Part of growth (whether as an individual or as a company) is thinking ahead and understanding what you’ll need to be successful in the future – be it a degree to help you get your dream job; buying a bigger car when you have triplets on the way; or ensuring that your company has enough staff to handle the holiday rush.
The trick is to maintain the other areas in which you are already proficient at the same time, which is much easier said than done. That’s why it’s best to approach your challenge with incremental goals in mind. In our case, we recognized that we simply don’t have enough capacity in our warehouse flow to consistently meet our needs or customer expectations. To solve for this, we are making a huge investment in our future growth and the continued support of the enthusiast community. We’re excited to announce the arrival and installation of ECS’ automated packing system that we can’t wait to show you.
Automated packing, if you aren’t familiar, is self-explanatory from a high level. In place of stations manned by individual packers, our automated packing machine will run continuously and create custom packaging for orders with robotic precision. Looking closer at the machine, our decision to explore a technology solution to improve warehouse efficiency, and the process changes this machine requires, we can quantify the benefits and identify potential challenges in advance so that contingencies are in place.
Why Do We Need A Pack Machine?
Our growth has been substantial over the past decade, which has necessitated several similar investments. Our facility move in 2012 gave us the space we needed at the time. We quickly outgrew the new building, which we responded to by expanding that facility in 2016. Now, we find ourselves struggling to physically move the number of orders we receive during the usual time we expect to ship them. As customers, you may have experienced some of the delays associated with this volume. Unfortunately, this is a symptom of our rapid growth that could potentially hinder our efforts. The solutions in front of us involved a number of different approaches, but ultimately, we decided to look at the technology solution to supplement our existing staff.
What Does It Do?
The machine itself is capable of incredible volume, performing the work of roughly twenty human packers in an eight-hour period. It can pump out over 500 individual packages an hour at full tilt but still requires some human input that we estimate will realistically allow for around 3/4 of that volume on average. It uses human operators to constantly ‘feed’ the machine at an induction station, where the packing machine will then scan, individually package, and output the completed order ready to ship at the other end of the line.
While it does the work of twenty packers, this machine is in no way meant to replace any staff. We aren’t putting all our eggs in the pack machine basket. Rather, we are using technology to improve the efficiency of our existing staff. Our ‘traditional’ pack stations will remain in operation handling orders and parts the machine can’t as well as serving as the manual contingency plan in the event the machine is out of operation for maintenance.
What Changes Can We Expect?
From the customer-facing side, not much. The biggest things you’ll notice if your order is part of the 70% of our catalog we expect this machine to pack are visual changes in the box itself and the lack of packing material. Externally, the boxes will no longer be white with ECS red tape. You can expect brown tape on brown boxes. While less exciting, the packaging is also more efficient. Since the pack machine scans and arranges products in a custom-designed box for each order, as much ‘void’ in the box is removed as mathematically possible, thus eliminating the need for ‘void filler’ or packing materials.
Internally, some new roles are needed to operate the machine. Since the machine needs continuous operation to maintain our shipping goals, an ‘A’ team is stationed at the machine while a ‘B’ team is on-call ready to jump in as a substitute should an operator need to leave their station. This also means we can devote more distribution center associates to picking roles so the volume we’re feeding into the machine every hour doesn’t drop. Right now, we have the capacity to physically pick the number of orders we need to get out the door, the choke point lies in our manual packing stations.
With more associates picking orders, and a machine that can handle the volume, we anticipate a substantial increase in the number of orders moved out the door on a daily basis. That efficiency improvement translates to promises kept on shipping times with in-stock orders that are ready to ship on the same day.
Are There Backup Plans?
Just like the cars we support with maintenance parts, this is a machine. It requires service, human operators, and isn’t indestructible. Knowing that failure to plan is a plan for failure, we need to anticipate instances where the pack machine is down for service or repairs. When the machine isn’t running, we will see a dramatic effect on our shipping numbers per hour, so backup plans and timely repairs are critical.
Fortunately, none of our current picking and packing methods are being replaced. Everything we do right now will remain the same, which will allow us to fall back on manual shipping operations rather than leave us dead in the water. We’re also training several members of our technology and R&D teams in service and operations of the machine so we have staff members capable of diagnosis and repairs for the fastest return to operation possible. In the event our team isn’t able to service the machine, its manufacturer is available for support and service around the clock, so even the worst-case situation is accounted for.
In summary, our growth has been both a blessing and a curse. While it has allowed us to dramatically expand the catalog of performance and maintenance parts available to the European car community, it has also created a pain point as a result of the increased volume. We needed a solution that allows us to keep up with growing demand, support our future growth, and supplement our team rather than replace it. This new pack machine is expected to meet and exceed all those requirements once fully operational and will allow us to continue delivering on our promises to you, the enthusiast community, that you’ll receive the parts you need when you need them.