A good supply chain can help a business run like a well-oiled machine. Many service companies have warehouses that store different OEM replacement parts and materials, so having a smooth process from the point items arrive to the moment they leave is crucial. Eliminating even the smallest bottlenecks not only enhances day-to-day operations, but it also helps improve bottom line.
So how can you best optimize and automate a supply chain?
Kenny William, Senior Director of Process Improvement at Parts Town, offered some tips on identifying issues within your current procedure and ways to solve them.
Identifying Existing Supply Chain Issues
William’s biggest responsibility is to improve the distribution management system, focusing on potential solutions to enhance operational flow. He believes the biggest issue businesses face when trying to improve their process is focusing on the wrong areas.
“Some companies often seek to automate before they fully understand what they’re trying to accomplish,” William said. “You could solve the wrong problem that way. First, you really have to go through an exercise of understanding.”
Issues can be tied to everything from procurement to dispatching. But how do you identify exactly what’s wrong?
“The first step is to look at your process to figure out what’s the actual goal you’re trying to achieve,” William said. “You have to remove any distractions to reaching that goal. Over time processes can become distorted by changing needs and additional features.
“If you can ask ‘why’ five times, then you can get closer to the root cause. The idea of solving any problem is you want to figure out what the problem actually is and simplify the process. You don’t want to keep addressing symptoms when you can cure the root issue.”
This same exercise helped Parts Town improve its core supply chain processes.
Before expanding to its current distribution center with more than 200 people, Parts Town stored its parts in a small warehouse. William started in July 2012 as warehouse manager, working with a staff of 18 people. About a year into his role, he and his team realized the management software they used wasn’t cutting it.
“The toughest issue revolved around inefficiencies with how we dispatched work,” William said. “We were printing paper pick sheets for orders as they came in and separating them into batches. Then, a picker would come, grab a stack and look through the locations they had to pick.”
By not having the proper software, the process didn’t align to how the warehouse was doing its work. So why was that a problem? It caused a lot of shortcuts and mistakes throughout the picking procedure. As business grew, William and the rest of the team knew they had to find a better system.
Improving & Automating a Supply Chain
Once you identify supply chain inefficiencies, finding ways to improve or automate your processes is essential. Parts Town tackled its supply chain issues by instituting HighJump’s warehouse management system in 2015.
Since then, the WMS has strengthened the distribution center’s accuracy and efficiency across all areas. With the ability to pick by zone, it’s helped improve productivity, and the WMS’ quality assurance processes have enhanced shipment quality with cleaner customer-facing labels and packing lists.
Another big feature HighJump offered was tracking each item’s specific location in the distribution center. Even when it’s removed and replaced by another, the system reflects the change in a matter of seconds. The new system also gave Parts Town plenty of flexibility to customize if needed.
“When we looked for a new system, we had a long list of stuff that we wanted,” William said. “One of the things was adaptability and configurability. We wanted to be able to make the change to how it’s automated. With innovation being one of Parts Town’s core values, it was essential that the new WMS continuously improve and grow with us. HighJump suited our needs well. With better inventory tracking and streamlined processes, we accuracy improved by more than 15 percent, training time decreased by more than half, and productivity increased by more than 20 percent in some areas.”
As Parts Town’s business continued to grow, it moved to a new facility with a 200,000-square-foot distribution center. In order to meet the growing demands for its customers, the company needed both a larger building and transformative technological solution. In November 2017, the new distribution center implemented Bastian Solutions’ AutoStore, an automated storage and retrieval system designed to pick faster than traditional shelf picking.
The system is made of a structural grid featuring storage bins, robots and both pick and put-away ports. Items are stored in stacked bins a within grid. As orders come in, the system alerts robots to find the bins with those items, dig the bins out of the storage grid and deliver the bins to human operators stationed around the perimeter.
With pick rates up to six times faster and over 50 percent more accurate than traditional picking, it’s clear Parts Town has found a way to continue meeting customers’ high expectations even as the business continues to grow. The recently expanded grid contains 35,700 bins, 70 robots and 15 ports. As of August 2019, Parts Town has had more than 2.3 million picks from using automatic retrieval.
While automation has helped make Parts Town even more efficient, not every company requires a highly technical solution. Even small software solutions or tracking platforms can help. Many supply chains can benefit from just simplifying their end-to-end processes, according to William.
“Once you really understand the problem, you have to figure out if it’s worth putting a lot of fire power around automated technology to solve it,” William said. “Your best solution might require automation, but automation is expensive. You could solve it with limited resources now that the process is simpler.”
However, if a business does take measures to automate the supply chain process, William suggests staying as flexible as possible to automate for future needs and ever-changing goals.
“You want to automate in a way where you put in switches, controls and configurability,” he said. “So if your scale increases or your options need to change, you can be ready. The more flexibility your automation has, the better the automation it will work as your business grows.”