Computers and car parts: Finding what you need has never been easier

Not that long ago a typewriter was the best tool for recording data and libraries kept track of books with index cards packed into wooden drawers. Obviously computers have improved productivity by letting people manipulate data faster. But have you ever considered all the physical, hold-in-your-hands things that would not exist today without computers? Engineering and manufacturing would certainly be slower and harder, but there would simply have to be fewer things if people were still using index cards to keep track of them.

The auto parts industry is a great example. In the early 1900s, traveling auto parts salesmen could take trains to visit customers because the parts they were selling fit in suitcases. But by the 1930s, some auto parts retailers had paper catalogs with over 100 pages!

By the 1950s, the auto industry was creaking under the weight of too many car models and parts and was badly in need of computers. “If computers had come along sooner, we might still have Packards and Studebakers,” says RockAuto.com vice president Tom Taylor. “The complexity of building low volume cars with low volume parts was just too expensive back then.”

Every year the auto parts industry has to make new parts for new cars while still making parts for older cars. There is an ever-growing inventory of parts to keep track of, and a growing record of which cars the parts fit. Compared to now, the data in the 1960s was still relatively simple. “A handful of shock absorber part numbers took care of most American brand cars of that era,” says Taylor. “A 6,000 square foot independent auto parts store on Main Street would have had adequate inventory to help most customers.” 

In the late 1970s and 1980s, computers helped car and parts manufacturing diversify and proliferate. Parts retailers moved away from flipping through thick paper catalogs. They could risk stocking parts for new foreign brands and models because computers helped track inventory and sales.

Today, parts for newer cars might only fit one car brand and a few model years. Major auto parts retailers have more than 400,000 part numbers in their warehouses. Those parts fit millions of different vehicles. “When RockAuto.com went online about 15 years ago, it was clear that the traditional 6,000 square foot parts store was becoming overwhelmed,” says Taylor. “Today, we could easily fill that much space with just parts for Hyundai and Kia cars. Better to give customers direct Internet access to all the inventory in the warehouses.”

Fitting today’s 30-plus car brands, dozens of models and 400,000-plus parts into a giant paper catalog is impossible. The digital revolution has transformed the auto industry and given the consumer far more choices than anyone ever thought possible.


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