Unleash the Bots

The Chicago Parts Distribution Center is embracing new technology that promises to make parts picking safer and more efficient

December 03, 2019
Hi-Tech Teamwork -- A Chicago PDC warehouseperson scans a part before dropping into the pink bin that's carried up and down the facility's  aisles by a robot in search of parts ordered by dealers. 

Auto parts picking, on a Toyota scale, is an incredibly complex endeavor.

Take, for example, TMNA’s Chicago Parts Distribution Center — one of 14 PDCs in North America. It annually processes more than 1.7 million parts orders placed by the region’s 153 dealers who, in turn rely on those parts to meet the needs of thousands of Toyota and Lexus vehicle owners.

While the workforce at this facility routinely handles the task with remarkable efficiency, in the spirit of kaizen, there’s always room for improvement.

Cue the robots. All 32 of them.

“We have a great culture here that’s open to change and trying new things,” says David Smith, Production Manager at the Chicago PDC. “When we proposed integrating robots into our process, there wasn’t much pushback. Our people knew we were looking to improve our operations, not reduce headcount.”

Working in close collaboration with Service Parts & Accessories Operations’ (SPAO) IS team, Christopher Camden, Senior Analyst of Warehouse Automation and Supply Chain Development, and his colleagues began exploring a range of new technology options in mid-2017. A year later, it had narrowed its search down to the optimal solution and business partner to help deliver it.

The new approach went live this past spring. While it’s likely to require additional tweaking going forward, the system is now fully operational.

Steps Saved -- Before the introduction of the bots, warehousepeople at the Chicago PDC collectively walked more than
40 miles per day picking parts. Now, the machines cover that ground while the humans patrol specific aisles.

How Does It Work?

A PDC is a like a supermarket on steroids, with thousands of parts stored on shelves across dozens of aisles.

Previously, each worker on the warehouse floor would be given a cart, a mobile computer connected to the PDC’s warehouse management system, a scanner and a work assignment of parts ordered by as many as eight different dealers. They’d push the cart down one of the aisles, pick one of the desired parts, scan it and drop it in the cart — then continue on to the end of their list.

Once completed, the worker would push the cart back to the packing area and sort the parts into totes for each individual dealer. Those, in turn, would be loaded onto a truck and delivered to the dealers. In the vast majority of cases, dealers would receive their parts by the time they opened for business the next day.

It was complicated. It was taxing. And time was of the essence.

It was also a tried-and-true system, though not without its challenges. Parts picking was labor intensive. And the sorting was prone to error, given the need to sort multiple parts ordered by multiple dealers.

Now, within the new system, the robots convey the parts autonomously. Workers are assigned specific aisles. When a bot stops in front of a part in their area, the worker picks the part, scans it, applies a label produced by an on-board printer, drops it in the tote and then sends the bot on its way to its next stop.

The Finish Line --  Once a bot has completed its run for a specific dealer, a warehouseperson removes the pink bin and readies it for delivery to the dock.

Further, each bot picks parts only for one dealer at time. So when it’s made its run and returns to the induction area, the workers there no longer have to sort everything out. They remove the tote full of parts, zip tie it, put a destination label on it and place it on a cart that conveys it to the dock.

And the bot is given a new mission to go forth and pick more parts.

The Difference?

For starters, the humans and their new assistants are peacefully coexisting.

“The bots don’t have arms, so they can’t reach out and pick the parts,” says Smith. “It still requires human interaction. “

“The bots do all of the walking,” says Selva Nagarajan, who represented SPAO IS on this proof of concept. “The people do the value-added work. And it’s a big step in the right direction ergonomically.”

Smith says gains are also being made against the PDC’s objectives for safety, customer service, team member feedback and productivity (up a whopping 42 percent!). In fact, the new system met all of its launch expectations in its first week — except for quality improvement targets, which thus far remains unchanged. Odds are, achieving that objective is just a matter of time and continuous improvement.

Ready to Roll -- The Chicago PDC has deployed a fleet of 32 bots to help make the parts-picking process safer and more efficient.

Meanwhile, their counterparts at TMNA’s other PDCs are starting to take notice. Though it’s still too early to say, they may eventually adopt a similar approach.

“We’ve definitely seen productivity gains,” says Nagarajan. “Now it’s a matter of remaining focused on our kaizen activities.”

“It’s a new way of doing business so it took a while to learn, but now we’ve got our hands around it and are confident we’ll see additional improvements in the near future,” says Camden. “It’s better for our people and better for our dealers, which means it’s better for our customers. There’s no going back to the old way of doing things, that’s for sure.”

By Dan Miller

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