Ape in the Warehouse

Apr 01, 2003 10:30 PM  By

PRIDE OF AMERICA (POA) supplies U.S. emblems and medal paraphernalia to customers worldwide. Labor costs associated with picking inventory were almost half of the total cost of order fulfillment, so the Sudsbury, MA-based cataloger moved to an automated pick-to-light carousel system.

Warehouse carousels deliver items to light-activated bins where workers simply place them in a carton for shipment. POA found that a single worker at a carousel could match the output of three full-time pickers, with 10% fewer errors.

But POA didn’t stop there. The owner’s daughter, who was researching visual — motor skills in chimpanzees at Boston’s Northeastern University, became convinced her chimps could do the job. One grant and ten months later, she proved her point.

Three chimpanzees, working four one-hour shifts per day, currently pick 90% of all the company’s orders. Two have error rates less than 0.1% The third, more high-strung and easily distracted, still clocks in an error rate of less than 1% and continues to show improvement.

“By the time you factor in salaries, benefits, and taxes, we reduced our fulfillment costs by roughly 40%,” says Hank Foster, POA’s president.

One animal rights group contacted by a disgruntled former worker is not so enthusiastic. “We’re very concerned,” says Connie Jensen-Brewer, executive director of the Animal Liberation Coalition. “These animals are being forced to perform in an unnatural and exploitative way. It’s bad enough that people are losing their jobs. That it’s at the expense of defenseless animals with no legal protections of any kind is totally unacceptable.”

Foster strongly disagrees. “We treat our animals as well as they would be treated anywhere else, including a zoo. They enjoy their work, receive excellent veterinary care, and spend much of their time in an outdoor area where they eat, sleep, and play between shifts. We don’t force them to do anything.”

Warehouse specialist and consultant Wayne Duape thinks POA is definitely on to something. “This is a real breakthrough in warehouse logistics,” he says. “As absurd as it may sound, one must wonder if a union might try to step in to get a piece of the action. Thousands of simian warehouse workers could be a ripe new target for unionization.”

Stranger things have happened. (Ape-ril Fool.)

A PERFECT 10

An article by Curt Barry (see this year’s fulfillment software review on p. 39) titled “Putting MIS on the Fast Track” in the January 1994 issue of O+F offers suggestions on how to streamline information technology in the warehouses of a decade ago. It is practically nostalgic to note, among other examples of shifts in vocabulary, the complete absence of references to online functions or anything Web-based.

  1. Grow your own programming resources.
  2. Implement fourth-generation languages. “4GLs speed up development four to ten times over the widely used COBOL.”
  3. Develop separate teams for systems and user support.
  4. Involve management in long-range MIS planning. This is perhaps the single suggestion whose terms and rationale have remained the same over the past decade.
  5. Use CASE tools software for development design. “Computer-assisted software engineering is an approach to software development that redirects the emphasis toward design of applications, not coding them.”

Paper-based Systems vs. RF Technology

CRITERIA PAPER RFDC
Database accuracy Worse Better
Ability to prevent errors Worse Better
Non-value-added costs to maintain High Low
Warehouse labor productivity Worse Better
Initial investment Better Worse
Source: O+F, January 1994

Updating the Warehouse

6 Practical Considerations

  • Fresh approaches to staffing
  • Improved information flow
  • New ideas about real estate
  • Improved warehouse fire protection
  • Bright ideas in lighting
  • Improved warehouse layout

Source: O+F, January 1994