Store Tech: Next Generation

    GRAND RAPIDS — The workers in Spartan Stores’ warehouses are hearing voices. Not only that, their bosses are encouraging them to listen to what the voices have to say.

    The voices have nothing to do with paranormal activity or psychiatric episodes — they’re part of a new generation of supply chain management software that allows workers and computers to communicate through speech.

    Since a trial program began in June of this year, Spartan employees have ditched the pen-and-clipboard method of organizing the orders they pack onto pallets to be sent out to the company’s grocery retailers. Instead, when workers begin their shifts, they grab a $4,000 Talkman T2 wearable computer off of the massive wall-mounted charging board. Like the timecard holders of days past, the board has dozens of labeled spots available. At the end of their shifts, workers place their Talkman units in those slots, and the electrified board recharges the batteries.

    As soon as the worker clips his neoprene Talkman housing onto his belt and puts his headset in place, the lilting voice of the digital taskmaster chimes in: “Say ‘Ready’ for next assignment.”

    The worker hears a code number: The first number is the row, the second is the section, the third is the slot. The worker steers a motorized pallet jack to the appropriate spot, then says the countersign printed on a shelf tag next to the three-number code. Recognizing that the worker is standing before the appropriate shelving slot full of, say, Crisco vegetable shortening, the computer will then say how many cases of the item are required for the order. “Pick three,” the voice intones. Having loaded those items onto his pallet, the worker tells the computer that the items are ready (“Ready three”) and moves on to the next item.

    The computer helps the worker systematically stock pallets destined for grocery stores throughout the state. Not only does the software chart the most efficient path throughout the warehouse, it also considers the physics of packing each pallet. For example, the software knows that a case of marshmallows can’t go on the bottom layer of a pallet. That surface is reserved for “base items” of higher density.

    Spartan Stores has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in technology updates such as this in hopes of increased efficiency and decreased waste. In the case of the voice technology, Spartan hopes that it will be a quick payoff. Vocollect Inc., the manufacturer of Spartan’s Voice-Directed Distribution hardware, says that Maines Paper & Food Service Inc., one of Spartan’s peers, was able to recoup its investment in less than 12 months. Lachlan McKinnon, Spartan’s director of supply chain management, said that he has already begun to see the return on the company’s investment. The number of “mispicks” has been reduced, leading to more accurate order fulfillment.

    McKinnon said that once the system is incorporated throughout all of Spartan’s warehouses, the company will discontinue the use of paper case labels — a vestige of the old manual system. Discontinuing that practice will save the company $250,000 each year in label stock alone.

    While it is impressive, the system isn’t foolproof. The computer only “knows” what the workers tell it. For example, in the previously mentioned Crisco scenario, instead of loading three cases onto the pallet as the computer instructed, the worker might actually load one, five or none. Regardless of what is actually placed on the pallet, the computer will “trust” the worker who says, “Ready three.”

    Of course, the error would eventually be discovered and remedied the old-fashioned way. Grocery Warehouse Manager Tom Smolenski said that he hasn’t experienced any problems of that nature. After all, performance-based incentives encourage the workers to be as efficient and accurate as possible. Even the workers who were initially resistant to the new technology have recognized that it is simply another tool to make their work more productive.

    The voice technology has streamlined Spartan’s warehouse operations, but it is just one variable in a larger equation. Within the next six months, Spartan will implement an on-demand ordering system for its retail partners. That means when the Felpausch store in Delton or the Family Fare in Holland runs low on Special K or Tide, the store’s inventory software will automatically submit an order to replenish the stock. The only people involved in the equation will be the consumer lifting the package off the store shelf, the checker scanning the item, and, almost simultaneously, the warehouse worker placing a fresh case on a pallet destined for that store.    

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