Magazine Article | September 17, 2008

Handheld Technology Improves Order Picking

Source: Innovative Retail Technologies

After pairing voice-directed software with handheld computers, a national building supplier achieves near perfection in fulfillment centers.

Integrated Solutions For Retailers, October 2008

Most fulfillment centers are happy with a 99.6% order picking accuracy rate. But not Do it Best Corp., a hardware and lumber buying cooperative with 4,100 member-owned stores throughout the United States and 47 countries, plus an online store. The company wanted to eliminate that seemingly inconsequential margin of error because, for a business fulfilling 49 million orders annually, it equals about 200,000 mistakes each year. "While we had dedicated staff who were doing a good job, we were still in a manual, order-picking environment," explains John Snider, VP of retail logistics for Do it Best Corp. "As good as we were in a manual environment, we knew that if we married a good staff with technology, we'd get even better results." That constant push to improve was fueled in part by the online trend in retailing that put extra demands on the Do it Best system. "We were facing an increase in orders from our e-commerce site," adds Snider. "When you have a store owner or a customer ordering one item, there was a higher expectation of accuracy." That left Do it Best Corp. with the dilemma of improving order fulfillment accuracy regardless of the type of order.

Do it Best Corp. handles orders from each of its member stores, as well as those orders received through its online store, using eight distribution centers staffed by about 1,000 employees. Applying technology to improve a time-proven manual system in those distribution centers began a decade ago when Do it Best Corp. implemented radio frequency (RF) tags to help facilitate inventory tracking at the centers. "That was a homegrown solution," says Snider. "Then a couple years ago we turned our attention to the order-picking process, and we thought we could use the same RF scanners for that." The problem with that solution was specific to the way Do it Best Corp. fulfills orders. "The challenge for us was that about two-thirds of our order picks are in the bin section," says Snider. That means the company often picks items from 'broken' (open) cases. "We help our member stores control their inventory investment by letting them stock one of an item — say one hammer rather than a 12-count carton of hammers. We break carton on 95% of our items." Because the items were being picked individually, an RF tag on the box does little good in terms of tracking items pulled from inventory.

Pair Technologies For Better Accuracy
The alternative solution Do it Best Corp. found was voice-recognition software on handheld technology by Motorola. "We found that Motorola and Lucas Systems [a software integrator] had a good partnership — Lucas provides the voice recognition software that sits on the Motorola hardware — and so we went with that solution," says Snider. Lucas Systems, which specializes in voice-directed warehouse applications, customized its Jennifer software for Do it Best Corp., which runs the software on Motorola's rugged MC9090 mobile handheld computers. "One thing that was extremely attractive to us about this device is its flexibility," says Snider. Distribution center employees start the day doing order picking while wearing a headset connected to the MC9090, which they carry in a pouch. Once that task is complete, employees can unplug the headset and switch to a keypad and screen that pairs easily with the handheld, and they can scan or key in products for inventory. "The device lets us move our staff to whatever activity we need them to do," says Snider. "During the order filling function we go through the voice server. Then our employees sign off that server and sign on to our Do it Best Corp. mainframe, which drives the receiving/stocking/audit functions. Wherever our employees are, with this device they can complete every function in our warehouse."

Once Do it Best Corp. determined a solution, it took two years to customize the software and hardware, and then the company rolled out the new system in all eight warehouses over eight months. "We've seen an improvement from 99.6% to 99.9%," says Snider. Among the unexpected benefits were worker productivity and a cost savings in overtime, particularly during peak seasons — the spring and summer. "We hire right before the busy time of the year, and we found that our overtime on peak sales days has dropped because of the increased productivity of that seasonal temp staff."

Additionally, Snider explains that with the new technology, Do it Best Corp. warehouse management has an operational overview it never had before. "We can take a reading in terms of where we are on the day's tasks, then deploy staff depending on where we need more people," says Snider. "Truthfully, we're still learning how to use it to its full capabilities to streamline our warehouse layout and organization."

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