Third-party logistic companies (3PLs) face unique challenges in managing stock levels for customers in industries such as food and beverage. Chilled, frozen, and other temperature-controlled items (the cold supply chain) present additional challenges.
Successful 3PLs are looking to Dematic for answers. One promising solution is a Voice system specifically built to operate in cold storage environments to improve traceability, enhance order accuracy, and speed up shipping times.
3PLs and the food retail businesses they supply are all too aware of the importance of maintaining in-store stock levels. However, it is not uncommon for shoppers to find empty shelves or freezer cases in their supermarket. Often, this unsupplied stock is due to warehouse discrepancies and challenges in delivering goods through the cold supply chain.
Perishable food products must be transported and stored at chilled temperatures to meet government food standards. Within medical environments, chemicals and pharmaceutical drugs must be stored and transported within specific temperature settings to maintain quality. Therefore, an unbroken cold chain — an uninterrupted series of storage and distribution activities maintained at a given temperature range — is of paramount importance to many industries.
What some 3PLs and their retailers do not fully appreciate is the importance of the technology used in these challenging materials handling environments. Just as coats, hats, and gloves are essential for workers to function in cold storage areas, the technology must also fit the purpose and support workers throughout the order fulfilment process.
Standard retail-grade devices are not able to perform at adequate levels in cold storage situations. LCD screens can freeze up, barcode readers will not function if frost or condensation covers their optical ports, and mobile computing batteries cannot provide energy when temperatures drop below certain levels. These challenges contribute to situations where pick workers may resort to manual data entry — severely reducing productivity and increases error rates — just to provide some sort of product tracking.
The cold, hard facts
Operating in cold storage environments requires technologies that offer workers the freedom of movement needed to complete tasks efficiently in challenging situations. Voice picking technology is ideally suited for cold storage settings, offering a hands-free, eyes-free design for increased productivity.
Many 3PLs have learned the hard way that paper-based picking and some handheld computer or scanning technologies lead to inefficiencies and inaccuracies in the cold chain picking process. Low temperatures and the protective clothing workers must wear present specific challenges in product sorting and picking.
With paper-based systems in a cold storage setting, workers often find even straightforward activities to be awkward and slow. Writing can be nearly impossible given the bulky gloves and clothing necessary for the conditions. Pick workers must either remove gloves when writing on order forms or try to complete the forms without a proper grip on a pen. This can lead to incomprehensible writing and goods being shipped to the wrong customers.
While certain handheld scanner and mobile devices are designed to withstand cold temperatures, they still present operational challenges for warehouse workers. Entering vital product and delivery information while wearing gloves is difficult, even if the device has special, larger keys. And workers must constantly shift their line of vision between the mobile device in their hand and the product they are looking for.
With Voice technology, operational efficiency improves dramatically. Workers have both hands free to make the picks. They do not have to stop their walking or driving to read from paper or a screen. In all cases, workers can continue to move while receiving instructions.
The Voice terminal is typically worn comfortably under a coat with a wire leading to the well-fitting headset. The Voice system also has noise-cancelling features that remove much of the sounds from fans and compressors blowing in cold temperature buildings. As a result, workers are comfortable and extremely productive.
A cool change
Pick workers usually are not confined to cold environments and often move in and out of other environments. For the cold environment, workers must be equipped with specialised solutions (for example, mobile computers with big buttons for use with gloves). But this equipment is needlessly difficult to use when on the regular warehouse floor. And the dramatic swings in temperatures can stress equipment and cause scanners and mobile devices to seize.
Alternatively, pick workers can use Voice solutions that are specifically designed to operate in cold storage environments and across all warehouse functions. Voice solutions do not require specialty attributes, such as larger buttons on hand-held computers. In addition, these solutions can capture lot or serial information, eliminating the need to have separate solutions for different areas of the warehouse.
The difficult working conditions in cold storage environments present special challenges. It is essential that workers have the best tools for the job. Voice solutions increase productivity by improving traceability, enhancing order accuracy and speeding up shipping times — while remaining adaptable and applicable to other warehouse situations.