For a motorist waiting in a repair shop for a part needed to fix a broken-down car, minutes matter. And for a company like Carquest that supplies those parts, it's absolutely essential to have up-to-the-minute visibility into warehouse inventory in order to meet requests for expedited parts deliveries.
In fact, enhanced inventory visibility was one of the key reasons why Raleigh, N.C.-based Carquest Auto Parts installed a warehouse management system (WMS) in a number of its distribution centers (DCs). The software allows the company to quickly determine whether it has a specific repair part in stock.
"In the automotive parts business, we rely on special-order products, so being able to sell [a part] as soon as it hits the [DC] shelves is a big deal," says Lane Lavrack, distribution center management systems (DCMS) manager-IT application development and maintenance for GPI Technologies LLC, which handles call center support for Carquest. "The ability to have instant visibility to the products allows us to sell the items sooner than before because the WMS systems update inventory for our ordering system in near real time."
Organized for speed
Founded in 1974, Carquest today operates a chain of 3,300 auto supply stores in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. The privately held company—whose parent is General Parts International—does not release revenue or sales figures.
To supply its stores, the company runs a network of 40 DCs in North America. Each facility holds between 100,000 and 120,000 stock-keeping units (SKUs), on average. Stores are restocked daily based on point-of-sales data from the previous day.
Carquest relies on a private fleet of 152 tractor trailers and 111 straight trucks to deliver orders from the DCs to stores. Fleet vehicles handle routine daily deliveries as well as some of Carquest's expedited orders (in certain metro areas, the company is able to deliver special orders to stores within two hours). In the case of emergency repair parts, stores also have the option of sending an employee to the DC to pick up a "will call" order.
Despite the obvious need for swift order turnaround, Carquest for decades relied on manual processes in its DC operations. As recently as 2003, only a few of the DCs in its network had a WMS in place—most of the facilities were still using paper printouts to direct putaway and picking activities. But as business grew, it became clear that the company needed a faster way to process both inbound goods and outbound orders.
In September of that year, the company purchased a WMS from HighJump Software Inc., which it installed at its Raleigh, N.C., distribution center. Since that time, it has rolled the application out to 34 of the 40 facilities in its distribution network.
As part of each deployment, the company has to tie the WMS to several other software applications, including an Oracle database and an order system. To expedite the process, Carquest developed an installation template. That template established a standard for the application programming interfaces, eliminating the need to start from scratch each time.
Although the software itself can be installed in a couple of days, Carquest allows 12 weeks for each deployment. It does that in order to give the DC time to reconfigure its layout. As part of the project, the company is seeking to boost efficiency by "rezoning" storage locations at each facility. For the most part, that's meant arranging stock by manufacturer or supplier and setting up "quick pick" locations.
Raising the bar
Today, operations unfold with clockwork precision at the DCs where the WMS is in place. Workers in the receiving area scan parts and products from incoming supplier shipments with radio-frequency guns. The scans associate those items with the appropriate advance shipment notice. The WMS then directs the putaway process, ensuring that items are deposited in the correct location.
For outbound shipments, the WMS prioritizes the picking, giving preference to expedited or will-call orders. "The WMS is set automatically to put the will-calls to the front of the status to get to the counter quickly," says Mike McGehean, director of DCMS implementation for Carquest US. "These orders are prioritized higher than regular stock orders."
The results of the WMS installation have been impressive by all accounts. By automating the putaway and picking processes, Carquest has increased its inventory accuracy to 99.9 percent. The WMS deployment has also produced a 53-percent increase in order picking accuracy, a 75-percent increase in invoicing accuracy, and a 17-percent reduction in labor costs. "The WMS gave us the tools to increase productivity and a platform to grow our business as we move forward," says McGehean.
Most important of all, in a business where emergency orders are the rule, the WMS has improved Carquest's ability to handle those orders. Lavrack says the key to that has been the visibility the new process provides. "Sales can only be made if you have the item," he says.