Yakka Finds Its Voice

Radio frequency scanning and vertical carousel picking: Yakka's team had already been through these two technology overhauls to its warehousing and distribution processes back in 1993. These experiences came in handy when Yakka (an Aboriginal word for "work") decided to switch to voice-directed picking.

"We had a workforce that had already experienced fundamental changes in technology and processes. That gave us confidence in their ability to adapt to a new method again," says Mark Eversteyn, the company's logistics manager.

Yakka, an Australian maker of industrial apparel, has been a leading player in this market in Australia since the 1930s, when it first started selling long-lasting overalls and coveralls. Today, it boasts the largest market share in workwear apparel, still selling rugged pants, shirts, boots and shoes, along with new product lines of workwear for women and a "Generation Y" line of "workwear with attitude."  Its workwear of all types and descriptions is sold by some 6,000 business and retail customers.

Previously, most of Yakka's branded product, Hard Yakka, was sold through retail channels, either specialty shops or major retailers such as Kmart.  But in 2004, Yakka increased its focus on corporate clothing with the brand Stylecorp, winning major government contracts and dramatically increasing its SKU base.  

"This started to put additional strain on the facilities we were in," says Eversteyn.  "Our layout and methodology for the way we picked and packed orders was reviewed." At the time, RF scanning was utilized in all of the company's facilities, with vertical carousel picking used for fast-moving products.

Yakka set out to improve its customer service by revamping its distribution processes. First, it consolidated its four separate warehouses into a single 69,800-square-foot facility near Melbourne, with the capacity to hold more than 1.5 million product units. This significantly reduced labor costs. Next, Yakka looked to enhance its warehouse management system and upgrade its supply chain functionality.

Two big transitions at once
Yakka's management team observed users of voice systems for order selection in other industries and immediately saw how the benefits could translate to their operations. "The main benefit we could see was it provided a hands-free application for our pickers," says Eversteyn. "When you are picking apparel garments, having both hands free to pick your orders rather than having to handle an RF unit is a major advantage, because you can fold jackets or pants as needed." 

Yakka decided that it needed a voice-directed application for its new DC, and selected Vocollect Voice.

Eversteyn says the business was initially hesitant about the transition to voice for order selection: "To pick an order, employees need to hear the instruction and then communicate verbally with the system. The adaptability of our workforce to a completely new concept was a natural risk that had to be appropriately managed."

At the same time, an elaborate dynamic conveyor system was implemented. Yakka also changed the way its pickface zones were laid out, and the way orders and product are managed through those zones.

The transition was remarkably smooth -- something Eversteyn credits to doing things gradually.

As employees and products moved into the new facility, the new voice system was simultaneously implemented, with small groups of employees trained over a period of weeks. "We took a piecemeal type of approach and made the transition progressively with our product, our equipment and our people," says Eversteyn. "That was a key to our success. You put yourself under a lot of unnecessary pressure if you do it all at once -- particularly when moving people, stock and equipment while also upgrading or changing software systems and processes."

By moving slowly, ample time was spent one on one with individuals to be sure they were truly comfortable with the new equipment. "I think it would be a much different scenario if you had an expectation to train 100 percent of your workforce and have them up and running with the new process the next day," says Eversteyn. "That is not realistic. We had a responsibility to ensure customer service standards were not only maintained but enhanced as a result of the change."

More accurate and efficient
Product is sourced from China, Indonesia and Australia, using standardized packaging. "The same carton that arrives with the product is also used for pick and pack orders," says Eversteyn. "There is quite a reduction in double handling and a substantial savings in packaging waste."

The cartons are RF scanned at the facility and held in bulk storage locations which also act as pickfaces. Any orders placed on a given day are picked and dispatched the following day. 

First, pickfaces are replenished from the bulk storage area, done with RF scanning, and then the pick process is started. Anywhere from 2,000 to 3,000 orders of all shapes and sizes are picked each day with the voice system. Orders can range from a single pair of socks to more than 30 pallets, all packaged with standardized cartons and delivered to customers by a third-party carrier.

Voice picking is used only for split-case orders, which typically comprise 80 percent of all orders dispatched. Users receive via voice a number of basic pick instructions to obtain product, and order information, and interact with the solution to confirm that tasks have been completed.

The voice-enabled batch-picking cart allows multiple orders to be picked at the same time, with about 170 to 200 units picked per hour per worker -- about a 15 percent productivity gain compared with the previous RF picking solution.

After the orders are picked, RF scanning is used to sort loads and dispatch the truck, with all parcels traced until their final delivery. There are now fewer picking mistakes, with a 99 percent accuracy rate for over 21,000 units picked per day.

Since Yakka's product range and facility size both grew significantly at the same time as the implementation, it's difficult to get an apples-to-apples comparison for productivity, says Eversteyn, but he says the company knows "without a doubt, had we not taken on the voice system and were still utilizing RF scanning and carousel picking, our productivity would be significantly less than what it is today."

Another intangible benefit is the "wow" factor, when prospective new customers get a look at Yakka's operations during a tour of the facility. Customers are shown how products are received, how inventory is managed, picked and packed, and how goods are delivered, to see how their potential orders will be handled and processed. "The efficiency gains created in the operation are obvious to both existing and new customers, who can be confident they will ultimately benefit from the picking and delivery service provided," says Eversteyn.

Yakka has won numerous major new contracts since Vocollect Voice was taken on board. "Every one of those customers was brought through the facility for this demonstration, with which very few of our competitors can compare," says Eversteyn.

Stacey Kusterbeck is an Apparel contributing author based in New York.

fast facts
* Brands: Hard Yakka workwear, a line of rugged, durable workwear; Generation Y Workwear and outdoor apparel for younger workers; StyleCorp corporate apparel; Hard Yakka Comfort Wear shirts, shorts and slacks made with easy-care fabrics; Hard Yakka Legends Workwear made from silicone-treated 100 percent cotton duck-weave fabric for greater comfort; Hard Yakka Hi-Visibility Workwear; Hard Yakka Xtreme made from high-performance fabric Cordura; Hard Yakka Koolgear for harsh weather conditions.
* Fabrics used: Woolscience, which combines Merino wool with polyester microfibers to keep wearers cool and dry; cotton-backed micromesh, which draws sweat away from skin and gives sun protection; 100 percent woven cotton to speed up evaporation of perspiration; and 100 percent cotton jersey, which draws perspiration away from the wear's body.

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