WMS: jack of all trades?

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Warehouse management systems have been around for decades, but how are they changing to address developments in the market? Maria Highland investigates the technology driving WMS and the technology WMS are helping to drive…

A warehouse management system is a crucial component when it comes to running a successful warehouse operation. “It can provide users with insight into system performance to highlight what’s working well and where further improvements can be made,” says Element Logic managing director Jeremy Clouston-Jones. “A warehouse management system allows businesses to get the most out of their manual and automated equipment.”

Chess and ProSKU sales and marketing director Alex Mills does admit that there “are still a surprising number of businesses running their warehouses using paper, systems with limited WMS functionality.”

And, yes you can continue to operate your warehouse without a WMS. However, such businesses would “benefit from, and enhance their operation with, a proper WMS, especially if they anticipate further growth and increased volumes. They may well be unaware that with a cloud-based solution the cost and business case is probably easier to make than ever before,” says Mills.

“While it may be possible to operate a simple warehouse without a WMS, realistically as your business grows there will come a point where an increase in quantity or variety of stock or the need to fulfil orders more quickly, will necessitate the implementation of a WMS,” explains imio Software Solutions head of business development Ben White.

Companies will reach a certain point where using WMS becomes crucial. “A WMS is crucial to successful returns, good customer experience and efficient delivery and let’s not forget that the warehouse is the backbone to all retail operations and must be managed efficiently. If the warehouse is inefficient and can’t fulfil orders as the customer expects, this results in a negative experience, budget the WMS systems right and the rest is a breeze,” says Manhattan Associates director of solutions Alex Macpherson.

Investing in a WMS can provide your warehouse operations with a multitude of benefits, both for inbound and outbound operations. A WMS provides transparency and visibility in the warehouse, providing an accurate overview of the warehouse inventory and order status at any given time. The enables lower the transaction cost per product, and boosts customer satisfaction through increased order accuracy and fulfilment speed.

Clouston-Jones explains that a WMS can help to improve warehouse operations by: “Managing daily operations and shipment transactions by integrating with customer ERP/ TMS; allocating warehouse tasks and balancing system activity; streamlining warehouse processes and strategically managing inventory, goods receival, put away, order fulfilment, and shipment; decreasing vulnerability caused by employee turnover by providing operator directives to accomplish tasks; providing system operational data, enabling service personnel to maintain equipment in peak condition; and supporting connection to manual and automated equipment.”

However, the stars of the show have been seen as improved data accuracy, real time stock control and enhanced productivity. “A properly specified, configured and implemented WMS will provide the highest possible data accuracy and provide a real-time view of stock control (including stock held, stock movements and order picking among others),” explains Mills. “Productivity is enhanced because decisions made by the system eliminate human errors, so reducing the need for interventions or stock checking for example, while also freeing staff for more useful tasks.”

“In short,” summarises Indigo Software solutions architect Eric Carter, “a WMS will manage and automate the entire warehouse operation, resulting in a more efficient supply chain and more satisfied customers. If as a business you find you are not completing the day’s order pool and regularly need to hire in additional manpower, you should consider implementing a WMS if you don’t have one, or examining what you are using to check it meets your current needs.”

Although the incorporation of WMS is not new, the technology they use is. WMS are always transforming and drawing upon new technological advancements. Warehouse management systems have undergone quite the transformation since the days of simply being responsible for operations within the walls of a warehouse.

“WMS used to be a piece of software built to purely to administrate a warehouse “within the four walls”, says Logistics Reply client services manager Patrick Barlow. But now it is “a suite of supply chain/logistics execution tools, built to respond to the “everywhere at any time commerce” world that we now live in,” which comes with its own set of ever-changing demands.

TouchPath International chief executive David Myers notes that although “there have been significant developments in the hardware available to support WMS processes such as voice picking, pick-by-light and so on, there have also been major advances in the functionality available in WMS solutions to further improve the efficiency and profitability of warehouse processes.”

