As always, I’ve got parts on backorder, and the ’83 BMW R80ST sits half assembled and waiting. The rear main seal from Cycleworks came darn near overnight, and even the tardy heads are on their way. But a few odd seals and a cam chain, etc. from the east coast? Been over a week, and not even a hint of when they’ll be shipped. So I’d like to go ahead and replace the rear main seal on the engine, but I’ve got the timing trigger unit off the front of the engine and the flywheel locked so nothing moves… So I can’t install the main seal that I have until the timing chain arrives.

Now a bit of history of the BMW parts system is in order here. Back in the good ol’ days when all the BMW parts and service ecosystem had to worry about was one model, a savvy dealer could lay in a good stock of parts and be prepared for most any repair. Some dealers weren’t so savvy though, preferring to spend their credit limit on a fancy showroom and enough new bikes and trinkets to fill it. Then the savvy dealers just a few miles from me gave up the BMW franchise, retired, whatever, leaving me with the dealers with the big fancy showroom. After a few too many fruitless trips to those boutiques, my parts runs became a scenic but hundred mile ride down to Judson Cycle or closer but not quite so well stocked Moon Motor. Then I moved out to southwest Minnesota and Judson got tired of BMW’s extortion ($20K for a mandatory “BMW” sign) and gave up the franchise.

So that leaves me with a totally hopeless BMW dealer in 140 miles away in Sioux City and Moon 150 miles away. Thus my BMW parts are now acquired over the internet via the much vaunted “e-commerce”, and that’s got more than a few bugs. There are two major megadealers offering this service, Max in New England and Bob’s near D.C.. Max’s website will punish you for making even the slightest mistake in entering your credit card info by making your whole order that you spent an hour putting together disappear, there is no “your card didn’t go through, try again” page. After the latest episode of that BS I went back to Bob’s, which is more forgiving but has another problem- no notice of when your parts shipped or if they’re backordered. Heck, Bob’s could probly keep you waiting for years… And given that I’m tempted to ride down to Daytona next week, it’d be nice to know if I’ve got some parts coming so FedEx Home Delivery or whatever bargain basement delivery service they’re using this week doesn’t return them and put me through this hell again.

Now there are solutions to this problem. The hardware solution is to simplify the inventory and physically stock everything. That’s how they do it in the trucking biz, where two sizes of truck tires and a handful of different lights will fit probably 90% of the big trucks on the road. Heck, when I worked at Continental Baking even the littlest 10 truck depot had several shelves of parts. At the Postal Service, the shop that serviced just one three digit zip had a two story parts room, even had a forklift for handling the bigger bits. And standardization? 80% of the fleet was the boxy LLV vans, with but two engines and hardly any other changes during the LLV’s ten year production run. But even though I’m up to three airheads, I don’t think I should have to maintain thousands of dollars in parts inventories just to keep them running.

The other solution is virtual inventory. Now I’ve long suspected that 99% of the parts I need are with 100 miles of even my rural home, but in most cases there’s no easy way to find them. For example, there’s at least a half dozen airheads within ten miles of me, and within 100 miles is Judson Cycle which still has some airhead parts and the Motocycle Shop in Watertown that carries Moto Guzzi, a lot of whose parts interchange with BMW’s. And generic stuff like tires and brake pads and batteries- there’s probably 20 shops within that hundred mile radius that have what I need. Problem is, none of them have a customer searchable online inventory so I can find the parts I need without a bunch of phone calls and visits.

Now some of the savvier suppliers are part way there- for example Ford’s http://www.fordparts.com will let me search for parts for my Ranger online, then tell me what participating dealers near me have them in stock. NAPA’s http://www.napaonline.com is savvy to- I check participating local NAPA stores for parts, then have them held at the local store for pickup, ordered in from the warehouse for pickup, or delivered to my home. Suffice to say, these savvy suppliers have made my life a lot easier… Unfortunately my fleet includes but one Ford and NAPA doesn’t have much BMW parts.

Now note that I qualified that by “participating”… The closest NAPA store to me isn’t participating. Same for a lot of the smaller rural car and bike dealers- the cost of the software, etc. to participate in these online parts systems is too much. In fact, way too much- HOG(NYSE) charges a dealer $50K to get on their inventory system, and it don’t even offer online customer access. BMW isn’t much if any cheaper, and the local hardware store tells me that getting online customer access to their wholesaler’s e-store would set them back $30K. For a small town mom&pop operation, that’s probably half their yearly income.

Now the easy solution here is for BMW, the hardware wholesaler, NAPA, etc. to figure out that their e-commerce software is already paid for and darn near give it away to all their stores and dealerships so they have seamless coverage. Imagine logging into bmwparts.com, putting together my order, and have it tell me that most of it is in stock at Judson, a couple other bits are at Motocycle, and an electrical part is in stock at a nearby Bosch distributor. Then the site asks me if I want to pickup, have shipped, and from which source. Heck, with a cheap to implement service like that I might start buying BMW’s again!

But I really don’t expect any of those big megacompanies to give up their proprietary ways and let me surf their parts inventories, with rare exceptions that mostly get it like Ford and NAPA. If virtual inventory is gonna happen, it’s gonna be somebody like Google or a startup that ain’t even started up yet that’ll do it. So someday in a few years, your motorcycle will break down on a deserted road in rural southwest Minnesota. You make a diagnosis and figure out what part you need, and it’s not in your onboard parts cache. You pull out your smart phone and push the button for “parts”, enter the parts number, and up pops a map with the locations and contact info for a half dozen suppliers and even a couple gearheads like me that put our inventory online. Hour later you’ve gotten the part, installed it, and you’re on your way again.

Online virtual parts inventory is really no more complicated then creating Google or eBay or Facebook… Why can’t some bright young hacker create it?

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