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What’s old is new at Stead GM facility

John Seelmeyer

What’s new at the big new General Motors parts distribution facility at Stead? Old-fashioned reliance on people rather than machines.

Reversing a long trend in the distribution industry, GM is using less automation to get orders out the door.

Instead, the company is working to increase efficiency by careful design of the distribution facility and a heavy investment in training, said Ray Culbert, the manager of forward planning for General Motors’ service parts organization.

“A well-trained employee will outwork a piece of equipment,” Culbert said flatly.

The 404,000-square-foot facility includes about 384,000 square feet of distribution space and 20,000 square feet of office space.

Stocking the warehouse and began in May, and the first orders were shipped this month.

Before construction began, Culbert said, GM executives and its employees represented by the United Auto Workers put a lot of thought into the way that the facility would be laid out.

Instead a cross-docked facility one in which product comes in one side of the building and is shipped from the other the GM team created a facility that has a U-shaped flow.

Fast-moving parts are warehoused only a few steps from the docks where they’re received; they’re shipped from a dock just a few steps in the other direction.

At least 75 percent of the distribution center’s work will take place in the areas nearest the shipping and receiving docks.

The lights in the back of the facility where slow-moving items are warehoused seldom will be turned on, Culbert said.

That, in turns, requires careful and disciplined planning of locations for each of the 55,000 types of parts carried at the warehouse.

The same planning and discipline applies to the trucks waiting in the center’s staging areas.

A close analogy, Culbert said, is an airport in which takeoffs and landings are carefully scheduled “You have to meet the schedule.” GM has taken a close look, too, at the use of warehouse equipment and decided to reduce the amount of inventory it stores in the high reaches of the distribution center.

“We are picking most product from the floor level,” Culbert said.

“It takes take to go up 24 feet or 28 feet.”

The efficiency of people working at floor level is all the more apparent, he said, when GM factors in the time and expense required to maintain and repair forklifts and other equipment.

“Simple is better,” Culbert said.

At the same time, however, the GM distribution facility has invested heavily in technology.

Each person picking orders, for instance, will carry a computer that provides vital information where material is to be placed in the warehouse, for instance.

And GM invested heavily in training about $1 million, all told for the approximately 140 people who staff the facility.

Each had at least three weeks training, including sessions in a classroom equipped to receive “They are learning a complete new process from the ground up,” Culbert said.

“We are training people to be world-class.”

Much of the training was spearheaded by UAW members from other GM distribution facilities sent to Stead to conduct classroom and hands-on sessions.

“We prefer to have our people who have done the work come in and do the training,” Culbert said.

This is the 13th identical distribution facility developed by the GM parts operation in recent years they’re identical down to the location of the light switches in the conference rooms and Culbert said the company continues to fine-tune its design and operation.

That fine-tuning, he said, reflects productive involvement of a four-person team in Reno Bob Liszewski, the plant manager; Roy Hermann, the personnel manager; Charlie Cox, the UAW president and Bob Bueno, the UAW chairman.

That team was involved in everything from site selection to details of the new distribution center.

“We had a terrific joint effort,” Culbert said.

He praised, too, the cooperation of city and state officials as GM developed the parts distribution center that replaces an older warehouse at Sparks.

The economic impact of the GM center has been estimated at $30 million a year.


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