Dell tackles one computer at a time

In a floor diagram at one of the Dell Computer Corp. plants in Round Rock, Tex., there’s one large room that remains mysteriously unlabeled. Although the other areas, such as the kitting area and the cells, are clearly demarcated, the function of that area is not indicated.

But it’s not a top-secret lab where Dell carries on research to develop ever faster and more powerful computers. What happens there is something Dell is not very proud of and, while the rest of the plant floor is open concept, that section is walled off.

The area is a warehouse – and that is practically a four-letter word at Dell, which prides itself on having zero days of parts in inventory.

Trucks arrive at several docking bays, leave their trailers behind and then drive off. Dell employees pull the parts off the truck as they’re needed. Sometimes, however, there isn’t time to do the job at the docking bays and the inventory is off-loaded into the warehouse for a short while.

Dell has made a fortune selling computers directly over the Internet – to the tune of US$30 million a day. But, contrary to popular opinion, only about 15 per cent of those computers are sold to home and small businesses. Most of Dell’s sales go to mid- and large-sized companies. At the facility that ComputerWorld Canada toured, the Parmer Plant, Dell manufactures servers.

Parts arrive from suppliers only when they are needed. They are pulled off the trucks and sorted out in the kitting area into kits. Workers gather the parts required for a single server, and the kits are then conveyed on a belt to the workers who build the computers. Each computer is built by a single person. These assemblers are considered the cream of the Dell crop.

Once the server is assembled, the assembler hooks it up and does a series of preliminary tests – including checking the kit to make sure there are no parts left over. All of the workers have three servers in their cells – one that is being tested, one that is being assembled and one that is waiting to be put together.

Upon request, Dell will also pre-load software onto its boxes. A server that must have something loaded onto it is moved to the Dell Plus area once it passes the preliminary tests. All requested software is loaded onto the server and then it’s moved into another area for more intensive testing. It is boxed up – together with a rack if needed – and it’s ready for shipping.

Dell only runs two shifts a day, so when they have large orders, employees can work overtime to fill the orders within the promised time frame. During particularly busy times – which usually come at the end of each quarter – even the executive types will lend a hand at the plant.

Those efforts, hopefully, will keep the unlabelled warehouse nice and empty.