Brrr! It’s Cold in There!
Get the scoop on a voice-enabled picking system that keeps Dreyer’s Edy’s workers productive and equipment functioning in sub-zero environments.
When picking orders of ice cream and frozen desserts stored at 20 degrees below zero, Dreyer’s Edy’s Grand Ice Cream warehouse workers did not want to take off their gloves, mess with paper and pencil, or tie up one hand holding a scanner.
That’s just one reason why the ice cream company installed a voice-enabled picking system in its warehouse 10 years ago. But that was just the beginning of a success story that led to distribution center productivity increases ranging from 15 percent to 25 percent, and mispick rates so low they are barely worth mentioning.
William Dreyer began his love affair with ice cream in 1906, when, as a galley boy, he was assigned the job of making a frozen dessert to help his German shipmates celebrate their arrival in America. After a brief career making ice cream in New York City, he relocated to California.
In 1928, Dreyer found the ideal partner in Joseph Edy, a renowned candy maker. They combined their talents and opened a business on Grand Avenue in Oakland, Calif. – an address honored in the current-day company’s brand names. Their ice cream and frozen desserts have delighted generations ever since, and are now among the best-selling brands in the country.
The company merged with Nestle Ice Cream Company in 2003 to form Dreyer’s Grand Ice Cream Holdings Inc., and in 2006, Dreyer’s became a wholly owned subsidiary of Nestle. Brands currently manufactured or distributed in the United States include Grand, Slow Churned, Dibs, Haagen-Daz, Drumstick, Toll House, Nestle Carnation, Nestle Push-Up, Frosty Paws, Eskimo Pie, and The Skinny Cow. Dreyer’s is marketed primarily in the West and Edy’s in the East.
After the merger, national distribution grew more complex – involving many brands, flavors, sizes, and some exports – so Dreyer’s Edy’s began shopping for a warehouse management system (WMS) with the speed and responsiveness to meet the needs of demanding customers, from mom-and-pop stores to giant food chains.
When Dreyer’s Edy’s was reporting approximately $1 billion in annual sales, it installed a voice-picking system from Pittsburgh, Pa.-based Vocollect – which specializes in voice solutions for mobile workers in warehouse and distribution center operations – in two facilities. The technology expanded with the company, and has since been installed in 12 facilities, helping Dreyer’s Edy’s reach $2 billion in sales and become a Nestle subsidiary. Recently, the company acquired Kraft Pizza, which doubled its size and volume.
“We will be adding the Vocollect system to all locations that do not have voice systems already in place,” says Eric Stephens, Dreyer’s Edy’s senior national warehouse manager.
Voice-enabled warehouse operations are powerful, but the process is simple. Via a wireless network, order assignments are transmitted from the WMS to a worker’s small, belt-mounted computer connected either by a wire or wirelessly to a headset.
Digital work orders are converted into a series of clear, simple voice commands usually limited to a vocabulary of 50 words. Workers hear commands directing them to an aisle, section, and slot location. Once there, workers confirm arrival at the location. After completing a task, such as a pick, workers speak a confirmation that is translated into data back to the WMS. The WMS issues the next assignment and the process continues.
Benefits are significant to both management and order selectors. Managers can organize orders to create more efficient workflows, and easily reorganize them to meet change requests or pressing schedules. Workers become more productive because they have both hands free to work and they interact in the most natural, direct way: through voice. They can focus more intently on their tasks, and are not distracted by carrying a clipboard or scanner, which forces them to continually look up and back down to the device.
Less distraction improves productivity and situational awareness. It also improves safety. Even though they are wearing a headset, workers can hear the ambient sounds of moving machinery and conduct normal conversations. While one ear is covered with an earphone, the other is always open and the headset allows workers to hear all sounds with both ears. The microphone also cancels out ambient sound when workers are speaking, and only records their voices.
“The worker computer has just four buttons: on and off, and plus or minus volume,” explains Tony Nicolazzo, Vocollect’s product line manager. “Workers don’t use the buttons when they are picking orders, only when they turn the device on or off. There’s nothing complex about it – delivered…confirmed…next order.”
Work assignments for selection, replenishment, or putaway are generated by a host computer such as a WMS or enterprise resource planning (ERP) system and transmitted to worker devices via a wireless network.
“We use an AS400 system to handle our entire inventory,” Stephens notes. “Sales are entered into the system and Vocollect sends the orders out to pick in a certain order. The system requires minimum training.”
