Next-Gen WMS: 7 Innovations on the Horizion

WMS vendors are stepping up to the plate and developing functionalities and solutions that meet the complex needs of today’s companies. Our top analysts take a peek into these developments and discuss the DC of the future and the software that will support it.

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It was about six years ago that Dwight Klappich, research vice president at Garner, fired up a PowerPoint presentation at the Warehousing Education and Research Council’s annual conference. The title of the presentation was “Putting the ‘M’ in WMS,” with a core focus on how most warehouse management systems at the time were missing that critical “management” link.

“WMS was basically a transactional processing engine…there wasn’t a lot of ‘management’ in it at all,” Klappich recounts. “The software application basically focused on picking a box and then putting it away, and there wasn’t a lot of intelligence embedded in the platforms.”

In fact, Klappich likens the traditional WMS to a giant cauldron where companies essentially “dump” their warehouse activities, stir them around a bit, and then wait for that cauldron to spit something useful back out at them. “That’s basically what WMS has done,” he says, “and to be frank, that was probably okay for many organizations.”

Fast-forward to 2017 and Klappich says that while WMS hasn’t made any giant leaps or bounds on the management front, he has seen progress being made in that direction. He credits e-commerce, omni-channel fulfillment pressures and other distribution trends with helping to push that envelope.

“I had a customer recently tell me that its shipping volume was peaking at somewhere around 1.5 million orders per day,” Klappich explains. “When you start getting up into those numbers, you have to go beyond only using a WMS to expedite orders.”

To help shippers address these and other challenges, WMS vendors are stepping up to the plate and developing functionalities and solutions that meet the complex needs of today’s companies. Some of those functionalities are already available while others are still in the conceptualization stage. Still others are just beginning to swirl around in the minds of top industry analysts who help drive innovation and progress across numerous supply chain software categories.

Here are seven innovations that are in the works or on the horizon:

1.) Solutions that circumvent order-in/order-out “traffic jams.”

As Klappich notes, WMS has traditionally supported the day-to-day operations of a warehouse or DC by focusing on the control, tracking, transfer and storage of materials within those four walls. But when shippers start to push upwards of one million or more orders processed per day, the situation calls for more serious intervention on the part of the WMS.

To address this issue, Klappich says that software developers like Manhattan are embedding more sophisticated planning logic into their systems, all with an eye on supporting more complex order environments. For example, simply piling more into a WMS that can’t support such high volumes can create some serious traffic jams.

2.) Supply chain convergence comes into clearer focus.

Gartner has been talking about supply chain convergence since 2008, and looking back, Klappich says that the research firm may have been a bit early in introducing a concept that’s just now starting to make its way into the supply chain software space.

According to Klappich, supply chain convergence gives shippers a way to break through the “difficulty or inability to coordinate and synchronize the end-to-end supply chain processes” barrier and better synchronize their processes across different functions. By eliminating the functional silos that existed among warehousing, transportation, procurement, yard management, and global shipping activities, for example, shippers can optimize activities across previously siloed functions that didn’t communicate or work with one another.

“We’re beginning to see activity in this realm, with functions like transportation, yard and warehouse management more tightly coupled,” says Klappich. “We’re seeing vendors bring together warehousing, planning, logic and other functions within the multi-channel retail space, for example, where users are going beyond standalone warehouses and figuring out the optimal ways to serve their customers on an order-by-order basis.”

Going forward, Klappich expects the warehouse—and the software systems that support it—to become even more integrated into the overall business process. “I think that’s the next big thing.”

3.) The blending of WMS, WCS and WES continues.

Just when shippers started to understand the key differentiations among WMS, warehouse control systems (WCS) and warehouse execution systems (WES), the vendors of those systems moved the chains by making it a bit harder to discern among those platforms.

So where WMS controls the flow of inventory into, within and out of a DC and a WCS manages the flow of items, cartons and pallets moving around the facility on conveyors or other automated equipment, a WES can now handle most of the latter and some of the former WCS. Knowing that most shippers would prefer a single solution to manage as much as possible within reason, vendors are coming up with innovative ways to address all of these functionalities under a single umbrella.

“The functionalities of these three systems overlap a lot of times, and that can create confusion among logistics professionals,” says Howard Turner, director of supply chain systems at consultancy St. Onge Company. “We’re at the point now where you can have some of the same functionality in WMS that you can in WES and WCS. It can be hard to tell where one stops and another begins.”

4.) More reinforcement for multi-faceted orders.

With the same retailers that once spent most of their time replenishing physical locations now also shipping directly to consumers, the activities taking place in the average warehouse or DC have shifted proportionately. That, in turn, has changed the way companies utilize their WMS and other technologies.

“Shippers are managing a much higher volume of smaller orders, and they’re trying to do that more efficiently,” says Clint Reiser, research analyst with ARC Advisory Group. To achieve that goal, many firms are investing in automation that can manage everything from the individual item to the case to the pallet.

Going a step further, WMS vendors are building into their systems processes that help logistics operations handle these myriad different shipping activities—a move that Reiser expects to continue over the next few years. For example, he says some applications include put-wall capabilities that allow users to utilize pick-to-light to efficiently pack and ship multiple items in a single box.

5.) Better support for intelligent warehousing.

According to Reiser, more shippers are either fulfilling different types of order profiles from the same facility or fulfilling the same type of orders from different facilities. In other words, customers can place an order online using the mobile app on their iPads and have the order fulfilled by a local store or regional DC—the latter of which is probably already replenishing local stores and fulfilling e-commerce orders.

“These scenarios widen the options while also complicating inventory management,” says Reiser. “The question is, when do you fulfill an order from your store and when do you fulfill it from the DC?” In most cases, the answer to that question revolves around transportation costs, labor costs, operational efficiencies and inventory management policies. To help, some WMS vendors are integrating new functionality into their systems that allows companies to make those decisions, says Reiser, “while also enabling more intelligent warehousing and distribution.”

6.) Expanded drop-shippingcapabilities ahead.

Another B2C retail trend driving change on the WMS front right now is the use of more drop shipping to get orders out to customers in a fast, efficient and affordable manner. E-tailing giant Amazon, for example, is less interested in holding inventory and more bent on getting goods to the customer as quickly as possible.

“With more companies having to deal with drop shipping as a part of their core processes, they need functionality built into their WMS that facilitates those activities,” says Reiser, who sees more vendors integrating those capabilities into their systems. Expect this trend to continue, he says, as shippers use more drop-shipping and other consumer-centric distribution approaches.

7.) Autonomous forklifts could become commonplace in the warehouse.

As U.S. consumers mentally prepare themselves for a time when driverless cars will be a common site on our nation’s roads, warehouse and DC managers need to envision a time when autonomous forklifts and other vehicles zip around the floor with little or no human intervention. These automated innovations should blend well with shippers’ existing WMS software, which already manage numerous operational functions without much human intervention.

“We’ve been automating warehouses for years, but now we’re not that far away from a time when autonomous forklifts are a more common sight in today’s facilities,” Klappich predicts. “That’s where we are heading.”

He points to the availability of low-cost sensors (i.e., for detecting and avoiding obstacles) as one of the driving forces behind this trend, noting that the warehouse floor is significantly less difficult to navigate compared to the typical roadway. “I can’t say for sure,” says Klappich, “but my gut tells me that all lift truck manufacturers are working on autonomous technology at this point.” 

About the Author

Bridget McCrea, Editor
Bridget McCrea is a Contributing Editor for Logistics Management based in Clearwater, Fla. She has covered the transportation and supply chain space since 1996, and has covered all aspects of the industry for Logistics Management and Supply Chain Management Review. She can be reached at [email protected]

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