We continue coverage of The Grocer Gold Awards this week, starting with a bold investment in voice recognition picking that left most of the industry at the starting gate. Elaine Watson reports

Proving that high-tech supply chain solutions are not only for the big boys, United Co-operatives stormed home in the best business initiative category by cashing straight in on an opportunity that larger rivals are only just beginning to grasp. Vocollect’s Talkman voice recognition system - a relatively unknown quantity in the UK when United installed it at its Talke warehouse in Stoke last year - delivered concrete benefits in record time. One judge, trying to get a similar system off the ground in his retail business, called it “current best practice”.
The business case is simple, says general manager logistics, Paul Cross. Give warehouse staff instructions via a headset and their eyes and hands are free to concentrate on the job in hand - picking groceries accurately and quickly. That means no paper picking lists, no computer screens and no trips back to the pick assignment desk. Instructions from United’s OMI Europe warehouse management system are translated via lightweight microcomputers worn on a belt into speech.
As picks are made, staff simply confirm their actions with a few words without having to tick off checklists or type on to a wrist-mounted computer.
Delivering a return on investment in just 13 weeks, Talkman slashed picking errors from 10 per 1,000 to two per 1,000 and boosted pick speed from 120 to 175 picks per hour - a 37.5% improvement.
Labour savings topped 500 hours a week, while claims from stores of missing products have reduced by 80%.
Likewise, because picking is now highly accurate, invoices can be drawn up on the basis of goods picked. The results were so impressive that the system (provided by VoiteQ) has since been rolled out to United’s Bradford depot, this time handling goods in as well as goods out, says Cross.
United has never been technology shy, investing in a raft of initiatives from space planning software and data warehousing to sales based ordering, he says.
However, Talkman was in a league of its own when it came to genuine business benefit. “Voice recognition is one of the most significant developments in the food
distribution industry in the last 10 years.
“Not only has our pick rate increased by more than 20% but so too has our overall efficiency, enabling the complete removal of operational admin in the warehouse.”
By prioritising the allocation of picking assignments based on the departure time of loads bound for stores, despatch bay utilisation has also increased.
Store orders are automatically split into assignments in three zones: fast moving, slow moving and high value. The warehouse management system then allocates orders to pickers in a sequence determined by delivery and loading priorities.
The system then combines the picks from all three zones for each order in the final despatch lane. Shortages identified by pickers are automatically prioritised and the picker is sent back to the relevant location at the end of his run, cutting out the need for
staff that used to be employed simply to tackle shortages.
Contrary to the popular belief that voice recognition could turn staff into automatons at the bid and call of a talking computer, United’s employees have really warmed to it, says Cross.
Staff turnover has gone down since the system was installed and increased productivity means that agency staff are no longer required to ensure that the work gets done.
“It was well received by our staff and the quality of the software enabled us to train them in under two hours,” he says.
“The beauty of Talkman is that staff can manage their own time. You can control the speed at which the instructions are delivered and take a break when you want. You just tell the Talkman to sleep. The pickers are in complete control.”