April 2008 | Commentary | IT Matters

Selecting the Right Warehouse Management System

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The typical warehouse buzzes with activity every day. Products arrive at the loading docks, forklift drivers shift pallets around the floor, automated retrieval systems pull goods for shipment. Warehouse management systems (WMS) provide tools for keeping track of all that action.

Today, dozens of technology vendors - from well-established to relatively new - offer warehouse management technology of varying sophistication. Choosing the right system for your warehouse operation can be a challenge, but knowing which features to look for will help you make the best choice.

Do Your Homework

Your company's size, distribution output, and services you'd like to provide customers are just a few factors that will determine the type of WMS you select.

Familiarize yourself with the specific goals you'd like to accomplish through adopting a WMS. Do your customers demand more supply chain visibility? Does your company need a more up-to-date accounting system? Once you determine what your company is hoping to accomplish by implementing a WMS, you're ready to start shopping.

Ask other business owners which systems they use successfully. Also, attend conventions and trade shows to learn about the wide range of systems available, and ask plenty of questions to discover how the product offerings can meet your warehouse's unique challenges.

Another helpful way to get the best response to your needs is to put together a request for proposal (RFP). An RFP serves two important purposes. First, it ensures that qualified WMS providers have the opportunity to compete for your business. Second, outlining your WMS expectations and goals helps avoid confusion during the implementation process.

Ask the Right Questions

To prevent information overload, focus your WMS search by asking these key questions:

What can you expect during the installation process, and what resources will your company be required to provide to support a smooth implementation?

What tools are available within the WMS to help you gain new business and add value to the products and/or services your current clients offer?

Is the system flexible enough to grow as your business expands?

Does the WMS provider use the latest technology? What new products or services does the company expect to offer in the coming months and years?

Does the WMS provider plan to visit your company to fully understand how you operate? Can it provide a list of sites you can visit to see the system in action?

Knowledge is Power

The answers to these questions may not be obvious. To start, the implementation process can either be lengthy or simple, depending on the system's sophistication.

Technical support from the provider is extremely important during implementation, but a surprising number of companies never ask what they have to do to achieve a smooth transition. Knowing how your company's resources will be affected during implementation can help employees and management set realistic expectations.

Your WMS should also raise your business to new competitive heights. Value-added services such as bulk packaging and accepting returns are becoming standard practices for third-party logistics companies.

A WMS can help your company impress potential clients and provide the best possible service and support to existing ones. It should also have maximum flexibility to adapt to the changing third-party logistics landscape.

Finally, if the system you're considering won't grow with your business, your competitiveness will suffer. Your clients' needs and desires will change; your company may need to implement the latest technology—such as RF and hand-held scanners, voice technology, and advanced picking and packing capabilities—to stay ahead of the competition.

The Selection Lowdown

Once you've narrowed your list to a handful of WMS providers, the small details take on added importance.

Will you have a specific point person at the software vendor to answer your questions, rather than having to explain your situation to a new person every time you call? Will technical support be available during non-traditional business hours? Your company's operations are complex, so carefully consider how its technology will be supported.

Meeting with the WMS provider, observing the system in action, and asking questions will help you choose the best WMS for your business.

Investing money and resources in a WMS is a significant decision, but choosing the right system creates opportunities you can only dream about now.

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