Having the right systems in place is a core pillar of successful supply chain operations. Too little technology, and you miss out on key data and knowledge to keep operations running smoothly. Too much technology, and you create disparate systems that cause silos and increase complexity. In today’s market, reducing operational complexity is what will keep businesses thriving, especially those engaging in mergers and acquisitions. For supply chain leaders wondering where to start, consider looking in the warehouse.
Defining Warehouse Technology
There are three core systems that help to keep operations in the warehouse running smoothly: warehouse management system, warehouse control system and warehouse execution system. These systems each play distinct roles, yet are often misunderstood and misused. Understanding which of these systems to invest in begins with understanding which area of the warehouse each system facilitates.
Warehouse Management System
A warehouse management system (WMS) controls and manages the daily operations within a distribution center (DC). A core function involves the flow of inventory into, within and out of the DC, including how you receive inventory, store inventory, pick items for shipment and how you know when to order more items. Along with knowing where product is at all times, a WMS can be used for exception processes, including: returns, quality assurance and defective products.
If you are a large scale retailer with complex inventory management needs, you should consider investing in a warehouse management system. Some key WMS functions include:
- Verifying receipts
- Putting away inventory
- Replenishing inventory to be picked for an order
- Consolidating orders on a dock
- Creating pack slips, bills of lading (BOLs) and carrier and retail compliant labels
- Voice enabled radio frequency (RF) devices
While the WMS is the most mature, intelligent and widely known system because it manages the flow of inventory, labor tasks and orders from receipt to shipment, it lacks in more granular functions, such as machine and automation control. This is where the warehouse control system comes in.
Warehouse Control System
A warehouse control system (WCS) is a real-time, integrated control solution that manages the flow of items, cartons and pallets as it travels on many types of automated equipment, such as conveyors, sorters, automated storage & retrieval systems (AS/RS) and more. While warehouse control systems are not typically as advanced as warehouse management systems, new functionality is being added to close that gap, making the WCS a great tool for managing and controlling your warehouse processes.
If your facility is highly automated and you need a system that will exchange real-time communication, command processes, discrete equipment signals and optimization of materials, then a WCS could be for you. Typical functionality includes:
- Pack and ship sort management
- Automated pick management
- Pick-to-light and put-to-light management
- Automated conveyor zone skipping
- In line scale and print and apply
- Mobile and fixed scanner integration
While a warehouse control system is great for a highly automated facility in need of effective communication, it lacks in key WMS functionality, including the ability to manage inventory, interface with an ERP system and support labor and transportation management. If you find you need more functionality than what a WMS or WCS can provide individually, you may want to consider a warehouse execution system.
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Warehouse Execution System
A warehouse execution system (WES) is a newer breed of solution, often created by adding basic WMS functionality into an existing WCS, or by creating a WES from scratch, including WCS and WMS functions. A warehouse execution system is considered a more all-inclusive solution and can be useful when a warehouse is trying to consolidate systems but also benefit from a wider variety of functions.
If you are a small to mid-sized retailer with less complex inventory management needs, you could benefit from a WES, because it helps manage fulfillment both to customers and to stores. Rather than investing in both a WMS and WCS, this system will give you automation control functionality, with added WMS benefits such as wave management, light task management, single channel inventory management, picking and shipping. Other WES functionality includes:
- Basic receiving
- Shipping and replenishment management
- Small parcel manifesting
- Pack and ship sort management
- Automated and non-automated pick management
- Mobile scanner integration
While the WES offers the best of both worlds in many ways, it does have some pitfalls that you should keep in mind when deciding on a system. For example, a WES does not include the full transportation and order management capabilities of a WMS, nor the ERP integration. Additionally, it does not include full machine control/scanner integration that comes with a WCS. Having clearly defined priorities will help you understand which system has the functionality that your warehouse needs most.
Selecting the Best System for Your Business
Each warehouse system has its own set of benefits and pitfalls. It is important to have a firm understanding of your warehouse’s biggest priorities and which system will pinpoint those priorities the most effectively. Whether you are a large retailer with inventory needs that necessitate a highly intelligent WMS, an automated facility with communication needs fulfilled by a WCS, or a small to mid-sized retailer that wants to combine the two with a WES, it is important to invest in the right technology and have a partner who can help you through the process to ensure success along the way.
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