APICS is the premier professional association for supply chain management.

Creative and Precise: Finding the Right Warehouse Management System

By Chuck Fuerst | N/A 2012 | 7 | 10

The pressures of shifting regulations, supplier needs, economic instability, and natural disasters have led to a volatile and uncertain supply chain. Today’s warehouse management system (WMS) must be the brain of your operations. It needs to be precise and analytical, but with enough creativity to adapt quickly and cost effectively to your dynamic business environment.

Despite the multitude of add-ons and functionalities, there are several key features to look for when considering a WMS. These features help ensure that the software you ultimately choose will optimize productivity, result in a strong return on investment, stay effective over time, and provide a low total cost of ownership.

Standard WMS functionality likely will cover 80 percent of your operational needs, but the personalized work flows making up the other 20 percent will be critical to supporting your company’s unique mode of operation. For example, a WMS that has easily personalized tables to handle unique attributes for each item (such as whether a food item should be put in a cooler or freezer) saves the time and expense of going back to the software vendor to make these adjustments and helps ensure the longevity of your investment. Likewise, the best WMS should be able to scale up or down as the season demands or orders dictate: It should easily track, process, and manage increases and decreases in inventory, sales, and labor.

Furthermore, look for a WMS architecture that enables you to modify business processes in the software rapidly, without taxing the system. Supply chain app stores__similar to those on a smartphone__are available through a few WMS vendors and are one of the most cutting-edge tools on the market. An app store enables you to browse and quickly add functionality to a WMS on your own time, without custom coding or disturbing supply chain work flows.

It is also important to determine how flexible the WMS is for managing integrations with other systems. If it doesn't allow you to effortlessly work with multiple carriers or integrate an enterprise resources planning system, it can slow you down.

The ability to quickly find and access data necessary for effective decision making is key for any company. Inflexible reporting systems can be very frustrating for users, leading to wasted time and poor decisions. Look for a WMS with a graphical dashboard technology that can provide the most global and in-depth view of every corner of the warehouse. While this feature isn’t necessarily new, it’s become even more important, as operators need an increasingly broad picture of what is happening throughout the company.

By leveraging real-time data and business rules, you can make better decisions about order fulfillment across all channels. This larger view of real-time information turns the WMS into an indispensable decision-making tool for maximizing efficiency. 

Complete production traceability
The right WMS should include advanced traceability, genealogy, and recall management tools. With these features, a WMS can automatically create a full genealogy of every product made, tying batch numbers, lot numbers, full attributes capabilities, and other data to the appropriate finished products__as well as back to the production order or demand signal. This ultimately leads to fewer defective products and greater peace of mind that you are better equipped to weather a recall event.

Labor tracking and reporting
Labor is the number-one cost in most warehouse and distribution operations, so tracking employee productivity is key to achieving efficient operations and maintaining margin expectations. The right WMS, paired with an effective labor management system, will give you the ability to plan, measure, and track labor activities. Labor tracking and reporting tools can help identify the most efficient and accurate employees for recognition and rewards, as well as areas of improvement for other team members. The labor management tool should include features such as individual performance standards that enable employees to understand what is expected of them, how they are performing throughout the day, enhanced tracking reports, and support for labor planning across functional areas.

Simple upgrades
After three-to-five years, most companies consider upgrading their WMS to take advantage of new functionality. However, the upgrade of a customized system based on traditionally structured architecture can be as costly and time consuming as installing an entirely new system. In other words, a patchwork of upgrades may only make the WMS more cumbersome and call into question the accuracy of the data.

Therefore, it is important to understand whether upgrading your WMS will require additional cost for new vendor configurations and if the vendor will guarantee the cost of upgrades. A snap-in WMS architecture that enables you to choose and adopt new features as you need them (such as the app store model discussed previously) may be the best solution.

Cloud deployment
Cloud computing once had a reputation for being a small-company solution, but not anymore. The right WMS can provide as much power as a business needs while optimizing efficiency. And because cloud applications are elastic and scalable, a customer can simply plug in to the data center and access power quickly to accommodate seasonal spikes, changes in demand, or a growing operation. A cloud-based WMS also can help your company focus on business operations rather than software upgrades and daily maintenance, which can mean significant reductions in labor costs or more time for information technology resources to work with customer-facing applications. And because of its location off-site and in a secure facility, being in the cloud greatly reduces the risk of catastrophic data loss due to natural disasters. Some vendors offer both an on-premise and cloud-based WMS with an option to choose between the deployment options now and in the future.

The future is here to stay
We are not in a transitional period; our rapidly shifting economy is the new norm. Demanding these key WMS features may seem like a tall order, but the right software can establish its place in your company as a true, value-driven competitive advantage. In the end, your WMS can provide the brainpower your company needs to be precise and creative enough to meet any logistical challenge.

Chuck Fuerst is the director of product strategy at HighJump Software. Fuerst may be contacted at (800) 328-3271, ext. 1141.

The editors of the APICS Dictionary are currently seeking suggestions for new terms and definitions. Submit any changes you'd like to see in the next edition at apics.org/dictionaryterms. 

Explore S&OP and supply chain risk, strategy, and sustainability with the APICS folios
APICS folios are grounded in the best supply chain research available and contain best practices, how-to steps,  and articles from the award-winning APICS magazine.

All comments will be published pending approval. Read the APICS Comment Policy.

Please log in to see content on this page

This page article is available to APICS members and APICS magazine subscribers only. APICS members and APICS magazine subscribers: Please log in at the top right of this page to view this content.

Not an APICS member? Join today to receive instant access to valuable APICS member benefits like this.