Making and handling ice cream presents a severe production challenge to both man and machine. To maintain optimum flavor, 40 degrees below zero is required for the hardening process and 20 below zero for storage. Keeping workers productive while in these harsh environments, and limiting the time they are exposed, are key priorities. So is keeping electronic equipment from malfunctioning at sub-zero temperatures.
“The devices are tough,” says Nicolazzo. “They can be dropped, sat on, or run over by a truck and they still work.” The devices tolerate 40 degrees below zero as well as high heat, wet, humid, and heavy particulate air conditions.
“The problem with wearing gloves in a freezer is workers have to pull back the heavy insulated flap portion to use a scanner or write,” says Stephens. “With voice, we can pick products faster and more efficiently. The system will not let workers move on unless they’ve picked the correct item.”
Voice of Efficiency
More than 100 Dreyer’s Edy’s workers currently use the Vocollect system, with wireless nodes installed throughout the facilities.
Each mobile device is equipped with an exclusive identification chip. Workers personalize their own speech recognition characteristics to accommodate speech patterns or accents. Initial voice conditioning takes about 20 to 30 minutes; however, the system automatically and continually refines and updates a worker’s voice profile with “adaptive recognition,” to reflect changing voice sounds such as a sore throat or cold.
Vocollect currently supports about 60 different speech solutions for more than 30 languages. Workers can speak in virtually any language or dialect.
“Training takes less than one day,” says Stephens. “The trainee follows in the footsteps of a picker, using a system that lets them hear what’s being said, or read a text display. After a few rounds, they are ready to go.”
Dreyer’s Edy’s also uses a VoiceConsole application that allows speech or text monitoring from a remote management location.
While reliable equipment and wireless connections are important, the Vocollect VoiceLink integrated software drives Dreyer’s Edy’s distribution center operations. This platform allows voice applications to blend comfortably into the company’s overall IT system. It is the software bridge between the AS400 system and the workforce.
VoiceLink hosts comprehensive data regarding virtually every aspect of distribution operations, such as inventory, financials, locations, selections, putaways, and work assignments. The system coordinates work assignments and exceptions, converts data into speech, and sends picking order information to a worker. As tasks are confirmed, the software provides progress and exception reports, and updates the host files.
Because VoiceLink offers thousands of selectable configurations and template options, installation is quick and avoids heavy customization. A partnering agreement provides for ongoing updates and consultation. According to Dreyer’s Edy’s management, the system has been easily scalable as the company expanded distribution operations.
“While VoiceLink is the software we put between Dreyer’s Edy’s supply chain system and the worker, another product called VoiceDirect goes straight from the WMS to the worker,” says Nicolazzo. “VoiceLink is the middleware solution; VoiceDirect the direct solution.”
While VoiceLink can reside either in a warehouse or centrally, and works with a company-developed or off-the-shelf host system, Voice Direct is compatible with the top 20 providers of warehouse management systems and new systems being developed by Microsoft and Oracle. VoiceDirect leverages leading open source technology and multi-tier architecture to increase flexibility and increase transmission speed to near-real time so system updates are virtually simultaneous.
Either way, cumulative results of millisecond improvements in communications provide significant throughput improvements that can be objectively measured and reported.
“Voice picking systems are very popular in companies that offer incentive programs for job performance,” notes Nicolazzo. “Unions like them because they enable incentives to be awarded in a fair and accurate way based on individual productivity.”
voice of the future
What does the future hold for voice picking systems? “To date, voice has concentrated on picking and selection, but it is starting to expand to all the functions in the warehouse,” says Nicolazzo. “Vocollect is expanding within the four walls of the warehouse and going outside – to other countries, languages, and emerging WMS vendors. An increasing number of companies are putting DCs in multiple countries with different workflows, requiring more multilingual sites.”
Eric Stephens predicts a bright future for voice picking systems at Dreyer’s Edy’s. “Voice can do multiple activities as we move farther away from the scanner approach,” he says. “For example, we are close to being voice-activated for picking at all our dry and frozen warehouse operations.
“In addition, we are looking at other Vocollect enhancements for various warehouse tasks, such as replenishment and cycle count, as well as for our pre-pick go-to-market strategy where we pick for multiple stores,” Stephens adds. “And, we have a blueprint on using Vocollect for load-out. We should be up and rolling within the next nine months.
“At my former company, workers did not even know the name of the voice pick company or software we used,” Stephens notes. “Here, our workers call it Vocollect.”
Not only does Dreyer’s Edy’s Grand Ice Cream’s voice picking system boost efficiency and reduce mispicks, it also keeps workers happy and productive.
That’s the cherry on top.