Peter Holt, CEVA Logistics customer engagement director points out: “Technology is improving and changing all the time which means that the WMS providers work hard to ensure that their systems have the latest innovations otherwise they will lose out. Some key influences would include integration with robotics and automation solutions, voice picking and an ever-increasing range of terminals that can be used to maximise efficiency.”

Customer demands are constantly changing, and WMS are concurrently changing to match this. For example, Holt notes that “another must is full integration with business intelligence and analytical tools. Customers are demanding more information about how their goods are managed through the supply chain. Real time integration with other systems and progress visibility are key to success.”

Many technological innovations are driving WMS, says Carter, “from more established technologies like voice directed working to more emerging technologies, like robotics and automation. Internet of Things (IoT) and wi-fi advances mean integration capabilities are significantly improved and it’s possible to connect many different third-party systems and hardware with a WMS to provide true real-time working.

However, continues Carter, “generally, WMS systems have evolved to become more visual and mobile device friendly, but beyond that, it’s not so much that WMS technology is changing per se, but that many more advanced technologies and systems are being connected with it. For instance, driverless vehicles with automated route optimisation, drones for on-going inventory management and robots on packing lines to reduce reliance on warehouse operatives.”

JDA partner Socius24 sales director Nick Love supports this, noting that “with innovation shifts, such as robotics, driverless forklifts, wearable technology and other artificial intelligence (AI), the warehouse you see today will change drastically in the near future to a more digital environment.” And incorporating all these “technological innovations results in increased quality and decreased cost. End-customers quickly receive the correct products in the correct quantity, and businesses have lower transaction costs for warehouse operations,” explains Clouston-Jones.

Changing technological times calls for changes to the systems that drive the warehouse. “New technology is bringing real-time visibility of what’s happening in the warehouse and beyond the four walls, automation is reducing the reliance on human labour, speeding up processes and decision making, removing errors from processes and it also means less wear and tear on individuals who work in a warehouse,” says Carter.


Robotics and automation

Robotics and automation have been major industry trends in recent years and have no doubt left a mark on how the warehouse operates, and the WMS that drives it. Logistics Reply’s Patrick Barlow stresses that the “ability to cope with automation and robotics is a must.”

Likewise, Manhattan’s Alex Macpherson notes that the “shift to next day delivery as a standard offering is driving huge changes in WMS, particularly when it comes to warehouse cut off times. More night time-picking and packing has driven an increase in robotics and automation which is becoming a huge aspect driving WMS forward.”

Therefore, more than ever has having a technologically advances WMS been of importance. Macpherson explains that “coordinating the disparate technologies to work together, as well as with the human workforce, requires an increasingly sophisticated integration layer that can anticipate the workload needed from the overall warehouse management system.”

To cater to this, Manhattan has imbedded a “warehouse execution system (WES) within a WMS to orchestrate workflow across the full spectrum of resources. Manhattan’s WES is built to integrate quickly and seamlessly with any automation and can coordinate operations across multiple sites,” adds Macpherson.

Where robotics can be used to replace manual operatives and human labour costs, they leave a new challenge to warehouse managers: robotics and driverless forklift trucks “automate manual processes that humans do, leaving warehouse managers to look at strategies that will optimise how quickly and efficiently goods can be picked in the knowledge that what they are working with always returns the same level of efficiency and doesn’t deviate in any way on put away and picking rates for instance, unlike humans,” says Nick Love.

This is where having a WMS can come in use, helping to programme, track and integrate with the existing warehouse systems. “Both robotics and automation have led to major efficiency improvements in warehouse storage, allowing more inventory and quicker fulfilment times,” says imio’s Ben White.

“The impact of this has led to a need for WMS providers to integrate with material handling systems to control increasingly complex automated conveyors or robotic picking systems.”

