Nature’s Best leverages voice-enabled WMS
September 01, 2012 - MMH Editorial
Warehouse management systems (WMS) and voice-directed solutions have independently changed the world of warehousing and distribution, driving up accuracy rates and increasing productivity. About a decade ago, providers of both technologies decided to forge a partnership, offering users a voice-integrated solution that combined the hands-free, eyes-free benefit of voice with the real-time processing and execution of a robust WMS.
Over the years, that partnership has grown stronger, with voice providers offering its WMS partners new and improved interface tools, reducing the time to implement voice-enabled flows in DC operations from weeks to mere days. “The latest interface solutions for voice create substantially more flexibility and speed to implement new applications,” says Mike Miller, voice provider Vocollect’s senior director of consulting services. As many as five applications can be up and running within a 10-day time frame. This allows users to add voice to other areas of the warehouse and increase the speed by which they are able to do that.”
In fact, a direct interface with voice is now part of the base offerings of many Tier 1 WMS providers. “The addition of voice-enabled workflows has afforded users the flexibility to run their operations with voice, RF, or a combination thereof,” adds Adam Klein, product director for WMS provider Manhattan Associates. “With roughly 50 successful joint implementations across multiple industries and geographies, customers ultimately benefit from industry best practice and lessons learned from these joint projects.”
For Nature’s Best, a privately held distributor of natural and organic products, this voice-WMS partnership was key to the transformation of its operation from a predominantly mechanized system with multiple conveyors to a voice-enabled, conventional system with nary a conveyor in sight.
It was a daunting task. “We are a family-valued organization in a big industry where customers demand on-time dispatch, fresh product and perfect orders,” says Brian McCarthy, senior vice president of operations at Nature’s Best. “We basically threw out what we’ve been doing for the past 40 years and systematically reinvented our supply chain—while keeping it seamless to our customers.”
In the midst of tremendous growth, the company successfully expanded its mission—and passion—to bring to market health and wellness to its customers through the natural and organic movement. In the next few pages we’ll follow how Nature’s Best overhauled its operation, opened two DCs, and deployed voice-enabled WMS solutions to execute a more accurate and productive supply chain.
Organic takes off
Headquartered in Brea, Calif., Nature’s Best distributes more than 20,000 SKUs of certified organic, natural, and specialty products to independent retailer markets throughout the Western, Central, and Southern regions of the continental U.S., Hawaii, Alaska, and Asia.
The operation consists of three unique temperature areas (ambient, cooler and freezer) with each-pick and case-pick zones. In 2005, it was tied together with a largely accounting-based ERP system that had limited warehouse management functionality. Using wearable voice equipment that communicated with middleware to this ERP-based WMS, pickers would pick product from static single racks onto a mezzanine conveyor system. Conveyors would then transport and sort product at the shipping dock, where more workers would again “touch” the product by unloading cartons from the conveyor onto shipping pallets.
As the industry matured and the push for natural and organic became more mainstream, competition grew, interest in the product grew, and the company’s SKU base also grew. “Every time we had to expand, the conveyor system just became too inflexible and capitalization for new mechanization was very expensive,” says McCarthy. It was at that point that he and the Nature’s Best logistics team knew they needed to explore more effective solutions.
Reinventing the supply chain
With such rapid growth, there was an overall sense of urgency to find a supply chain solution that could increase efficiency and a distribution model that could be easily replicated in additional DC expansions.
After much thought, McCarthy and his team decided to purge all conveyors and opt for a more conventional “pick directly to pallet” approach in which voice would be an indispensable component.
Why pick to pallet with voice? “It fits our business model beautifully,” explains McCarthy. “It’s flexible, it’s scalable, it’s nimble, and it doesn’t require massive amounts of training. I don’t have to have five mechanics standing by in case a gear breaks.” Manhattan’s Klein adds that voice is especially ideal in the freezer area where pickers are physically constrained by heavy jackets and gloves, making it difficult to manage an RF device.
To implement this new methodology, the company first needed to deploy a new WMS. In 2005, the team began a rigorous selection process for a new WMS provider. They went on multiple site tours and attended educational exchanges, speaking to users with similar operations in the same industry.
