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London Drugs cures its picking ills

This Canadian retailer tossed its paper-based pick systems and turned to voice to help process SKUs of varying shapes and sizes—the result is improved productivity and 99.97% order accuracy.

Prior to voice picking, pickers used to have to wait for the Data Centre to print and manually split thousands of labels into the various pick sections then physically deliver the labels to pickers. Now, pickers can immediately start picking.

By Maida Napolitano, Contributing Editor
March 01, 2011

For every company adding voice to its operation for the first time, Bob Heaney, senior research analyst for research firm Aberdeen Group, reports that there are four to five companies already using voice for picking that are planning to roll it out to new areas such as replenishment and putaway.

For voice providers, there’s even better news. David Krebs, senior director specializing in mobile and wireless for VDC Research, sees the voice market performing well as we roll into 2011. Though he attributes much of this growth to “pent-up demand among existing users for upgrades and expansions,” he sees an increasing share of the market driven by opportunities in emerging and underpenetrated regional and country markets, specifically in Europe and Asia.

This expansion into other workflows and penetration into global markets is further testament of voice technology’s positive impact on warehouse operations and overall accuracy improvements. Because of its hands-and-eyes-free operation, Krebs points out that picking productivity with voice typically improves by 20% or more. “Order picking accuracy of well-designed and deployed voice solutions typically reaches, if not exceeds, one error per thousand picks (99.9% accuracy), says Krebs.” 

It’s this quest for increased order picking accuracy that drove Canadian retailer London Drugs from error-prone picking with paper to near-perfect picking with voice. 

No ordinary pharmacy
London Drugs started out in 1945 as a 1,000-square-foot community drugstore on Main Street in Vancouver. Today, this privately owned Canadian company operates more than 70 retail stores across Western Canada. And while the pharmacy remains at the heart of its business, its stores offer anything and everything from high-end audio/visual products, furniture and cosmetics to computers and pharmaceuticals. 

Though having such an extensive product offering may be a panacea to marketing, processing 30,000 SKUs of varying shapes and sizes could quickly become a logistical nightmare. However, London Drugs has clearly stood up to the challenge.

Order fulfillment happens very quickly. Stores have a cutoff time of 7 p.m. to submit their orders. Eleven hours later, these orders are ready to be shipped from the company’s two distribution facilities: a state-of-the-art, 500,000-square-foot Distribution Service Centre (DSC) located in Richmond, British Columbia, and a satellite bulk storage facility, just 20 minutes away. 

Lothar Breuers, the DSC’s manager for systems and training, explains how they get things done: “Although the wide range of sizes of products does create some challenges for us, we like to use different technologies to help us overcome these issues.” In the piece-pick area where 50% of the DSC’s orders are picked, pick-to-light technology is used to pick fast-movers, while horizontal carousel systems equipped with light trees and lighted “pick-to” tables are used to pick slower movers. These sophisticated pick-to-light systems allowed the DSC to pick their fastest- and slower-moving items quickly and accurately.  However, it was the picking of medium movers and over-sized, non-conveyable, pick-to-pallet items that was still a very manual, error-prone, pick-with-paper operation. Management knew changes needed to be made.

About the Author

Maida Napolitano
Contributing Editor

Maida Napolitano has worked as a Senior Engineer for various consulting companies specializing in supply chain, logistics, and physical distribution since 1990. She’s is the principal author for the following publications: Using Modeling to Solve Warehousing Problems (WERC); Making the Move to Cross Docking (WERC); The Time, Space & Cost Guide to Better Warehouse Design (Distribution Group); and Pick This! A Compendium of Piece-Pick Process Alternatives (WERC). She has worked for clients in the food, health care, retail, chemical, manufacturing and cosmetics industries, primarily in the field of facility layout and planning, simulation, ergonomics, and statistic analysis. She holds BS and MS degrees in Industrial Engineering from the University of the Philippines and the New Jersey Institute of Technology, respectively. She can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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Article Topics

Features · Technology · Voice · March 2011 · Supplement · All topics

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