Batch Picking Bucket Brigades Fire Up Voice Picking Productivity

A little over ten years ago the first voice directed bucket brigade started up in the Deerfield Beach, FL distribution center of Republic National Distributing Company. As the name suggests, in bucket-brigade picking workers pick items into totes or cartons and pass the carton along to subsequent workers in a pick module. Bucket brigades use a zoneless, pick-and-pass process which creates a highly efficient and self-balancing work unit that eliminates bottlenecks without direct supervisory intervention.

There’s a great description of the bucket brigade process on the Web, including a short animation (thanks to John Bartholdi and Donald Eisenstein). We also have several good live examples of Jennifer voice directed bucket brigades in action, including this clip from a wine and spirits distribution center. In this video, the picker has the dialogue working at top speed – she’s picking hundreds of bottles an hour. Jennifer tells her what shelf location to pick from and how many to pick. The picker speaks the location check digit and quantity. She says “pass carton” to pass the carton to the next picker in the module and then enters the carton ID from the next carton in line. Lucas has dozens of other examples of bucket brigade pickers in a variety of DCs (contact us if you'd like to see other videos).

Bucket brigades are nothing new in the warehouse, but before Jennifer was installed in Deerfield Beach, bucket brigade picking systems relied on paper pick lists that traveled with the cartons down the conveyor. The problem with paper is that it creates wasted time while pickers read and handle pick sheets. So some DCs installed pick to light systems. While lights provide productivity, they are costly to install and maintain. And some pick to light picking systems use fixed picking zones – these are not bucket-brigades. Restricting each associate to a fixed number of bays defeats the purpose of the bucket brigade.

And that’s where Jennifer comes in. Republic National Distributing Company saw an opportunity for voice in their bottle pick module, which had been using paper. So in 2001, the first Jennifer voice-directed bucket brigade was fired up. The system delivered high double-digit productivity gains along with reduced picking errors. Based on the initial success at RNDC, Jennifer spread like wildfire in the wine and spirits industry, where she is now used at dozens of DCs.

The story doesn’t end there. Retail and other industries also started looking at voice as an alternative to their expensive light systems, but the conventional wisdom was that voice technology would slow workers down compared to light-based picking. Through innovative dialogues and other process changes Lucas has been able to deliver Jennifer applications providing equivalent or better productivity than light-based bucket brigades at a number of major retail DCs. In fact, Jennifer has replaced light-based picking at a number of retail fulfillment centers.

Compared to the pick to light systems she replaced, Jennifer also delivered improved accuracy, in large part because pickers are required to explicitly confirm the quantity picked – they say “grab two” when picking two pieces. Voice-based bucket brigades also provide complete accountability since the system tracks who picks what into which order carton. To get the same level of accountability with a light-based system, associates would need to pick in fixed zones, which will inevitably lead to idle time and defeat the productivity goals of the bucket-brigade concept.

One of the process innovations in voice-directed bucket brigades in retail, publishing and other industries, is the ability to batch orders in a train of cartons, so that the picker reaches into each slot once to fill multiple orders. The first Jennifer batch bucket brigade system was installed as far back as 2004. These batch picking systems have led to ultra-efficient picking processes that just aren’t possible with lights or other technologies. Compared to traditional single order bucket brigades, batch picking bucket brigades offer additional incremental productivity gains. Not the huge 20 percent or greater gains you get from moving from paper or scanning to voice, but measurable gains resulting in tangible savings. Best of all, these additional points of productivity are free – they are the product of creative process engineering rather than additional capital investments.

Posted on Saturday, May 26, 2012