May 2004 | Case Studies | DC Solutions

Not Your Father's WMS

Tags: Warehousing

Today's WMS packages offer just about everything but the kitchen sink.

You'd have to be living under a rock lately to miss all the buzz about RFID (radio frequency identification). From Wal-Mart to Target to the Department of Defense, the demand to be RFID- ready is looming large for hundreds of suppliers.

While suppliers are scrambling to be ready, providers of RFID solutions are doing their best to get up to speed as well. Chief among those technology providers are best-of-breed WMS suppliers, many of whom are making sure their latest versions contain an RFID component for those customers who need it.

RFID is just one of several sophisticated features that some of today's best WMS packages have to offer. A bevy of other features are also available today, all aimed at not just helping you run a DC, but optimizing your operations.

RFID: The Next Big Thing

Since the push is on for RFID compliance throughout supply chains everywhere, WMS vendors have worked hard over the past several years to ensure they can provide software to support the movement.

"This is the biggest attention-getter of the past 10 years," says John Clark, manager of marketing at Provia Software, Grand Rapids, Mich. "If Wal-Mart hadn't mandated RFID, it wouldn't be such a big deal. But now that they and other retailers are on board, it's logical that WMS play a part."

Logical, Clark says, because WMS is the last system of record for a product before its arrival to, and after its departure from, a distribution center. That makes WMS packages an important piece of the RFID puzzle.

Most WMS systems that now include an RFID feature support concurrent data capture from RFID and RF or manual sources. In addition, they must be able to process this data for use downstream.

The WMS vendors who are providing some sort of RFID support offer a variety of ways to do it, depending on the user's level of involvement in the technology. For instance, Provia offers a "bolt-on" RFID solution that helps get companies into compliance with customers such as Wal-Mart.

"This is a great option for companies that are in a rush to comply but can't evaluate an entirely new WMS package," says Clark. "It's economical and allows companies to buy a few years before moving up to a system that has fully integrated RFID features."

Tier one logistics IT provider RedPrairie Corporation, based in Waukesha, Wis., offers varying levels of RFID integration as well. For instance, its Igniter offering is designed for companies just getting started in RFID. The Accelerator program is the next step, served up in a bolt-on solution that allows for Wal-Mart compliance. The company's Max solution is the top-level offering, integrating RFID into just about all WMS functions.

"There has been a huge demand for WMS to include RFID solutions," says Susan Rider of Rider & Associates, based in Upton, Ky. "Most companies want to comply with Wal-Mart, but there is also demand from other companies that want to have RFID as a competitive advantage."

Clark has seen similar demand. "We work with companies that understand the value in having RFID in their supply chain, as well as companies that need to comply with Wal-Mart or others, or even those that are second or third in line for compliance," he says. "Third-party logistics providers are also beginning to adopt RFID because they see the opportunity available."

The ability to support RFID in WMS is becoming increasingly important, notes Matt Wilkerson, principal, Tompkins Associates, Charlotte, N.C. "As the technology gains more acceptance and the standards are worked out, it will become more important for even the lower tier WMS providers to offer some sort of RFID solution," he says. "If nothing else, they need to become familiar with it now."

One real sign of the commitment from the top tier WMS providers is the growing number of strategic alliances to provide across-the-board RFID solutions. RedPrairie, for instance, has joined with RFCode, a provider of auto-ID data collection middleware and RFID systems, to make available a full suite of RFID solutions.

And Provia has more closely aligned with its parent company, Viastore Systems, to do the same—integrating the software with a material handling control system.

Clearly, RFID is here to stay and that means WMS providers will continue to work to provide all the software integration necessary to make the transition to the technology as seamless as possible.

"So much is unknown about where RFID will take the supply chain," says Clark. "But companies need to think about it now for the future."

Ongoing Evolution

While RFID might be the biggest thing happening in the WMS arena right now, other advancements in the technology are having an impact as well.

"WMS is in the midst of an ongoing evolution," says Wilkerson. "Systems now provide for expanded visibility of operations—everything from inbound to outbound to drill down to the smallest details."

Optimization tools that maximize warehousing operations are another WMS advancement.

"Optimization tools look at your operations and help you get the most out of them," Clark says. "They also look at constraints that might affect what you do and search for solutions to overcome them."

With these capabilities, optimization tools create the most efficient way for a distribution center to release its orders to get the most output at the lowest cost. "Optimization has been overshadowed by RFID, but it has real value," Clark explains. "It holds a lot of promise, especially as more tasks, such as assembly and light manufacturing, are pushed into the DC."

Another recent technology having an impact is event management. "Within day-to-day operations, event management lets you know, ahead of time, when situations might become critical," Rider explains. "When coupled with an alert system, event management systems provide this information in real time so you can react immediately. This is a feature that companies need to have today."

Visibility is another function that is appearing more frequently in WMS packages. When a WMS provides visibility throughout the supply chain, it "fills in the black holes," Rider says. A web-enabled tool, visibility hooks into partner systems throughout the supply chain to provide a complete look at where products are at any given time.

Bolt-on products are still an important part of the WMS scene. For instance, Transportation Management Systems (TMS) are a natural fit for WMS and one that allows better integration between the DC and the road.

"The ability to support core transportation management is important," says Wilkerson. "Combining the two produces a cohesive end-to-end solution."

Just as the features provided for in today's WMS have changed, so too have the players who sell them. While WMS used to be available through WMS-specific vendors only, an increasing number of supply chain execution players, such as SAP, are getting into the act.

"The level of investment on the part of the ERP providers has been significant," says Wilkerson. "The best-of-breed WMS players haven't been affected, but some providers must be concerned."

ERP Providers Closing In

When ERP providers first entered the WMS market, their products left much to be desired when held up against robust WMS packages. But over the last several years, they've been able to make significant advancements with their WMS offerings.

"The ERP providers are closing in on the features," says Wilkerson, "but WMS providers still do some things better than others."

Many WMS vendors have seen the writing on the wall and developed packages that integrate seamlessly into ERP systems, making it simple for companies to have the best of WMS and execution system in one.

Not only that, but many best-of-breed players have strong connections with specific markets. "They have footholds in vertical industries that may keep the ERP players out," Wilkerson says.

The bottom line? WMS packages, from tier one to tier three, have a lot to offer. "Companies that can't afford a tier one system can still get many core features," says Wilkerson.

"Today's WMS is no longer just a WMS," says Rider. "It's a best-of-breed supply chain execution system that allows parts and pieces to all be plugged into one system."