This blog reports events and interesting tidbits from Rensselaer, Indiana and the surrounding area.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

A tour

On Wednesday night I attended an open house at Advance Auto Parts in Remington. There seemed to be more staff in the reception area than guests. I am not sure how many people saw the invitation, but I think only 25 or 30 showed up. Maybe that is all they wanted.

Advance Auto Parts built the Remington distribution center as the recession hit, so the building was empty for several years. That may a bit ironic--during the tour one of the staff members remarked that the recession was good for the auto parts business. When people postpone buying new cars, they buy more car parts. The center has been in full operation for three or four years. It is currently Jasper County's largest employer, with over 400 employees. Most of them do not reside in Jasper County. There are more employees who live in Tippecanoe County than Jasper County. It has taken the company a while to get fully staffed with a stable workforce, but they apparently are past that problem. Most of the workers work either ten-hour days Sunday through Wednesday or ten-hour days Wednesday through Saturday. The facility runs seven days a week, twenty four hours a day.

After meeting some of the managers and enjoying some snacks, most of the guests went on a tour of part of the facility. I asked several times if I could take a picture with the understanding that I would use it on a blog, and I was told each time, "Not yet." "Yet" never arrived, so I have no pictures. I wanted to get a picture that might indicate just how big the building is. Other than a sports stadium, we almost never are inside a building that has as much floor space in a single room. Their building, at 550,000 square feet, may bigger than sports stadiums.

The Donaldson's distribution center in Rensselaer is somewhat similar, and you can see pictures of that here. There was more activity in the Advance Auto Parts center, more noise, more variety in the boxes on the shelves, and more conveyor belts. I think the way that the facility operates is also quite different. Donaldson's supplies many different kinds of stores, while Advance Auto Parts supplies only their own retail stores. There are over 3000 of them nationwide, and somewhat over 400 are supplied from the Remington center, stores from Tennessee to Minnesota and Ohio to Missouri. While Donaldson's is shipping a great many of little orders to a great many stores (and places overseas), Advance Auto Parts is shipping fewer big orders to many fewer stores. The conveyor belts seem to be central to the Advance Auto Parts center. I do not recall more than a few small conveyor belts at Donaldson's.

It seemed that the workers at Advance Auto Parts did not gather together an entire order as they do at Donaldson's. Rather they seemed to be finding the parts of a shipment and putting them on a conveyor belt. The conveyor belt takes the parts to an area that reminded me of the luggage area in an airport terminal, though it was much bigger. Although there are very few pictures on the Internet of the interior of the Advanced Auto Parts distribution center (or DC as they staff refer to it), I did find one here, on the site of one of the contractors who built the center. In the lower left you can see a conveyor belt that turns and runs through some machines that read what is on each tray. As the trays are transported further, they are dumped along the brown, sloping parts. These are divided into 72 or 74 areas, each representing a store. The order for each store is then assembled and packed into large crates. I asked how often mistakes were made. I was told that the goal was 99.5% reliability, but that was hard to obtain. Sometimes smaller packages get jostled out of place while on the conveyor, and they then do not get deposited in the correct slot.

The building has either no heating/cooling or at best rudimentary heating. The machinery and vehicles provide enough heat to keep it comfortable in the winter and in the summer it can be opened enough to circulate in fresh air. All the many vehicles on the floor are battery powered, and every few hours they must be plugged in to recharge. Some of them lift twenty or thirty feet up to reach upper shelves, and in these vehicles the drivers are hooked onto a safety line. As we entered the main floor, a display said that the center had gone 41 days without an accident.

The center has its own IT department. I did not ask exactly what they did--I should have. Distribution centers depend heavily on the processing of computers. I should have asked if they write their own software or they purchase it from a vendor of distribution software. Even if they purchase the software, they would need to customize it.

I recall the tour guide saying about a million items came into and left the center every day. I think it was every day. We only saw about half of the building. As the tour ended, there was a flood of workers coming into the break room for lunch. Adjacent to the large break room was a smaller room with several dozen microwaves.

It was an interesting tour. I wish I had been allowed to take pictures, but I try to do what I am told when people are kind enough to let me see how their business operates.

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