The warehouse floor has changed a lot in the last 10 years, with the last 12 months to 14 months introducing some significant changes to this vital link in the global supply chain. Today’s warehouse operators are moving a much higher volume of smaller orders faster than ever, continuously seeking ways to automate their processes, and searching for tools that will help them best utilize both labor and physical space.
These operations are also relying on more technology, with the warehouse management system (WMS) remaining a pinnacle investment for any fast-paced fulfillment center. Of course, as with any technology investments, WMS is only as good as you make it. In other words, you can either tap into the “low-hanging fruit” functionalities—shipment, inventory, order, and fulfillment management—or you can take your WMS investment to the next level by optimizing some of its lesser-known capabilities.
“Logistics managers are asking themselves why they’re not using the most advanced WMS capabilities available, figuring out what else is available to them, and then adding new functionalities that can drive additional business value,” Dwight Klappich, research vice president at Gartner, points out.
Some of those often-overlooked features include labor management, slotting, yard management, and wave planning. “We’ve seen increased interest in slotting and labor management options from vendors like Optricity, Blue Yonder, and Manhattan, plus best-of-breed vendors like Easy Metrics,” Klappich continues, “all of which offer functions that can be ‘layered in’ at a fairly reasonable cost in exchange for an appreciable business value.”
As warehouses and distribution centers (DCs) continue to evolve, the continued uptick in e-commerce sales has sped up processes within their four walls.
Already busy pre-COVID, these operations had to ramp up significantly in 2020 when the global pandemic emerged. Now, as they move into recovery, these operations are looking for new ways to work smarter, better and faster in this “new normal” business environment.
“Shippers have to be able to respond to growing demand for e-commerce fulfillment—something that’s been around for a while, and that’s growing consistently,” says Howard Turner, director of supply chain systems at St. Onge Company. “E-commerce fulfillment became even more pertinent over the last year or so, with shippers dealing with unexpected demand levels while also ensuring good customer service levels.”
Achieving that balance requires systems that can support processes like goods-to-person picking, plus the software solutions that support those activities. “WMS plays a key role there,” says Turner, who sees definite opportunity for companies to dive deeper into their WMS systems and dig out additional benefits that may be lurking below the “surface.”
Bill Brooks, vice president, NA transportation portfolio at Capgemini, concurs, and says it’s not unusual for a company to use only the most obvious WMS capabilities without realizing how much more their software could be doing for them. In some cases, these companies are simply unaware of those additional capabilities. In other situations, the WMS itself may have never been fully implemented.
Brooks says some companies aren’t being creative enough with their WMS, and that they don’t challenge their solutions to be more predictive, thoroughly review historical data, and then use those insights to create more effective fulfillment models. The list of possibilities doesn’t end there either. Here are six more ways companies can optimize their WMS and get more out of these investments.
1.) Create a center of enablement (COE).
This is a good starting point for any company that doesn’t feel like it’s getting enough out of its WMS, or any other piece of supply chain management (SCM) software. According to Brooks, COEs take on different shapes, but in the case of WMS, it requires a hard look at whether an operation is truly getting the best benefit out of that software investment.
“It’s about making sure everything is in place, up and running, and fully implemented,” says Brooks. User feedback is also important and can be leveraged to improve or enhance the system. “By factoring in both the technical/usage side and the actual user interface,” Brooks says, “you can find ways to eke a little more out of your WMS, and make it even more user-friendly for employees.”
2.) Explore advanced options.
If your WMS has been in place for 10 years and never really tweaked, adjusted or upgraded during that time, then you’re probably missing out on some advanced capabilities. “Vendors have been improving their platforms and adding more bells and whistles,” says Brooks. Some of the newer technologies being deployed include 5G (for faster connectivity), the Cloud (for anytime/anywhere accessibility), edge computing (to improve response times and save bandwidth), and artificial intelligence (AI).
3.) Leverage constraints-based planning.
According to Gartner, more than 80% of supply chain professionals feel that they could be making better decisions in response to disruptive events. Klappich says WMS is well positioned to help logistics managers utilize some of the same costraints-based planning strategies that manufacturers have been using for decades. Defined as “limits that are strategically applied on decision-making inputs,” constraints-based planning factors in the rules, constraints, and disruptions that an operation is working through and then, using AI or another advanced technology, helps fulfillment centers plan more effectively.
“Warehousing has been decades behind manufacturing and adopting constraints-based planning techniques,” says Klappich, who points to Manhattan’s Order Streaming technology as one example of how vendors are infusing more constraints-based planning features into their SCM platforms.
Using the technology, logistics managers can readily identify constraints (e.g., lack of labor, equipment that’s offline, unpredictable demand, etc.) and then use WMS to come up with an effective plan of attack. “Warehouses no longer have 10 days to 14 days to fulfill an order, which means they don’t have time on their sides to be able to manage higher demand and increased constraints,” says Klappich. “This is becoming a bigger opportunity for companies to squeeze out some more business benefits from their WMS.”
4.) Blur the lines with warehouse execution.
Knowing that e-commerce orders have a different profile than most any other order type, Turner says WMS vendors have adjusted their systems to be able to handle more and smaller parcel shipments. “These aren’t multi-pallet orders being shipped via less-than-truckload (LTL), says Turner, “and are often just one- or two-line orders.”
To support the picking of a higher volume of smaller orders, and to provide better connections to automated equipment, WMS vendors are folding warehouse execution system (WES) functionalities into their solutions. “Some are making WES part of their core products,” says Turner, “and offering capabilities that provide direct control of automated equipment.”
5.) Automate parcel manifesting.
With e-commerce growing by 44% in 2020, and with no end in immediate sight to the online ordering frenzy, companies are turning to technology to help them better manage processes like parcel manifesting and wave processing. Turner says WMS can help with both.
“We’ve seen shippers take advantage of WMS that provide robust, parcel-manifesting engines,” says Turner. Those engines not only help companies identify the best possible transportation costs, but they also provide guidance on shipment packaging.
“Companies can use their WMS for cartonization-type functionality, with the software factoring in the size and dimensions of these items being picked,” says Turner, “and then finding the ideal parcel size.”
6.) Improved wave processing.
With more automation making its way onto the warehouse floor, and labor not easy to come by (or retain) right now, companies are increasingly turning to technology to help them keep up with the demands of e-commerce fulfillment. Turner says WMS can play a key role in this effort, with wave processing being yet another capability that the software can manage effectively, when given a chance to do so.
“WMS can identify and group e-commerce orders in a wave, and then release them to the floor for special picking, handling and processing,” says Turner. “This leverages batch-picking functionality, which many companies don’t use even though the model has been around for a while and is both proven and effective.”
Squeezing the sponge
Just because WMS has been around for roughly four decades, doesn’t mean these systems can be put in place and left to fend for themselves as the business world around them changes and morphs at the speed of light. To be most effective in today’s fast-paced fulfillment environment, these specialized business applications should be regulatory reviewed, updated, and optimized in a way that aligns with the business’ current needs.
“For most of the WMS’ 40 years in existence, it did the same thing—manage receiving, put away, storage, counting, picking, packing and shipping,” says Klappich. “The question now is: What’s next and how can your company get to the next level?”
For many companies, Klappich says the answer has been to keep “squeezing the sponge” in an attempt to get more value out of an aging system that’s been in place for years. Going forward, he expects more companies to layer new capabilities into those systems (versus just trying to do more with existing capabilities).
“Leading-edge companies are starting to look at what are the more advanced capabilities that they layer onto their WMS,” Klappich adds, “in order to get additional business value out of their investments.”