Voice-directed system accommodates rapid growth
Distributor transitions from paper-based to voice-based execution ahead of facility move.
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Based in Auburn, Mass., Imperial Distributors serves 3,500 supermarkets and retail stores throughout the Northeastern United States, supplying a range of health and beauty products, general merchandise and other non-food grocery items. After a decade of consistent growth, the 77-year-old company faced challenges in an aging facility with legacy systems and paper-based processes. With a new mobile work execution system, the company dramatically improved outbound accuracy and picking productivity to support timely delivery.
“After several years of double-digit growth, we were running consistently late shifts, pushing dispatches, and starting to have increased quality issues,” says Perry Lundberg, vice president of supply chain at Imperial. “Our team members were doing everything possible to keep up, but they needed help. Our picking processes and legacy warehouse management system (WMS) simply weren’t up to the task.”
Imperial’s 20-year-old WMS provides RF-based receiving and inventory control, and although it also provides RF-based picking, the system does not adequately support Imperial’s complex picking requirements. Therefore, picking was performed using stickers and paper lists across more than a dozen different picking zones.
“We urgently needed to improve picking productivity and accuracy, and we also wanted to give managers and supervisors access to information they needed to better manage the outbound processes,” Lundberg says. “We had outgrown our current facility and systems, but we needed to make changes immediately. We couldn’t wait to move into a new DC.”
After considering a WMS upgrade, the company instead deployed voice-directed mobile applications and work execution software that integrates with Imperial’s legacy WMS. The new system creates work assignments, prints labels and manages the execution of work across 12 piece- and case-picking zones, in addition to driving case picking for replenishment. The system includes configurable workflows, including bucket-brigade piece-pick to totes on conveyor, cluster pick to totes on cart, and case-pick to pallet from multi-SKU locations.
A real-time management dashboard helps supervisors manage work assignments, view individual and group productivity across zones, and address stock-outs and other exceptions as they occur. Employees quickly embraced the system, which was one of Lundberg’s initial concerns given that many hourly employees had been there for 20 or 30 years.
Within two months, mis-picks had declined from greater than 0.1% to less than 0.02%, an 80% reduction. Productivity increased 24% in the first full year, and has improved an additional 5% to 6% per year since, for an overall productivity gain of approximately 35% across the entire picking staff. New employee training was cut by more than four weeks.
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