Voice Picking Delivers for Coca-Cola Enterprises

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The juggernaut that is Coca-Cola Enterprises (CCE) boasts 35,000 workers in 390 warehouses across North America—each with a sales and delivery volume ranging from 1 million cases to 35 million cases per year. The company ships 10,000 loads of soda, bottled water, iced tea, and fruit juices to 80 percent of the North American population each day.

Given the size and scope of its operations, warehouse management and accuracy are of the highest importance. It is, therefore, very surprising that up until a few years ago, the company wasn’t using a speech solution to run picking in its warehouses.

But with changing customer tastes came a change in popular beverage choices, leading CCE to expand its brand portfolio. Warehouse operations had to evolve as well, according to Mike Jacks, senior manager of logistics and transportation systems at CCE.

“At the end of the day, we were starting to see accuracy suffer because we just couldn’t organize the warehouse in a manner that was easily accessible for warehouse pickers,” Jacks says.

The company resolved to replace paper-based picking with either barcode scanning or voice. In the end, voice picking proved more accurate, and the company went with technology from Colorado’s Datria Systems.

According to Jacks, CCE brought in 10 to 15 companies specializing in voice picking point solutions before realizing that “all systems were fairly similar in their architectures, and if we could capture some of that internally, we could use it for other applications.”

As the next step, a team from CCE flew to Denver and met with Datria. “What we saw was very encouraging,” Jacks says. “And we challenged Datria to put together a prototype—something we could put into a pilot.”

Datria embraced the challenge, providing CCE’s pickers with holstered Cisco phones and headsets that read audio pick lists all via Voice over Internet Protocol and off-the-shelf IP telephony. And the rest, as they say, is history.

On June 15, 2007, the first CCE warehouse went live with Datria’s voice picking solution. During the remainder of 2007, 25 sites went live, with an additional 75 sites deploying the technology in 2008.

“It’s truly impressive that they’ve built this logistics model,” says James Greenwell, president and CEO of Datria, noting the scope and size of CCE’s operations. “And we were capable of stepping in, taking a piece of that supply chain, and making it not just a little better, [but rather] significantly or quantum leaps better by both of our estimates.”

Now, CCE pickers at those sites spend their entire shifts on continuous VoIP phone calls that tell them what to pick, where to find it within the warehouse, and the order to which it belongs.

“We refer to this as intelligent picking,” Greenwell says. “So we’ve taken the [worker] discretion out of it.... We want the system and optimization to be at its highest level.”

Leveraging VoIP
Since implementing the solution, CCE has avoided $2 million in costs by using Cisco VoIP phones instead of more expensive mobile computing devices.

“Typically where you spend $1,200 to $1,500 on a mini computer to load the hardware, we’ve loaded the software on a server, and it’s just a phone call,” Jacks says. “The warehouse picker can pick up a $300 Voice over IP phone and call the system as opposed to using [a more expensive mobile device].”

According to Greenwell, Datria—unlike many other speech providers—does not focus on embedding technology within mobile devices. “It’s not about the device. It’s about leveraging the fact that you’ve got a multimillion-record database in mainframes and server farms that we want to expose to the last mile, and we can’t possibly synchronize that with 3,000 warehouse devices,” he says.

With the deployment, CCE has also increased picking accuracy in its warehouses and reassigned hundreds of checkers responsible for inspecting each pallet before it is shipped.

“Our goal was to hit 99.8 percent picking accuracy with the project, and we are seeing that,” Jacks says. “The 99.8 is really being met by all warehouses using voice picking.”

Additionally, the increased accuracy has allowed CCE to improve its relationship with Walmart. By maintaining the 99.8 percent accuracy rate, CCE is eligible for advanced shipping notifications when delivering to the retail giant.

“We’re making hundreds of deliveries to Walmart every day, and if you maintain the accuracy of 99.8 percent, they only check 10 percent of the pallets,” Jacks explains.

But despite this stunning success, the Datria deployment—which Jacks calls “groundbreaking—was not without its share of hurdles. Chief among them was building a model that could be repeated at all of CCE’s warehouses.

“We don’t want to have a pilot site that’s not exactly like our production site,” Jacks says. “So we build a deployment bundle and all of the people have roles and all of the people have assignments. That allows us to build a kind of cookie-cutter approach, and we can go from site to site very quickly.”

Once this challenge was met, Jacks says, the company was able to smoothly and quickly deploy Datria’s technology. “From start to finish, we can bring a site up in eight weeks,” he says. “And really the last half of our deployments was almost business as usual. People really didn’t see the bump.”

It was really a partnership among CCE, Cisco, and Datria to get the first location off the ground, he adds, noting that Datria had staff on the deployment team, participated in the pilot, and took part in daily conference calls about the implementation.

After that, only a few challenges emerged, mainly relating to equipment—finding off-the-shelf, noise-canceling headsets that were rugged enough for warehouse use at a commercial price point, and configuring the phone batteries for maximum performance.

And according to Jacks, the reaction has been very positive. “The pickers themselves were a little apprehensive. They thought it was a little Big Brother because they were operating off a sheet of paper,” Jacks says. Now no one could take the system away from them, he adds.

“This really added a formalized warehouse management concept to the warehouse, and it gave them a structured approach,” he says.

Jacks also credits choosing a speaker-independent solution for the deployment’s success. “The training of the voice samples for all the warehouse workers, with the amount of turnover we have, was going to be a big deal,” he says.

Jacks also maintains that placing the voice engine on a server provided for a more robust footprint and a speedier implementation.

In looking to the future, Jacks hopes to leverage the existing enterprise application and integrate Datria’s speech technology throughout the remaining facilities.
“We can use it for other functions, and we are currently in the process of using it for password reset.… We have a whole laundry list,” Jacks says. “We really feel that anything that you can do in SAP we would like to be able to have the opportunity to voice-enable that. Any SAP transaction could be voice-enabled. Anything you can do on a keyboard in SAP, potentially if there’s reason to voice-enable that, we have the enterprise resource that we could use to do that.”

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