“See the possibilities with voice control,” says Operations Manager Tommy Petersen at the hardware and building supplies wholesaler Thomée. He continues: Take a break from making exceptions and enjoy the benefits of the main flow, at the same time as you learn about the new technology. This is my recommendation to all those out there who I know are considering adding voice control to their inventory management. The results will come quickly.
Thomée was founded in 1892 and today it forms part of the group Lomond Industrier. Every day, there is a continuous flow of 200-250 pallets of goods to the 14,000 m3 large warehouse in Malmö. The company’s product range consists partly of goods from other suppliers, and partly of their own brands. Overall, about 900 pallets of goods are on their way in and out every day.
Between 7:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., more than 35 people are working to pick and distribute approximately 8,000 order lines per day. The warehouse serves customers in Sweden, Norway and Finland. Customers include both free traders, and big chains such as XL Bygg, Woody Bygghandel, Bolist and Beijer. Approximately 70% of orders are placed electronically.
Voice control instead of automation
In early March, i.e. just over two months ago, Thomée introduced voice control to its picking process. Before that, it used to pick with the help of labels. The labels, which had replaced a previous system based on pick-lists, had been developed in several stages and worked well. Thomée was also satisfied with their own IT support for inventory control, which they had developed themselves. The reason why voice control was evaluated was due to an interest in the additional opportunities that derive from this new technology, and not because work in the warehouse was not working as it should.
“Our interest in voice control developed a number of years ago. Nevertheless, we then abandoned the alternative and instead conducted a very thorough analysis of what we would gain by introducing an automated system. But in our case, with a large stock and very different types of goods, ROI was not good enough to enable us to move forward. So we returned to the idea of voice control, which proved to be a much better option for us and our customers,” says Tommy Petersen, Operations Manager.
Improved efficiency and significantly fewer defect notifications after only two months
For Thomée each delivery opportunity is a meeting with a client. Tommy explains:
“All contact the customer has had with us at Thomée up to the point of delivery builds up expectations of us as a supplier, and by contact I mean personal contacts and also for example through our marketing materials. Each delivery is therefore something of a “moment of truth”. If we live up to the expectations we have created, it gives us a competitive advantage, both directly and indirectly.”
“A very high level of delivery security that is also consistent means that the customer, in principle, can do away with his acceptance inspection of our shipments. As a result, we become a more cost-effective option compared to others, without having to lower our prices. Therefore, our aim was to further reduce picking errors, one of the most important objectives of implementing voice control.”
And the results have been forthcoming, even if Tommy is careful to point out that only a short time has elapsed since implementation:
“With voice control, we wanted to reduce picking errors and increase efficiency by at least 10%. We know that the number of picking errors has already gone down to almost zero, and that we have so far achieved our efficiency objectives. We are confident that this positive trend will continue for some time. This will also make it possible for us to evaluate whether we have achieved an improvement in the working environment and ergonomics, and whether the training we provide our new employees* has become much shorter, as we had hoped. We are confident that voice control will prove to be an advantage when we employ younger people, or people of immigrant origin who are stronger in a language other than Swedish.”
Employees positive after completion of implementation in record time
Changing a working method that people are used to can create uncertainty and doubt, no matter what results you hope to achieve in the long run. How did employees at Thomée react to voice control?
“I would like to take this opportunity to give my team considerable praise for their positive attitude in trying this new technology. Many came up to me and asked when it was their turn to start. Even those who were a little sceptical in the beginning have now said that this is something good. Those who knew what the work involved here in the warehouse got used to the system within an hour, the others on the second day after they were given access to the equipment,” says Tommy. He continues:
“Even I was a little uncertain as to whether this was something for us in the beginning. Then I conducted a test. An employee at the warehouse had a cell phone, and so I guided him through it from inside my office. It was a first, simple attempt to see if this could be something to look into.”
The introduction of voice control at Thomée has not resulted in any other major changes in the process, except for the fact that the information linked to each product has been shortened (see picture). The old system is still there, partly to handle special cases that were initially too difficult to solve with voice control and as a backup in case something went wrong. Implementation was completed ahead of schedule. Tommy says:
“We chose to work with Consafe Logistics for several reasons. First, because they were close to us. We regarded this as an advantage because we were eager to get started quickly. Secondly, they are extremely knowledgeable about warehousing. There was a distinct difference compared to other technology suppliers we spoke to. We had also met before, and I had a positive image of the company.”
We pulled off a very smooth start-up of operations together. We chose to skip the test environment and go live straightaway. We were quite brave in this respect thanks to the availability of our service-oriented IT department.
Next stage: handling special cases and a second wave of efficiency
Thomée now wants to reap further benefits of the new technology. Addressing special cases that the company chose to wait with initially are next in line, as well as examining the role that voice control plays in goods reception.
“Now that all employees are using the voice control system, we also want to follow this up at an individual level. When we get the time to focus on each individual, and we can help to fine-tune the work method so that it will be better for employees and the process, we will see a second wave of efficiency improvements,” Tommy concludes.
* During the summer holiday period, Thomée will have 20 temporary staff employed at the warehouse. With the voice control system implemented, they expect a period of learning that will last just a few hours. We also expect an equally high quality of picking over the rest of the year.