Australian 3PLs and the food retail businesses they supply are all too aware of the need to ensure in-store stock levels are maintained. However, it is not uncommon to come across an empty shelf or freezer in a supermarket. At times, this can be linked to unsupplied stock due to warehouse discrepancies and challenges presented while delivering goods through the cold supply chain.
Perishable food products must be transported and stored at chilled temperatures to ensure they 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, meaning an uninterrupted series of storage and distribution activities maintained at a given temperature range, is of paramount importance to many industries across Australia.
Importantly, and what some Australian 3PLs and the retailers they work with are still not fully appreciating, is that just as coats, hats and gloves are essential for workers to function in cold storage areas; it is vital that the technology being used in these challenging materials handling environments is fit for purpose and supports workers throughout the order fulfilment process.
Standard retail-grade devices don’t perform at adequate levels when confronted with 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 won’t release energy when temperatures drop below certain levels. These challenges contribute to situations whereby distribution centre (DC) pickers may resort to manual data entry – which severely reduces productivity and increases error rates – just to ensure that product tracking is occurring.
The cold, hard facts
Operating in cold storage environments requires technologies that offer workers the freedom of movement needed to complete their tasks efficiently in challenging situations. Voice picking technology is ideally suited to cold storage settings because it offers a hands-free, eyes-free, rugged design for increased productivity in cold operating environments.
Many warehouses have learnt the hard way that using paper-based picking and some hand-held computer or scanning technologies can lead to inefficiencies and inaccuracies in the cold chain picking process. This is due to the specific challenges faced in common product sorting and picking tasks due to both low temperatures and the protective clothing workers are required to wear in such settings.
When using paper-based systems in a cold storage setting, workers often find that even straightforward activities like writing on a piece of paper is very awkward and slow, if not nearly impossible, given they are often required to wear bulky gloves and clothing to protect themselves from the cold conditions. This means that pickers either have to remove their gloves when writing on order forms or try to complete vital product delivery forms without a proper grip on a pen, which can lead to incomprehensible writing and result in goods being shipped to the wrong customers.
With Voice technology, workers have both hands free to make the picks. Since they are not looking down with Voice, they can also continue to move while receiving instructions. They do not have to stop their walking or driving to read from paper or a screen improving their operational efficiency.
While there are a number of handheld scanner and mobile devices designed to withstand cold temperature operating environments, these are not without their operational challenges for warehouse workers. Keying vital product and delivery information into a mobile computer wearing gloves, even if they are larger keyed devices, is an enormous challenge – along with the fact that the worker constantly has to shift their line of vision between the mobile device in their hand and the product they are looking for.
The Voice terminal is typically worn comfortably under an operator’s coat. The Voice system also has noise-cancelling features that filter out high levels of noise from the fans and compressors blowing in cold temperature buildings. As a result, workers are comfortable and extremely productive.
A cool change
Pickers are usually not solely confined to cold environments and their job often requires them to roam in and out of refrigerated environments. This worker, if equipped with a mobile computer, would need a specialised solution (i.e. a mobile computer equipped with big buttons for use with gloves) which could potentially make things difficult back on the warehouse floor. And the dramatic swings in temperatures these workers experience as they move from the warehouse to the cold storage environment can lead to standard retail grade scanners and mobile devices seizing up.
Alternatively, a Voice solution which is specifically built to operate in cold storage environments can be used across all warehouse functions by simply capturing lot or serial information, therefore eliminating the need to have separate solutions for different areas of the warehouse. Additionally, Voice systems overcome the need for specialty attributes, such as larger buttons, on hand-held computers.
In a difficult working environment, it is essential that cold storage operators have the best tools for the job. Voice solutions improve worker productivity in cold storage environments – improving traceability, enhancing order accuracy and speeding up shipping times – while also being adaptable and applicable to other warehouse situations.