Voice proves to be the right tool for Sealey


This article is brought to you by Retail Technology Review: Voice proves to be the right tool for Sealey.

Sealey Tools has optimised its picking productivity and accuracy since going live with its Dakota voice-enabled solution

Founded in 1978, Sealey Tools is well-known nationally and internationally as a leading brand of professional tools and workshop equipment. With a global reputation for innovation, quality and reliable after-sales service, Sealey is a 100% family-owned entity, boasting one of the world’s largest ranges of workshop essentials which is backed by total compliance testing, parts availability and extended product guarantees.

Supplying over 12,000 product lines specifically designed for use in the trade, Sealey sells through a network of local independent dealers and upholds a proven reputation for providing high-quality, competitively priced products. 

Tim Thompson: “The voice solution is already delivering time, cost and accuracy benefits in our picking processes.” 

Under pressure 

When the company experienced an unexpected, significant and sustained increase in orders during the Covid pandemic lockdown, its warehouse was under extreme pressure to keep up with such an unprecedented upturn in demand. So much so, that the company decided to improve its product picking technology to remain in line with its customer delivery promises. 

For many years, Sealey had relied on barcode scanners in its 440,000 ft.² warehouse in Bury St Edmunds for picking and replenishment. However, Tim Thompson, operations director at Sealey, has always kept a keen eye on the technology marketplace and attends exhibitions around the country to speak with vendors and to see first-hand some of the solutions that could be a good fit for Sealey. He also likes to hear about what other companies are using in the warehouse and the benefits they enjoy.

Sealey’s awareness of pick-to-voice began around 2018. “Around this time, we installed a new Microsoft AX 2012 Dynamics R3 ERP system with a WMS module incorporated within the system,” explains Thompson. “After that implementation, we began to exploit its potential for connecting complementary systems, including voice.” 

Charlie Cowan: “We also wanted to ensure the pickers felt comfortable and confident in using voice.” 

Breath of fresh air 

Thompson comments that the Microsoft system was a breath of fresh air compared with the green screen systems Sealey had relied on previously. “The green screen system was very hard to integrate with, and when we wanted to connect our green screen application to other systems or wanted to extract data, this often proved to be difficult, time-consuming or impossible,” he explains. 

“Also, the process depended on printing out large amounts of paper for pick and delivery. Something as simple as a printer failure could seriously affect the performance of the warehouse dispatch area. We also relied on staff going through the picking lists, allowing them to decide what was picked rather than what the business needed picking.” Because of these types of constraints, Sealey began to look for new technologies and wanted a more convenient and efficient means of incorporating itself within partner companies’ supply chains. At this stage, voice seemed to be a logical progression. 

In 2018, Sealey moved to barcode picking to replace its paper-based methodology. “Despite a few minor reservations at board level, we installed the barcode picking system and it worked brilliantly from the outset,” says Thompson. “Never a company to rest on our laurels, we began talks with a voice-directed picking solutions provider. However, during the testing process, our Logistics Director found that he wasn’t being perfectly understood when using the voice recognition functionality of the system. This meant that the implementation stalled. Then Covid-19 arrived, and we had to put a stop to project work and focus on keeping our staff safe while managing the upturn in business.”

Pandemic impact 

Towards the end of the pandemic, Sealey, like so many other companies, was struggling somewhat to meet the surge in demand and to get orders picked, packed and shipped. “We needed to find a better way to meet promised delivery dates to customers via our distribution partners,” explains Thompson. “As you would expect, during the pandemic, drop ship levels increased massively. Voice still seemed to be the logical answer despite the teething problems we had with our initial solution.” 

The Dakota connection 

When Sealey originally went live with Dynamics AX, it chose Honeywell as its hardware partner. “We knew that Dakota and Honeywell have a very close working relationship, and, together with Dakota’s solid reputation for voice technology, prompted us to begin discussions in the knowledge that having a relationship under one umbrella made sense,” says Thompson. “Despite having already gone some distance down the road with a previous voice provider, the decision was quickly made to move to the Dakota solution”. 

