When shopping for a warehouse management system, one size does not fit everyone. To narrow your search, find solutions with these must-have features to meet your current and future business requirements.
The disruption caused by the pandemic has exposed shortcomings in some warehouse and distribution operations that still rely on outdated and inadequate systems. As buyers flood e-commerce sites with orders, and shippers struggle with trucking capacity, outdated or customized systems haven’t been able to keep up.
A modern warehouse management system (WMS) can help shippers tame disruptions by digitally managing inventory and shipping processes. WMS offerings have boomed in the past few years, so shippers can choose from a range of solutions.
Some of the solutions are aimed at e-commerce businesses, others are suitable for medium businesses, while others are positioned at larger companies that have the resources to make them successful. But a sophisticated and scalable WMS can be affordable for a smaller company that starts with basic functionality and adds capabilities as the business grows.
Technological advances such as cloud computing, software and infrastructure as a service mean that companies do not have to invest in expensive computers – such as the IBM AS/400 – as they did in the past. Now users can access WMS from virtually any computer or mobile device.
“There are many systems today that are affordable for mid-market companies,” says Amit Levy, executive vice president of customer solutions and strategies at Made4net, a supply chain software developer based in New Jersey.
When should a company consider implementing a WMS or upgrading the existing system? When inventory accuracy begins to fall in the 70-80% range, and labor costs rise due to the need for manual counting.
“Companies that may have started small with inventory management on paper or in spreadsheets, but are now unable to reconcile inventory with an ERP system know they need help,” notes Raj Patel, Senior Manager, 3PL Global Industry Strategy at the software company Blue Yonder.
One size doesn’t fit all, so understand what your supply chain needs and what it doesn’t. A company can invest in WMS directly or adopt a system through an external logistics provider relationship. If you’re considering WMS for your operations, consider these things that are essential for current and future needs.
Look for a system that supports flexibility and scalability to adapt to new business requirements and technology. Ideally, end users can manage shipping methods, products, locations, and other aspects without referring to the provider for additional programming.
WMS should also support seasonality, high volumes, and temporary employees using the system.
“You don’t want to spend money and then not be able to use WMS in 5-10 years because your business has outgrown it,” says Levy.
Critical functions depend on the scale of the operation and the complexity of the products – frozen foods or bulky household goods, for example, require a different solution than fast fashion or electronics.
In any case, WMS will improve daily warehouse operations and provide a higher level of efficiency for customer satisfaction and bottom line.
Any WMS should offer quite a few betting table functions. Additional bells and whistles, such as business intelligence analytics and employment management, are available to those businesses that need them and can afford them.
Even the simplest WMS should provide product receipt, warehousing, and order allocation, which provide real-time inventory visibility. Picking, packing and shipping, including building and printing shipping documents and labels, are also essential in most cases.
Some systems support dynamic slotting so that quick-selling products can be placed in the right container or rack to cut a few seconds off each pick.
Some users need additional capabilities, such as serial number, batch tracking from receipt through shipment, or bill of materials and processing breakage.
“All WMS providers offer 80% of the same functionality; it’s the unique 20% that makes the difference,” says Patel.
3. Ease of use
Given the constant competition for labor, WMS should be easy to learn for new users and be able to add temporary users on the go to handle seasonal increases.
“As people change jobs, and new resources are configured, ask potential WMS vendors how quickly users can learn the system,” says Patel. “You don’t want to train people for days.”
It is critical that WMS work and play well with others. It should easily connect to the ERP system, the transportation management system, the order management system, and the warehouse fulfillment system. As more utilities install automated storage and retrieval systems and robots from multiple vendors, ease of integration can be a deal breaker.
“Having a solution that you can integrate with is critical,” says Michael Roberts, CIO of ODW Logistics, a 3PL company based in Columbus, Ohio.
WMS requirements depend on the size and complexity of the organization now and its potential for growth in the future.
Low-cost SaaS systems may suffice for a direct distribution network, but they may not provide analytics and business intelligence to help take a company to the next level.
“If you feel comfortable living within the constraints of ‘that’s what you get and that’s how it works,’ this could be a very cost-effective way to get into WMS,” Roberts says.
A small retailer may not need sophisticated functionality at first, but it should embrace WMS to match the business. The retailer may now serve its own e-commerce and stores but can expand to serve other distributors and retail partners as well as other e-commerce channels. The order profile may vary from delivering a single item to the consumer to sending pallet loads to distribution centers.
“As the company grows, you can start from the base level and advance to higher positions,” Patel says.
6. Work management and planning
WMS must determine the best course of action for workers to find the right inventory to choose each of them or the chests. Add a gaming element by connecting worker productivity.
Intelligent work management system will provide industry guidance for productivity. For example, a worker must be able to pick a certain amount of product in an hour, depending on the size of the product and the picking methodology.
In some of its warehouses, 3PL Kenco Logistics uses a gameplay that compares employee performance against the standards set for each warehouse. “It gives workers direct feedback in the moment if they are ahead or lagging behind,” says Christy Montgomery, vice president of innovation.
Some companies may offer Labor Management as a separate unit that can be used with any WMS. Some systems will also match an employee’s skills or qualifications to the job. For example, if an injured employee is restricted to light duty tasks, the system will assign them to the appropriate tasks.
7. Comfort level
While there are many WMS providers, even those in business say there aren’t much differences between them. Work with a provider that provides a level of comfort with your corporate culture and provides the functionality your company requires.
“You might pay more to go with a reputable provider, but they have the depth and breadth of experience in the technology field, and a broad customer base, so they’ll be around for longer,” says Levy.
Roberts notes that the amount of paper some companies still use is staggering. A media management system (WMS) helps digitize processes with electronic bills of lading and signatures. This makes carriers more efficient during gate inspections at the facility and provides contactless services. Digital operations also support real-time business intelligence and analytics.
9. Technology of the future
Autonomous vehicles, drones, automated platform construction, shrinking packaging and other intelligent systems will play an even more important role as labor costs rise. If your organization is planning to adopt emerging technologies, look no further than WMS that makes it easy.
“Labour savings can be huge, and you can focus your resources on adding value,” Roberts says.