Headsets, Moving Shelves Picking Goes High-Tech

Apr 01, 2006 10:30 PM  By

Some of the most significant opertions innovations are occurring within picking applications. The new solutions recognize that with traditional picking operations, workers spend too much time moving from one place to another to collect the items they need to fill orders, says Sam Flanders, president of Portsmouth, NH-based Warehouse Management Consultants.

One of the applications growing in popularity is voice-directed picking, which Flanders says “is getting very reasonable in cost.” For instance, the solution from Pittsburgh-based Vocollect typically runs about $4,000 for each employee equipped with the system, says director of marketing Don Lazzari. Vocollect’s system has been in use since the mid-1990s but is continually updated.

When written orders come in to the warehouse — whether via an inventory management system, an order management system, or a homegrown application — Vocollect’s software converts the information to speech commands. A picker dons his headset, logs into a terminal that recognizes his name, and receives his first assignment. For instance, the headset might issue the command, “Go to aisle 001, location 3.”

When the picker arrives at aisle 001, location 3, he will see a label with a number printed on it. The picker repeats the number into the headset to let the system know that he is in the right place. The system tells the picker how many items to pick. After the picker has done this, he will say something like “ready” to let the computer know it’s time to hear the next task. The system then tells the picker how to proceed. As the picker pulls items to fill orders, the inventory software or WMS is alerted to the action through a computer the picker wears on his belt.

Voice-directed picking enables workers to keep their hands and eyes free, as pickers don’t have to look at computer screens or paper lists to determine how to fill orders. They simply listen to instructions that come through their headsets. As a result, productivity typically jumps 30%-50%, Lazzari says.

Another emerging technology, from Woburn, MA-based Kiva Systems, is a picking application in which the products, rather than the pickers, move around the warehouse. “Every item in the warehouse is mobile,” says Rob Stevens, vice president of business development.

Each item is stored on an inventory pod or shelving unit; robots placed throughout the DC move the pod to the picker. Once the pod is in front of the picker, he removes the item on the order list, which is highlighted by a laser light. The picker waves the item past a barcode scanner; if it isn’t the correct item, the computer alerts the picker. Once the correct item has been picked, the robot returns to its original location within the warehouse or to another picker who needs an item from the same pod.

Companies that implement a Kiva solution typically spend at least $1 million and usually have at least a dozen pickers and packers.