November 2006 | Case Studies | DC Solutions

Giving Voice To Warehouse Productivity

Tags: Warehousing

ODW Logistics' success speaks volumes about the benefits of voice technology.

Columbus, Ohio, is one of the nation's major distribution hubs and home to third-party logistics provider ODW Logistics Inc. Founded in 1971, ODW (formerly Ohio Distribution Warehouse Corp.) began operations with 89,000 square feet of leased warehouse space.

The company grew rapidly, adding capabilities such as transportation and contract services along the way. ODW now manages more than 3 million square feet of warehouse and distribution space at its 11 facilities. Some 600 employees keep things running smoothly in three different divisions: shared logistics, which provides services such as kitting, packaging, and import logistics; dedicated services; and Dist-Trans, the company's regional truckload carrier.

ODW customers come from a wide range of industries, including health care, automotive, food, consumer products goods, and web-based businesses.

While ODW has met many of its growth and success goals, moving forward requires staying on top of the latest processes and technology. For ODW, that meant finding a way to use new technology to support additional growth.

"We wanted to raise the bar and become more productive," says Jon Petticrew, ODW vice president of operations. "Voice technology was getting a lot of good press so we began exploring the possibility of implementing it at our main campus."

Voice Lessons

ODW's 1-million-square-foot main campus consists of six buildings, and serves approximately 50 customers. The company was performing manual picking at the campus with the help of radio frequency technology, and believed that voice might be the next step in its quest to boost productivity.

Before beginning its search for a voice technology provider, ODW set the following goals:

  • Improve productivity by at least 20 percent.
  • Boost customer shipment accuracy to more than 99.85 percent.
  • Improve inventory accuracy to more than 99.9 percent.
  • Use a technology that would allow new associates to be 85-percent productive within five days of starting, and 100-percent productive within 10 days.
  • Accomplish all of this within budget.

And Then There Were Four

ODW worked with consultant Ken Ackerman to narrow the list of potential voice technology vendors. "We whittled the list down to four providers that we were interested in," says Petticrew. "We invited them to come look at our operations, and get a feel for what we needed and were looking for."

After spelling out its needs to the providers, ODW began a round of site visits to voice customers with similar profiles to watch the technology in action. The next step was asking the vendors to demonstrate their technology on site at ODW.

From this round of testing, one voice provider stood out from the rest. "One vendor showed us how its technology could work in a variety of environments," says Petticrew. "We had the vendor pick orders and run a multitude of tests to see how it could help us."

That vendor was INTHER Integrated Systems, an international systems integrator with locations in the Netherlands and the United States. INTHER specializes in software for warehouse management systems, voice- and light-directed order fulfillment, bar-coding, radio frequency, RFID integration, and material flow control.

INTHER's voice system is used in a variety of industries and can work in a range of temperature zones. The system is unique in two ways, says Paul Hermsen, president of INTHER: it's the only one on the market that employs standard hardware, which reduces the cost per user; and the only one that gives commands using a natural voice.

ODW forged new territory for INTHER, becoming the provider's first domestic U.S. installation. "ODW was our first installation in the United States, so we looked at it as a new challenge. It was a good foot in the door to the U.S. market," says Hermsen.

Rise Above The Noise

When INTHER first came on site, ODW wanted to see how the voice technology would work against background noise. "ODW operates many forklifts, which creates noise in the facility," explains Hermsen. "Workers wanted to make sure they could use voice technology equipment without interference. The company also wanted fast transactions and the ability to integrate the equipment without middleware."

One challenge to the middleware issue was the fact that ODW uses a variety of warehouse management systems. "We have our own WMS, but also use some of our customers' systems as well as hybrids of the two," says Petticrew.

"Working out the software and hardware integration was definitely a challenge," admits Marceline Absil, INTHER vice president of marketing and sales. "But we worked with ODW's WMS provider, and achieved the outcome they wanted."

INTHER ran many tests to ensure the technology would mesh seamlessly. "We have a dynamic environment, so we needed to know we could make it work," Petticrew says.

The implementation process took about three months, with on-site training lasting only one week. Right now, ODW uses the voice technology mostly for picking operations.

"We fulfill three types of orders: parcel, LTL, and truckload," says Petticrew. "We currently are focusing on LTL orders.

"We also use the technology to do free cycle counts," he adds. "We set inventory thresholds for our locations, and when we fall below that number, the voice technology asks the picker to cycle count."

ODW staff quickly adjusted to using the new technology. "About 12 to 15 workers use the technology each day, and they say they wouldn't want to go back to the old system," Petticrew notes.

ODW has reaped additional benefits as well.

"We have improved safety because workers now have their hands and eyes free," Petticrew says. "And our LTL orders are more accurate."

Even better, ODW has improved in all the areas it set its sights on. Consider the following statistics:

  • The company processes better than 12 percent more orders per hour, and 24 percent more lines per hour.
  • Training time for new associates has been drastically slashed.
  • Overall productivity increased by more than 28 percent in the first month alone.

In addition, voice technology provides ODW a "wow" factor.

"When customers come in and see the voice technology, they are impressed," Petticrew says.

When taking on a voice technology project, several factors are key to success.

"Make sure your server has enough capacity to handle the technology, and that you have proper routing," Petticrew says. "Also make sure your RF network is compliant."

Testing is also crucial. "Try out the technology in the environment it will work in," he recommends. "It's also a good idea to keep the voice vocabulary small; ours is 77 words."

Another step ODW has taken is to rotate its check digits—numbers used to check an account number's correctness and validity—among locations. "We reassign our check digits every 60 days," Petticrew explains. "That way workers don't get ahead of themselves and lose the integrity of the system."

Overall, ODW is satisfied with the new technology; the company met its goals, and stayed well within budget. ODW intends to roll out voice technology to its receiving operations next, and will likely apply it to other processes in the future. In addition, the company hopes to implement voice at its other facilities in the near future.

At ODW, voice technology comes through loud and clear.