Not Your Father's Warehouse Management System

WMS software has come a long way. Maximize the benefits by making an informed purchase.

Warehouse management systems (WMS) offer manufacturers a number of compelling benefits, including better inventory accuracy, increased facility throughput and worker productivity, and improved customer compliance.

As WMS technology has matured over the years, today's definition of WMS goes far beyond receiving, picking, shipping and cycle counting, according to Tom Kozenski, vice president of product innovation for Waukesha, Wis.-based RedPrairie.

"[Manufacturers] now expect sophisticated labor management, pick-face slotting, yard management and features like parcel manifesting," Kozenski says. "Those are now all in the broader category of warehouse management, and the RFPs and the demo scripts that we play require those things to be shown."

There also is an expectation for what Kozenski calls "personalization of configurability" to accommodate the specific needs of manufacturers' warehouse operations.

"Not everyone runs their operation the same way, sometimes not even in the same vertical market," Kozenski explains. "...The universe of warehouses is fairly broad."

Considering the broad range of warehouse environments, and the range of features and capabilities now being offered by WMS software, selecting the right WMS for your warehouse operation can be challenging. Consider these factors when making your decision.

Vendor Stability

Before evaluating a vendor's WMS offerings, examine the vendor's financial picture to make sure the company is viable and "will be around to support you through the life of this product," recommends Jennifer Sherman, senior director of logistics applications strategy for Redwood Shores, Calif.-based Oracle Corp.

Even if the company's finances are solid, consider whether the vendor is an acquisition target, Sherman adds, as this could change the vendor's priorities.

"If you think they're going to be acquired by some other party, are you sure the new owners will continue to invest in the solution as their premier WMS offering or will your new system move into maintenance mode?" Sherman says.

As part of the same discussion of a vendor's stability, make sure the vendor offers the "global reach and support that you need," Sherman recommends.

"If you think you're going to be expanding into other regions, can [the vendor] support you in those regions? Do they support multiple currencies and do they support multiple languages? And how easy is it to support those multiple languages? It's one thing for a vendor to say, Yes, it'll support Spanish,' but can two users side by side view the UI [user interface] in two different languages?"

Integration

Warehouse management systems don't operate in a vacuumthey communicate with ERP, order management and other key business systems, Kozenski explains. Consequently, ask the vendor if its WMS software will integrate with your existing business systems.

Integration can be especially complicated for manufacturers that are running their businesses on legacy systems that were built in-house, explains Chad Autry, associate professor of marketing and supply chain management at Oklahoma City University.

"If I've been building my own enterprise system, and then I bring in a shelf-bought warehouse management system, it can be a 10-month nightmare to get the two things to communicate with one another," Autry says.

Configurability

More so than just about any other business application, WMS software "tends to get customized and extended on site as part of your implementation," Sherman says, "because everybody has their own view of what's a best practice in distribution."

Consequently, Sherman advises buyers to ask whether customizing the WMS software will impact their ability to upgrade the software in the future, and whether customization requires writing custom code, "because custom code keeps you from upgrading."

"So you want to be able to configure and extend the solution and still upgrade it to get the latest and greatest functionality when you need it," Sherman explains. "You don't want to paint yourself into a corner, and then leave yourself on a WMS that you can never upgrade."

Right-sizing

Because today's versions of WMS software include more "bells and whistles" than previous iterations, Autry has noticed that businesses tend to "overbuy a little bit." That's why the Oklahoma City University professor urges manufacturers to "right-size" their WMS technology.

"Don't go out and buy the most full-blown system unless you really have need for all the functionality," Autry says. "One of things I'm running across right now is folks buying [WMS software] and using 30% or 40% of the functionality, and that's the same with any piece of software in the world. Most people don't know how to do a macro in Microsoft Excel, but they have it on their desktop."

As for making sure that a WMS has enough functionality for your warehouse operations, RedPrairie's Kozenski asserts that the onus is on customers to be sure that their RFPs "accurately describe everything they need the system to do, whether it exists in today's operation or if it's on a wish list."

"Secondly, when they do their software evaluation, they need to make sure that the software provider understands what they need to demonstrate when we demo our products to them," Kozenski says.

Kozenski adds that having too much functionality isn't necessarily a bad thing.

"Honestly, the systems today do have too much," he says. "...The WMS systems do today support multiple process models and multiple verticals. Therefore, by definition, we do have a number of elements that they may not use. But here's the key: We can turn them off, and we can keep them off the screens so the customer doesn't have to look at things that are irrelevant."

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