March 2015 | Commentary | IT Matters

Is Your Warehouse Software Holding You Back?

Tags: Logistics I.T., Warehouse Management Systems (WMS), Supply Chain Management, Logistics

Greg Cronin is Executive Vice President, Intelligrated, 866-936-7300

Change is underway in warehouse management and fulfillment operations. Driven by e-commerce and omni-channel demand, and enabled by innovative automation and software solutions, the fulfillment execution model is ushering in an era of real-time adaptive workflow for optimized fulfillment.

When warehouse management systems (WMS) replaced paper-based systems in the mid-1980s, they marked a fundamental shift in workflow. Today, these traditional solutions remain focused on the cycle of planning, executing, monitoring, and adjusting as a sequence of discrete events, sometimes limiting their ability to optimize in real time.

The Automation Equation

Qualified workers are costly and increasingly scarce. Even with readily available labor, manual operations have limits. Order profiles have shifted to more frequent, smaller quantities, and customers expect faster deliveries, increased order accuracy, and better quality, which require automation. The challenge in today's fulfillment operations is to solve this equation: labor amount + automation + real-time execution software = the highest ROI?

With the rise of e-commerce, multi-channel shopping dramatically impacts the traditional retailer's ability to retain market share. Threatened by Internet-only e-tailers, today's retailers must meet the changing demands of customers, both in the store and at home. Companies are being forced to leverage existing distribution infrastructure to respond to demand, rather than relying solely on forecast-driven planning.

Retailers need real-time, event-driven data to optimize fulfillment operations, and automation to efficiently source orders, minimize shipping and operating costs, and respond to consumer demands to shop anywhere, any time.

Warehouse Software: Then and Now

Warehouse systems were once the back-end of an inventory, purchasing, or outbound order management system operating on a mainframe computer. This included keeping records manually, keying in data, generating reports overnight, and batch processing. Product moved faster than information, so batch-generated reports were inaccurate by the time they reached management.

In the 1980s, the mantra of "the right product, at the right location, with the right operator" emerged. Real-time processes enabled the WMS to keep an instant record of a product's physical position and order, and the operator's location in the warehouse. This increased throughput and accuracy by allowing the WMS to direct workers to the most efficient path. However, WMS suppliers measured real time in seconds to minutes.

Little has changed. Traditional solutions cannot provide the real-time microsecond response times required to optimize fulfillment operations. They don't account for the role automation plays.

As such, many WMS solutions rely on warehouse control systems (WCS) to connect with automated equipment, and order fulfillment software to manage labor and processes. Separate WMS, WCS, and order fulfillment software packages face optimization limitations.

The emergence of fulfillment execution systems has the potential to change the game within the four walls and beyond. They are equipped to optimize work order flow, labor, inventory, and automated equipment in a single solution. With real-time execution of fulfillment operations, users can experience the increased throughput, lower operating costs, and higher service levels that are required for today's high-speed picking operations.






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