"Welcome order-picker. Okay to go through?"
Thousands of order-pickers are working around the clock in seven food distribution centres of Colruyt Group. Their job? Collecting the right products for more than 800 stores of the group. And voice picking-technology makes that job a lot easier! Logistics engineer Klaas Koster and project manager Isabel Gevers from Colruyt Group IT tell us how, in the past two years, we gave the voice-picking system an upgrade, including new devices, infrastructure, and dialogue.
Klaas, how does voice picking work exactly?
Klaas: “The order-picker receives instructions via a headset and a small wireless computer - a Talkman - and he or she can confirm these assignments orally. The system can be operated hands-free, and order-pickers can therefore take and stack goods more safely and efficiently. They are always directed to the exact location of the products and have to enter a check digit to avoid mistakes.
We have been using this system in our food distribution centres for 13 years now - we were quick to start using it - and it works excellently. For that reason, we performed a risk analysis two years ago to see whether we can keep using the technology worry-free in the future as well.
Did that risk analysis reveal some potential hazards?
Klaas: "It did. For example the devices themselves: from 2021, they would no longer be produced. Other issues were the legacy Windows operating system and the outdated Taskbuilder programming language, in which it was very hard to add new activities or assignments. For example, one of the new activities was the track & tracing of all tobacco products required by the European Union.
So there were more than reasons enough to renew both our hardware and software to keep ensuring the continuity of the system. We had a talk with our partners, the distribution centres, and they agreed on one important condition: that they could keep doing what they already did with the system. So, all previous commands had to be rewritten in the new Artisan programming language."
We also decided to work with one dialogue from now on?
Klaas: "Correct: the same dialogue for all our food distribution centres that supply food products to he stores of Colruyt, OKay, Retail Partners Colruyt Group (Spar, Alvo, free customers) and Colruyt Prix Qualité. That option also offers the necessary flexibility: co-workers can for example easily start working in another distribution centre.
When our wish list was clear we drew up a roll-out plan together with our suppliers Honeywell and CaptureTech. We keep the whole application running ourselves with three servers that operate with a load balancer. That is quite unique, but also necessary because so many people work with it. Per shift, 1,200 order-pickers can work with this voice technology, in total we talk about 8,000 co-workers with each their own headset.”
Isabel: "That we opted for one solution also has advantages for the support co-workers: they have to know only one technology and one logic or dialogue."
The roll-out was executed in phases?
Klaas: "A lot of novelties came our way and our distribution centres had to stay operational. In September 2021, our distribution centre in Ghislenghien came first, partly under pressure of the new track & trace legislation on tobacco. Those tobacco goods are scanned with a blue-tooth finger scanner that communicates with the voice-picking device.
In October of this year we finishedt he roll-out with the distribution centres of Colruyt Prix Qualité and Retail Partners Colruyt Group (RPCG). RPCG mainly delivers to independent Spar and Alvo stores. Especially for them, we integrated a specific activity into our dialogue, the 'exact weight' picking, because the RPCG stores want to know the exact weight of some articles. For this activity, we also work with the same finger scanner that communicates with our voice dialogue."
What was your role as a project manager, Isabel?
Isabel: "Credit where credit is due: it is mainly Klaas who took the lead in this project. I joined when the project was already running and mainly tried to ease Klaas' work. By taking more distance and sometimes more time, where I mainly handled the planning and administrative part. Apart from some practical obstacles such as late deliveries of devices or parts, this project really went very smooth.
The team was well attuned and worked very independently. You could tell they had really found each other. We will also succeed in finishing the project within the agreed upon term and below the budget. Including the realisations that were out of scope: for example, we will now also create an English dialogue on demand of RPCG, although we will separate the follow-up of this activity from the project."
How did you experience this project, Klaas?
Klaas: "Before I did not know that much of IT, so that has changed now. (laughs) I really enjoyed it: there was a great dynamic, among the co-workers in the distribution centres as well as within the core team. I got to know an incredible number of people as well as positions I did not know existed or that Colruyt had in-house. The run team, the application manager, Isabel as a project manager, people of application infrastructure, the roll-out coordinator, the colleagues of our supporting services such as Fields and the Repair Centre... It was really nice to see how committed and hands-on everyone was. We also gave the distribution centres the needed space to organise themselves and as a logistics engineer I was on the spot a lot for the necessary support. In this whole project, everything went according to plan. There was gusto, respect, and communication between all co-workers."
Last question: what is in fact the difference for the order-pickers?
Klaas: “After this big project, there actually is no difference for them. (laughs) And let that be the merit: behind the screens a lot has changed and we have made the application future-proof, but in practice there are no changes. The continuity is ensured."