Michael Torch works in one of the last vestiges of physical distribution left at McGraw-Hill. As vice president of manufacturing and operations for McGraw Hill Education, Inc., he sees to it that students from K through 12 and beyond get their text books. Apparently e-books haven’t yet killed off the distribution of hide-bound reams of paper to schools and universities—yet.

“E-books are growing in this industry and will cause business to decline on the print side,” Torch acknowledges. “The question is how quickly and which markets.”

The education division does 60-70% of its business in a three- month timeframe, July to September. Then in the higher-ed market there’s another peak from November to December for the second semester. Torch’s team is staffed with a permanent force of 100 for the non-peak then bulks up with another 100 temporaries for the peak season in the loose pick operation.

McGraw-Hill Education just closed a distribution center supporting its professional and trade markets. Those are going digital much faster than schools because most professionals have a computer. But e-textbooks aren’t as popular among students as you might think, according to Torch. He cites a recent survey by the National Association of College Stores (NACS) which found that 75% of college kids still prefer hard copy.

“In the K-12 business, until we can find a financially feasible model for putting a computer on everyone’s desk, e-books will only be part of the education solution,” he says. “Since the kids coming out of the K-12 stream really don’t learn how to study from digital product, they won’t know how to study that way at college, so we’re anticipating a hybrid answer, a combination of digital and print. That’s why we don’t know how fast [book printing] will go away, if it ever will.”

Until that happens, Torch is dedicated to making the physical distribution of books as efficient as possible. In recent years that’s meant modifying his warehouse management system (WMS) and updating their picking process, including radio frequency (RF) terminals in the loose-pick area.

But now that those terminals have several years on them, rather than purchase new ones, McGraw-Hill decided to look at other options that would improve worker efficiencies. Voice caught their attention.

Voice Keeps Hands Free

“The expense for RF terminals was very large and we wanted to see if there was a way to minimize that expense for the future,” he says. “We were looking at over half a million dollars easily in RF purchases. Then we heard that one of our competitors in the higher-ed market had gone to voice so we took a look.”

Torch learned that voice could bring productivity gains to manual or paper-driven operations, but since his were already using RF he didn’t know how much more productive voice could make his order pickers. After a bit more research he found that hands-free operations could make a big difference.

“The picker would only be voicing in, they wouldn’t have to be on the keyboard, so when they go to the location their hands are picking and putting into the box and not dealing with the RF terminal,” he says.

Ergonomics was the other benefit, since pickers would not have to be reaching or looking down as much. And because workers are online and talking they don’t have the opportunity to talk to their neighbors while working.

“So it eliminates a little lost time between actual work because they’re always responding back verbally to the system,” Torch adds.