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by Chris Vander Doelen
It’s undoubtedly happened to you — needing a shipment of auto parts yesterday for a customer or a pressing backyard project, and you wonder why it’s taking so long.
As of late November, Mopar has been getting its top-selling parts out the door quite a bit faster, and they’re eager to explain how. The short story: roboticized new warehouses to capture a bigger part of the fast-growing U.S. $277 billion aftermarket and replacement auto parts industry. This week, they opened the latest one between two airports – Willow Run (a freight airport a few miles to the west), and Detroit International Airport, also in Romulus, for urgent export orders.
The Romulus Parts Distribution Center (PDC) is the second new PDC Mopar has opened in the U.S. this year, bringing the total to 23 and helping to make up for earlier cuts. The latest $10.4-million installation was designed to cut staff time, customer waiting time, and costs. The company is pretty proud about how they did it: a combination of kaisen (Japanese continuous improvement), plant layout, dedicated staff, and a lot more technology.
As some Mopar fans already know, the division closed four of its regional U.S. parts warehouses during the bankruptcy panic of 2008-2009: two in California, one in Memphis, and one in Newark, Delaware. But under Pietro Gorlier, head of parts and service (Mopar) since 2009, and resurgent plans for FCA’s future, the division that started as a supplier of antifreeze 80 years ago has been building again to keep up with a parts catalogue that has nearly doubled in size (to 500,000 items), thanks to the new Mopar products and FCA’s Italian brands.
“This is truly a game changer,” Gorlier told Romulus staff Wednesday. The new warehouse is expected to ship 45 million parts a year, to about 70 million customers, 40 million of whom are outside of the U.S.
Mopar Center Line is still the mother ship of the company’s 50 parts distribution centres around the world, a 1.2-million square foot parts giant located in the tiny city of the same name on the northern fringe of Detroit. But most of the stuff in that vast Raiders-of-the-Lost-Ark-sized warehouse – from crate engines to Jeep gear – aren’t the fastest-moving parts on the shelf. For the stuff that is, they built Romulus.
Finished only a couple of weeks ago, Romulus carries only 10,000 parts, but that fraction of the overall catalogue makes up 80% of Mopar’s annual shipments, according to Gorlier.
Only 500 of those items, from rotors to brake shoes and filters, are the “active parts” pieces that make up 47% of what is undoubtedly a billion-dollar annual business – although FCA isn’t saying what it’s worth.
Hence the Romulus location between two airports, the better to fill urgent domestic and export orders, and the presence of UPS staff inside the plant. UPS ships hundreds items themselves daily out of Romulus PDC, in addition to the 35 outgoing semis the staff fill themselves every day, from an equal number of incoming units.
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Over a hundred UAW “parts pickers” (some transferred over from the SHAP assembly line in nearby Sterling Heights) and other staff keep the 25-foot-tall racks filled, using 68 battery-powered Crown hi-lows in four different varieties.
Recent innovations include outgoing semis that are filled now by gravity-fed conveyors which load dunnage boxes straight into the trucks, and Automatic Guided Vehicles (AGVs), three-wheeled, laser-guided, 770-lb autonomous tow-motors to save the parts pickers from walking or riding extra miles to put together each shipment for a store or dealership. Each $40,000 AGV can pull up to six tons; live cameras and live TV screens overtop of each bay door now give staff a view of each waiting truck.
The place is as spotless as a food warehouse – which amuses older staff no end. “When I started in this business the grease on the floor was this thick,” said UAW Chrysler Vice-President Norwood Jewel, holding two fingers about an inch apart – and he wasn’t joking. “You could slide from one end of the place to the other.”
Now, for safety reasons, any floor that even gets wet in front of an open loading dock door sets off flashing red warning lights.
Jewel said the Romulus PDC and the $12.2-million PDC Mopar opened in Winchester, Virginia earlier this year are crucial for his membership; they represent rare jobs growth in a hugely competitive and profitable sector of the industry. That’s largely thanks to vehicles such as the Jeep Wrangler and the Dodge Challenger parked at the front doors of Romulus PDC on opening day, and the unfailingly loyal Mopar fans who buy them, he said.
“It just keeps getting better and better for us,” Jewel said of the parts jobs, and he urged his members this week to “talk proudly about FCA and where we’ve been, and where we’re headed for the future. There probably isn’t a vehicle out there that people like to fix up more than that (Wrangler), and there’s a pickup coming, too.”
Each additional new FCA vehicle means a bigger slice of what industry reports say is one of the fastest-growing and most profitable parts of the automotive sector, and a bit more security for Mopar’s 7,500 staff worldwide.
Gorlier declined to answer questions about “that financial data” when asked if Mopar’s profits approach the 30-to-40-percent margins reported by General Motors. The Auto Care Association also estimates the parts sector has been growing at annually compounded rate of 3.7 percent since 2015. In business terms, that’s rocket powered.
Gorlier shrugged off the potential for competition in the rapid shipment business from the likes of Amazon, which seems to be going after everyone’s shipping business these days. “At the end of the day, they will still need our parts. They don’t build parts. And who else can say they have 400 Mopar clubs around the world?”
2017 was “a great year” for Mopar, Gorlier said, partly due to expanding service lanes, partly to the 300,000 vehicles which will be customized in its 13 Custom Shops, and partly because of its rapidly growing service contracts. They hope to hit 3.5 million such contracts by the end of the year.
And Mopar might not be finished building, Gorlier hinted. “In the next couple of years we will probably look at footprint again. So far we’ve only been expanding on the eastern side of the country.”
The masive distribution center has around 500,000 square feet of floor space; it will run two shifts and handle 70 inbound and outbound semi trailers of parts every day (45 million parts per year), aided by its proximity to I-275.
Like the new Virginia center, the Romulus PDC is LEED Silver certified, with numerous measures taken to increase energy efficiency; the lighting uses relatively little power but covers the area well, without the color artifacts of past lighting systems.
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