It is now many years since the warehouse management system (WMS) first appeared. Early versions were quite basic compared with those of today, mostly simple location systems whose product names often suggested a limited brief. But their introduction marked a departure from the basic control by total quantity and valuation offered by stock control packages towards the more advanced concepts of managing space utilisation and control of warehouse movements. Have these systems too now become accepted as a commodity or are there still important differences between systems and their vendors?
From those early products the WMS has grown in sophistication, expanding the options and choices for moving goods into and out of the warehouse. Core functions to manage location control became slicker, with advanced rules to determine how and why goods could be stored and the means to deploy a host of parameters to suit different scenarios. One of the ‘great leaps forward’ saw the WMS system move from ‘batch mode’ to ‘real time’ when RF technology became robust, affordable and widely available.
Since then the progress of WMS has been striking. An early WMS user would scarcely recognise today’s products, neither the look and feel of the interface nor the broad spectrum of functionality within the system or at its periphery. Over time technical advances (perhaps even small revolutions with EDI and generic bar-coding) have radically changed the humble WMS profile. System reporting features are transformed by high quality graphical software, while product recognition and accuracy have hit new levels since the advent of bar-coding and RFID. EDI offers total connectivity and visibility, while voice directed systems have begun to set new standards in warehouse productivity.
So, if the WMS has reached a level where most users’ requirements can be met and there are many products (including some purely web based) around to meet them, does that then mean it is possible to simply buy one off-the-shelf and ‘plug and go?’ The answer to that question for some people is ‘maybe’ and for others ‘definitely not’. It will depend very much on the type and size of the business and what it expects from a WMS.
There are many users in the market for whom a competent but ‘no frills’ WMS system is ideal. These are companies who store and handle goods using standard methods, have no unusual requirements to ‘customise in’, little or no interface requirement and operational processes that will not change very often. For them it can be possible to select a WMS which needs only a simple process to take them through set-up, training, implementation and on to go-live.
For others, however, the picture can be completely different. These will be companies with broader, more diverse, and often overlapping needs where the complexity of the requirement and the approach simply do not lend themselves to a ‘drop and run’ solution. This can be, for instance, where significant custom development is needed to meet internal or customer-driven functionality, where multiple software application interfaces are needed, multiple users are engaged in complex processes or where varied specialist technologies or automation interfaces are identified.
The requirement for these situations is more than just a well rounded software product, although that is obviously a prerequisite. What should be of paramount concern is the vendor’s ability to pull it all together, manage the project and ensure the different elements are competently handled in order to deliver the end solution. It is all about how the vendor looks after the customer. At this level it can be about managing interfaces to people and organisations just as much as to systems.
There are other factors which might affect choice of WMS and vendor. Many companies do not see WMS as a solution to solve a static problem. Such organisations consider WMS an evolving business tool and do not expect it to stand still any more than their business does. Because of this they accept it will be customised regularly and are generally happy to pay. The reason they do is because they are wise enough to know that the vendor’s next release will not ‘offer everything’. More likely it will offer much they do not need, and what they do need is not done in the right way for their business. Their rationale is simple – custom development is business development led – so it pays for itself.
Taking this approach and making it successful involves several factors. Experience and mindset on the customer side is key. The vendor, naturally, must have a good WMS product. But it also requires a knowledgeable partner, one who can blend industry experience with an understanding of the customer’s needs to execute system development in the most advantageous way for their business. With these things in place, a business that merits such an approach will achieve far more than it ever could than by assuming that all systems are much the same.
So, in some situations the WMS may be a commodity. There are many of them, and sometimes it might be difficult to see why one is different to another. But it really is the quality of supplier, in terms of experience and approach that will determine whether the choice results in a commoditised offering. So what do you prefer – fast food burger or a la carte dining?