And, as Mills highlights, a “properly designed WMS will be able to prioritise and allocate tasks appropriately to ensure all systems continue to function efficiently. Therefore, a WMS system can ensure that the robotics operations work harmoniously with the rest of the warehouse, including the workers, especially.

Macpherson also demonstrates the value of a having a WMS that controls warehouse efficiency when he notes that “you can’t have efficient automation without people, and you can’t have efficient people without machines. A warehouse that works in this harmonic way is the most effective.”

However, adds Macpherson, “the use of robotic and automation technologies in the warehouse clearly adds value but does not preclude the need for thoughtful and efficient work flows.” Whether or not a warehouse employs the use of robotics and automation, a WMS is highly useful and as no WMS is the same and will need to cater to your specific business and operational needs.

For example, Ben White recommends implementing a WMS that fits with your automation plans and to establish a provider that can scale with business accordingly. “A WMS should have core integration with automation equipment, which can manage capabilities of up to 100,000+ order per day,” he says.

“It’s vital that businesses understand their warehouse process, the good and the bad. Your chosen WMS should fit with your business and not force you to fit with its requirements.”

TouchPath’s David Myers also points out that “there is no such thing as a standard WMS implementation. Every warehouse is different because the product range, packaging and selling units are different, as are the physical layout, racking, equipment and working practices. Added to that the type and number of external systems such as ERP, EDI, and web site(s) etc. are usually unique.” He recommends ensuring that the selected WMS can be configured to suit specific business needs.

Red Ledge technical director Alan Wilcockson agrees. He urges customers to think carefully about implementation:  “Don’t just buy an off-the-shelf system and think that everything in the garden is going to be rosy,” he says, “you need to think about how you are going to implement it. Customisation does not have to be onerous; indeed, it can be quite swift. But having a WMS that is attuned to your operation gives you business intelligence, generates commercial edge and improves your business processes. So, it’s worth the effort,” Wilcockson concludes.

“To get the most from a WMS system,” explains Macpherson, “businesses must look at all the areas a WMS can be integrated with other solutions.” This can include “deploying labour management solutions alongside the WMS to improve both performance and efficiency.” Likewise, having “a system that can intelligently allocate workload also makes for a very effective solution that brings together man and machine and one that can help warehouses continually get the most from their systems,” adds Macpherson.

Snapfulfil managing director Tony Dobson stresses that buying the right WMS will transform a business. “Locally-based IT infrastructure is a thing of the past,” he adds. “Any future proofed WMS must be in the cloud so it can be accessed from anywhere. Full management reporting is vital. This is the only way you can make the big decisions on layout, efficiency, accuracy and output. Finally, being able to react and change quickly is a must.”

Once the WMS is in place, maintenance becomes the next big thing to look out for. As Barlow notes, a WMS must be future-facing and future-proofed, and allow for configurability, scalability, and continuous improvement.

Therefore, “once implemented,” says CEVA’s Peter Holt, “you need to constantly review and analyse the operation and system to improve it and make maximum use of the features available. And last, but by no means least operations managers must use the wealth of available information to constantly manage their operation on a daily and hourly basis.”

Similarly, Eric Carter explains that data maintained is major factor when it comes to getting most the most of your WMS system. “The biggest factor is to ensure that the data is correct and relevant, which means keeping the WMS database as up to date and relevant for current operations as possible. For instance, having regular audits of picking and replenishment tasks, so that picking locations and replenishment targets are appropriate for the time of year, product type and meet the needs of the business.”

Carter continues: “From experience, once an implementation is completed, companies don’t always appreciate that they need to keep on top of system maintenance,” and its “all too easy to become complacent once the system is in daily use, but it’s important for users to keep reviewing and improving things to make the best of WMS technology.

“Make sure you keep the software you are using up to date and implement the latest versions to stay on top of new features, even though you might feel comfortable with what you are currently using,”concludes Carter.


This article first appeared in Logistics Manager, December 2018

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