After much due diligence, they narrowed it down to three major players before eventually choosing Manhattan’s WMS software in early 2006. Along with a low cost of ownership, the base package could deliver almost everything the operation needed with minimal customization, while still providing the required direct interface to both voice and RF.
In 2006, after narrowing down candidate sites, McCarthy and his team selected Chino, Calif., as the site for the new facility. Construction on the new 410,000-square-foot DC began in 2007, with inventory being loaded in late 2007.
“Because Manhattan is a fully capable partner of ours, they did not need our assistance for integration or implementation of the voice solution,” says Ed Dumas, Vocollect’s senior strategic business consultant. Manhattan’s Klein agreed and reported that aside from the addition of a few access points in the colder areas, implementation went off without a hitch. The operation was live in early 2008.
For almost two years, the wearable voice terminals with tethered headsets consistently delivered on accuracy gains and significant labor savings—due to zero mispicks—at the Chino facility, resulting in a 12-month return on its voice investment.
In 2009, however, Vocollect approached the company to see if they would be interested in beta testing its new vehicle-mounted voice terminals, known as Vehicle Mount Talkman, equipped with Bluetooth wireless headsets.
For Nature’s Best, this was a no-brainer. “Changing out batteries added seconds, even minutes, on our standards,” says McCarthy. “That, multiplied with the total pickers, could cost hundreds, if not thousands of labor hours a year.” Vehicle-mounted voice devices would now eliminate these issues because the terminal is mounted onto the pallet jack and draws its power from the jack.
“All we issue out now are the wireless Bluetooth headsets,” says McCarthy. According to Vocollect’s Dumas, the wireless headsets keep users untethered, allowing a total freedom of movement of about 10 meters. In 2009, they rolled out vehicle-mounted voice terminals in both each- and case-pick zones for the ambient areas of the DC.
Nature’s Best’s supply chain operates with no room for error and delays. If retailers put in their orders by the cutoff time today, its trucks will deliver them to stores the very next day. Receiving is accomplished very early in the morning to allow for longer shipping windows; and by starting the shipping processes earlier, trucks can make it to as far as Seattle by the next morning.
A typical RF device is used to scan product in receiving, inventory control, put away, and replenishment. To pick, Nature’s Best uses a low-level, double length pallet jack that allows the picker to pick from the floor to 10 feet, versus the conventional floor to 6 feet. “It gives us an additional 33% net pick face in the same pick bay, and it reduces travel from an aisle perspective because you can pick more SKUs per bay,” says McCarthy.
It’s also equipped to handle two pallets at a time, allowing pickers to traverse the warehouse one time, yet pick for two pallets. At each pick location, pickers read back a check digit on the location label to confirm that they are at the correct location and confirm that they put the product on the correct pallet by reading the check digit on one of the two pallets.
Each-picks are picked first to totes. Case pickers then put the totes onto their pallet jack and continue to pick the rest of the lines for those pallets. Pickers then transport completed pallets directly to the dock.
Benefits came naturally
Over the years, the company has been enjoying the benefits of its voice-enabled WMS solution. Although accuracy rates were already above 98%, the solution raised the bar further by an additional six-tenths of a percentage point.
The vehicle-mounted devices saved the company more than 1,400 labor hours and thousands of dollars in annual maintenance and asset costs. And with a hands-free, eyes-free solution, the company experiences lower accident rates and has reduced training cycle times by about 50%.
With the new WMS and conveyor-free picking methodology, the number of “touches” on a product has reduced dramatically, by about 75%. At the same time, inventory accuracy increased 14%, while also improving out of stocks. Slotting optimization also improved space utilization, maximizing the cube of the storage modules.
In anticipation of additional growth, Nature’s Best continued to reinvent its supply chain by opening a second 308,000-square-foot facility in Flower Mound, Texas, last year. From design to “go live” it took just nine months. And as every new distribution center comes online, McCarthy anticipates forging ahead, copying and pasting the same voice-enabled WMS and incorporating lessons learned from the previous DC.