Other Voices: WMS still evolving after 40 years

WMS suppliers, end-users and prospective end-users must each work to successfully navigate a changing landscape.

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Editor’s Note: The following column by John Hill, director at St. Onge Co., is part of Modern’s Other Voices column. The series features ideas, opinions and insights from end-users, analysts, systems integrators and OEMs. Click here to learn about submitting a column for consideration.


News Flash: May 29, 2014 — Metropolis, USA – Born on August 28, 1974, in Santa Clara, Calif., and after nearly 40 years of sometimes spotty, but always well-intentioned service to the logistics community, the often praised and occasionally maligned warehouse management system or WMS has been pronounced “dead.”

Time of death could not be precisely determined, but physicians agreed it had occurred within the past several months. In private interviews with hospital staffers, the cause of death ranged from “market saturation” to “inadequate care and feeding” to “widespread confusion” triggered by the plethora of alternatives (WCS, WFS, WES, WMS in a Cloud, etc., etc.) now flooding the market. Funeral arrangements were not disclosed.

This news release may be far-fetched, but nonetheless, the thought of it disturbs me. It’s time to take a moment to reflect on whether we’ve exhausted the options for giving WMS a renewed lease on life. I know he’s still breathing. After all, he’s only 40 years old.

While some might perceive that WMS has lost his efficacy, hundreds of would-be users continue to attend conferences, seminars, and webcasts on how WMS can be used to fine-tune warehouse operations and optimize resource performance. Further, even if 100,000 best-of-breed and ERP- and, more recently, Cloud-based WMS have been installed in this country, the number is less than half of the available market. Further still, consider the number of opportunities for WMS deployment in light manufacturing and assembly, a market that has been barely touched.

Has WMS really outlived his utility? I think not, but to revitalize him, we must do many things:

WMS suppliers:
Populate your sales forces with people who understand warehousing. Clearly differentiate your packages from the alternatives – leverage your strengths and address the gaps. Consider offering a “WMS as a Service” or Cloud-based model for vertical markets and smaller users. ERP suppliers, quit suggesting that adding a warehouse management module is “free.” Under-promise and over-deliver. Disclose the likely total costs of ownership upfront. No one likes surprises.

Existing Users:
If you have successfully installed a WMS, tout it to the press and in webinars and conferences (you don’t have to reveal proprietary information that might compromise your competitive position). It will help to build the market and protect your investment. If your WMS is not performing, determine why and get help fixing it. Actively participate in user groups. Your contributions will help suppliers to refine their offerings, offer a broader menu of features, build revenues, and add resources to assure you of continuing support.

Prospective Users:
Don’t attempt to overlay WMS on flawed layouts and processes. It’s a certain prescription for disaster. Carefully evaluate the newer alternatives, subjecting them to the same due diligence that has been used in vetting standard packages for years. Recognize that there are no silver bullets. Do the homework necessary to build a detailed, defensible investment case. Acknowledge that there are few shortcuts.

Depending upon the level of in-house expertise, recognize that the “educating the prospect” component of the supplier’s sales cycle is not free. Look at how WMS can improve basic receiving, storage, and picking. Start small, adding functionality as needs expand and confidence grows. Embrace configurability, but avoid customization. It’s rarely needed with contemporary packages, adds cost, lengthens implementation time, increases risk and complicates upgradeability.

John Hill, director at St. Onge Co., is a former COO/CEO of automatic data collection and supply chain execution systems firms with more than 100 successful systems installations including automatic data capture, warehouse management and transportation management. Hill is an expert in supply chain strategy, network and operations performance optimization, process and systems design, and the selection and deployment of warehouse technology and systems.

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