Voice app maps the warehouse

When Maines Paper and Food Service, one of the largest food service distributors in the United States, wanted to support more growth out of its flagship distribution center in Conklin, N.Y., voice recognition wasn’t the first solution that came to mind.

Maines supplies Burger King, Applebee’s, and other restaurants with everything from fresh meats to canned foods and paper goods. These items are picked from shelves in its Conklin facility by 100 selectors who walk the aisles pushing pallet jacks. As business grew, Maines started looking at how to increase the accuracy of these selectors.

“We get several thousand orders a day, for a total of about 350,000 (single items) per week,” said Bill Kimler, director of systems and inventory control. “When we looked at our errors per pieces picked, we were batting about one (error) in 1,000 (picks).” Most errors came from the selector being at the wrong spot, explained Kimler. “One slot off, or right slot, wrong aisle…all the boxes look alike.”

Maines decided that handheld bar-code readers, an obvious choice for improving accuracy, would decrease productivity. “If one hand is occupied with a scanner, that would slow them down,” said Kimler. So instead, working with vendors Vocollect and Manhattan Associates, the company deployed an innovative wireless voice-recognition system to avert erroneous picks in real time.

All selectors now carry computers on their belt clips and wear headsets they can talk into. Before picking each item, they speak its number into the system, which transmits it via a radio-frequency network to a Vocollect voice server and then into the Manhattan Associates Inc.’s warehouse management system to confirm back, by voice, that it’s the correct item. “The computer literally says go to this aisle and to this slot,” Kimler explained.

Challenges included training the selectors and getting the two vendors’ systems to work together. But the work paid off – the error rate has dropped to one error in 3,000 picks. “The system has already paid for itself,” Kimler said.

Although workers sometimes balk at technology changes, Maines’ voice-recognition solution seems to have fans on the distribution center floor. “After using it for awhile, my speed increased … with fewer errors,” said selector Sean Zembek.

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