to a minimum to prevent employees from getting caught up in a web of instructions.
“At the start of an order we originally planned to have the system state the ‘cask racks’ command if the picker needed to include these. On the advice of two warehouse employees, we’ve now placed that on the labels that roll out of the printer.”
HEINEKEN also abandoned the idea of having the system state the product description for each order line. “There is only one product at each location in our distribution centres, so what’s the point of a product description?” says Lowijs.
Maarten Bakhuizen emphasises the importance of voice implementation for HEINEKEN. “The use of voice is a step forward in the technological development. The system helps our employees for ergonomic reasons and our customers in terms of better delivery reliability.
We are also improving profitability because employee productivity has increased, so the system brings improvements on three fronts,” explains the regional logistics director, responsible for the distribution centres in Drachten, Deventer, Houten, Oss and Heerlen.
He speaks highly of the partnership with Consafe Logistics and Vocollect. “The system was up and running at all eight distribution centres after only ten weeks. The system is stable and we receive good support from our suppliers.”
HEINEKEN expects the productivity level of pickers to increase thanks to voice picking. “If you watch a picker working with a barcode scanner, you’ll see him continuously looking at the scanner, walking to the location displayed, looking at the scanner again for the right quantity, putting down the scanner, picking up the required number of products and then picking up the scanner again.
That constant looking and putting down wastes a lot of time,” says Lowijs and is echoed by Zaal. “Not only that, but pickers can work with a lot more focus now that they have to listen to the instructions through their headset.”
Another change is that the radio is not so loud anymore and less distracting. The situation is entirely different than with barcode scanning. Every time pickers laid down the scanner they lost their focus.
Although HEINEKEN has not been working with voice picking long enough to have an informed opinion about it, Zaal and Lowijs are convinced that the number of picking errors has been reduced. And that is thanks to greater focus. “During a routine inspection three weeks after implementation, six lorries, each with 27 roll containers, were inspected in detail. Only one mistake was identified and that was due to incorrect replenishment at a picking location. That’s extremely low,” says Lowijs.
HEINEKEN plans to further improve the use of voice picking. Zaal plans to add new location labels, each with three check digits in red, white or blue. “At a certain point, pickers will have memorised the check digits and these control numbers then lose their effect. In the future, they will state the check digit accompanying the colour stated by the system.”
HEINEKEN wants to use the speech technology for other processes. “Order picking is sixty percent of our job, so this is an obvious area to focus on. But speech technology is also interesting for other processes, such as counting stock, processing returns, replenishing pick locations or stocking incoming goods. For incoming goods, all suppliers will have to deliver with an SSCC label. Things have not progressed that far yet.”
Sale of beverages to food service establishments, sports canteens, companies, etc.
Deventer, one of the eight distribution centres and four depots in the Netherlands
Items in stock
1,400 out of a total range of 4,100
Number of warehouse employees
40 to 45, including support staff and drivers
More about the client
HEINEKEN is a producer of well-established beer brands, and supplier of beverages to food service providers, varying from beer and wine and to milk products, food and non-food. HEINEKEN is a partner who brainstorms with the customer to help food service establishments improve their sales. This is accomplished by introducing new beverages, promoting them through campaigns and supporting customers with sound advice. HEINEKEN also pursues the sustainable use of resources, so that future generations can also be proud of their living environment.