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Choose Wisely


Which warehouse management system is right for your digital order profile?

By Richard Barnes

In a recent column, I discussed how distribution centers are going to have to deal with a more diverse order profile in the new digital age.

Wholesale orders will be changing from pallet-size orders to case-size orders. Digital orders from the web will be more frequent with a smaller number of items and customers will ultimately be ordering only what they need. Previously, I examined the four major picking categories, including the advantages and disadvantages of each. This article will explore the features of warehouse management systems (WMS) so you can determine the correct WMS for your digital order profile.

Provider Functionality

There are a wide variety of WMS vendors and an assortment of functionality they provide in their software. Here are the three major types of WMS systems categorized based on cost and the key functionalities for processing digital orders.

The first group of WMS software vendors provides the highest degree of flexibility with fully configurable features and functions, but also demands the highest price. This category includes on-premise, best-of-breed (BoB) leaders. Depending on requirements, these can be the best option for fully digital distribution centers.

The second group of vendors provides a good amount of functionality at a moderate price level. WMS in this group may include the warehouse module of the company’s enterprise resource planning (ERP) system. Moderately priced BoB companies may also fall into this category and offer significant value for their features at this price point. On the other hand, the digital order profile functionality may not be as configurable in these WMS and modifications or enhancements may be needed to make the software work correctly to meet the required digital order profile.

The third group of vendors is led by WMS “software-as-a-Service” (SAAS), or cloud-based, providers. For smaller operations, these subscription-based services can provide significant value for the requirements they fulfill. However, the digital order profile features will need to be coded into the way the software functions.

System Features

Changes in order profiles require changes in picking and picking technologies. To enable the picking process and to ensure digital orders get shipped on time, certain waving methodologies are required. Multiple picking locations/zones will need to be available for time sensitive orders and there must be an option to fulfill wholesale orders and digital orders separately, but from the same inventory.

The WMS will also have to interface with picking peripherals and warehouse control systems in order to work effectively. The leading BoB providers offer these as configurable features. The ERP warehouse modules, follower BoB and SaaS/cloud providers may need to have these features coded into their WMS.

Some WMS provide better picking functionality than others. Almost all WMS provide multiple ways to discrete order pick, using different technologies to facilitate the most accurate and effective ways to pick orders. Only a few WMS properly provide all advance picking methods – cluster, zone and batch picking.

Some WMS have the ability to divide the pick area up by zones. The same item will need to be slotted into multiple zones to allow for multiple picking methods to work effectively. Late in the shipping day, batch picking may not be time effective and orders may have to be picked from a discrete location to get the orders shipped on time.

Another important feature is the ability to wave orders properly to take full advantage of the picking methods and technologies. At a certain cut-off point, lean picking of a digital order may be required to get that order shipped on time. The WMS will also need to allow orders to be released as they are dropped into the WMS in order to get picked and shipped on time.

Picking technologies and warehouse control systems require the WMS to have application programming interfaces (API) set-up to automatically communicate with the peripherals. Having the APIs pre-programmed as part of the WMS will ensure improved speed of implementation and better quality and reliability of the interface. Only the leading BoBs will have a wide variety of APIs.

The WMS will need to interface with warehouse control systems (WCS) that can properly route picked products to the correct location for order consolidation, value-added services, packing and shipping (per carrier and time requirements). The leading BoB WMS have these APIs already built in to the software for proper communications to the WCS. Some follower BoBs must be enhanced or modified to communicate to the WCS. Most SaaS or cloud-based WMS will need to have these interfaces designed and coded for specific applications. In the end, the WCS will need to be able to handle partitioning put-to-order technologies to properly consolidate zone-picked and batch-picked items.

The Right Combination

Although many WMS products provide decent functionality for wholesale distribution, there are only a few WMS products that can provide the correct combination of features to fit the new digital order profile.

Choosing the correct WMS that will interface with the right WCS, can be tricky. That’s where a trained digital distribution service provider can help. The correct professionals can make a big difference in making sure that all the business requirements are matched to the appropriate combination of WMS and WCS solutions.

Richard Barnes is a principal consultant for the domain consulting practice of Wipro Limited’s consumer business unit. He has more than 25 years of experience in leading projects across the value chain strategy, business transformation, future state mapping and value chain execution program management spheres in the consumer goods, retail, grocery and OEM distribution domains.

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