Fast ROI 

Dakota immediately looked at an estimated return on investment (ROI) and involved Mountain Leverage, its specialist US technology partner. “We then gave Dakota and Mountain Leverage background documentation on our business, the terminology we use and a breakdown of the operations in the warehouse, including how we pick, pack and replenish,” explains Thompson.  

Dakota used videography to film pickers as they undertook their work in the warehouse. They then used the data they gained as the basis for the ROI calculations. “Once all the data had been collected, there was a lot of discussion about within which warehouses we should deploy voice and where we could get the biggest bang for our buck,” says Thompson. “We also discussed the processes that would benefit best from voice. When we first began discussions about voice, we weren’t just looking at the picking process, we were also looking at put-away and replenishment. However, based on the videography and ROI figures, we decided primarily to focus on picking and consider packing and replenishment for the future.” 

“Once we received the projected ROI numbers from Dakota, it all started to add up and make perfect sense,” continued Thompson. “We knew that there was an upfront sizeable investment to be made, but we were also mindful that we would achieve a payback within 16.5 to 17 months based on a productivity improvement of at least 15%.” 

Major improvements 

Although Sealey’s use of barcode scanners made a world of difference compared with the previous methodology of picking based on paper lists, there was still the odd occasion when a particular picker could circumvent the cluster system and pick what they wanted to pick rather than adhering to the priority schedule. “This is no longer an issue because the clusters are automatically allocated to pickers by the Honeywell Voice software,” says Thompson. 

A Linux processor contains all Sealey’s voice management software, including the OpsWare that manages picking and the Honeywell management system for all the mobile hardware. Marked order clusters are sent to OpsWare by the AX ERP system and the pick process then begins.

The pickers will arrive each morning and pick up a belt pack (often referred to as a ‘grenade’) containing a small integrated barcode scanner. For hygiene purposes, all pickers have their own headsets which have an integral RFID identifier. Once they put the headsets on, they pick up a powered microphone boom and pair the headset, boom and grenade together using Bluetooth. These belt packs contain all the voice logic for the user and allow them to manage their own connections to the system. 

Pickers will then sign on to the system, identifying themselves as the user, and the specific shift and warehouse using natural speech. They then take a tote and pallet, scan the tote for the license plate and the voice system immediately gives precise, clear instructions in terms of which warehouse, aisles and bay to visit and ultimately which SKUs to pick. 

Check digits are included at key points in the process to ensure a consistently high level of picking accuracy.

Design and customisation 

Charlie Cowan, account manager at Dakota, explains that it took Dakota 8 to 10 weeks to design and bespoke the voice solution with the Sealey team to ensure Dakota understood how Sealey’s processes worked at every level. “We wanted to ensure that when the pickers put on the headset there would be minimal difference to what they were used to when using barcode scanners,” explains Cowan. “We also wanted to ensure the pickers felt comfortable and confident in using voice, while recognising several improvements compared with the scanners – for example, being able to work in a more ‘hands-and eyes-free’ fashion.” 

Training and go live 

A ‘train the trainer’ regime was deployed whereby specific champions at Sealey were fully trained on the system. Then, using a cascade approach, these champions trained the other pickers. The voice system then went live in February 2023.

The pickers all utilise English as the voice language in the warehouse. However, the difference between the Honeywell voice solution and the system Sealey had previously tested was substantial. “The Honeywell system could easily understand the voices of pickers regardless of their individual regional or foreign accents with minimal system training,” says Thompson. 

Moving ahead 

Sealey now plans to begin a 2-year piece of work to install Microsoft Dynamics 365 as its new ERP system and Thompson highlights that because of the success of the pick to voice project, further deployment of voice for packing is due for deployment later this year, ensuring that they keep their delivery promises to both their distributors and customers. 

“The voice solution is already delivering time, cost and accuracy benefits in our picking processes,” explains Thompson. “As it matures, I believe it will continue to provide further incremental advantages. The whole Sealey team has no regrets in our choice of Dakota as one of our key solution partners.”

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