Putting More 'M' into WMS

Analysis, communications, Internet and labor-planning modules are adding management power to warehouse software.

Putting More ‘M’ into WMS

A flurry of analysis, communications, Internet and labor-planning modules are adding management power to warehouse software.

by Christopher Trunk, managing editor

“Inventory tools are a dime a dozen, and they don’t provide the crucial management tasks a buyer needs,” says Mark Robertson, manager of marketing, software division for Knapp Logistics and Automation. “Today, you’ve got to get more ‘M’ out of WMS with intelligent routing, cycle counting and replenishment strategies that look to solve problems before they happen.”

“When you’re talking visibility and managing across the enterprise and into the supply chain, it’s not only analysis of your fulfillment operations, but also a broad look at transportation, manufacturing, customer demand and ability to meet delivery schedules,” says Kelly Vizzini, vice president of corporate marketing for Optum Inc.

Analysis is the answer

But to analyze your business, you need to understand the historical data coming from your WMS. “You’re starting to see all these new visibility tools making good use of the pool of data being generated by WMS,” says John Clark, marketing manager for Provia Software. WMS produces monthly reports — sometimes three inches thick — but they don’t tell how many picks were made at this time last year, for example. “Now with the boon in new analysis tools, you can slice and dice that information to evaluate how your operation is running.”

Ellen Donovan, senior director of public relations for Manhattan Associates, says a WMS typically maintains a month’s worth of data. But if you want to understand trends and graph that data, you need to export WMS data to some outside analysis tool, like her company’s SmartInfo. With these tools you can compare data, like which orders arrived late and what was the common thread to those orders. “SmartInfo can highlight the two percent to three percent of your business that isn’t working right — the part that can kill you if you’re not careful,” observes Donovan.

“We’re taking Web-enabling for WMS a step further to event management,” says Dan Trew, vice president, product strategy for Catalyst International Inc. “It reports exception conditions like a software error, short picks, over-receipt from a vendor.” Then you can make a quicker decision because just the right person at your operation is alerted to these kinds of events by e-mail, cell phone or beeper.

A cycle count that uncovers significant discrepancy would be noted to the inventory control manager, and a failed replenishment to the order fulfillment manager. It is these exceptions that, when caught early, can be kept from jeopardizing customer service and order fulfillment goals.

Along the lines of reporting, it’s important to share information in the right format. “You need to report warehouse business data to different people in a way each can understand,” says Matt Rife, product manager for Manhattan Associates. “For example, executives need a broader report on activity, and receiving and shift supervisors require a much more detailed report to support faster decision- making on the floor.”

Super software

Super-sizing the management in your WMS package comes in many forms. Here are some examples:

• The Data Dr. is a software program that pulls data from the Warehouse Rx WMS from Eskay Corporation to help managers determine which SKUs are not turning fast enough, where to slot slow and fast movers, which SKUs to put in the Golden Zone for picking, and how accurately and how fast workers are doing their jobs. “The Data Dr. lets warehouse managers develop incentive programs based on warehouse averages or on a manager’s own baselines,” says Craig Welch, product manager for Eskay.

• Manhattan Associates found its customers were being flooded with WMS data and that it was harder to sort the data into useful reports. “Our PkMS SmartInfo software has a Web-browser for Internet Explorer, which gives visibility into key performance indicators for the warehouse,” says Rife. “For example, with a third-party logistics [3PL] provider, it provides historical data on how much revenue and how many units were shipped last month, which customers did I ship to, which are my top customers, and how much volume was shipped per client.”

• Provia Software offers more advanced kitting features and better date coding. Manufacturers are moving more final assembly to the warehouse. Advanced kitting can include postponing a variety of tasks including special packaging, enclosing different language instructions, applying unique price tags for major retailers, attaching two or three different types of magnetic strips that cause store alarms to sound, coupons, and shrinkwrapping items together for a special promotion.

Provia also offers more options for expiration dates. “Multiple levels of dating greatly affect international shipments, including ‘expired by,’ ‘best by,’ ‘best if before,’” says Clark of Provia. Clark tells of Toll Logistics, a major Australian 3PL that ships foodstuffs to Australia, New Zealand and Japan. “Imagine the difficulty of shipping product to these countries by boat so that shelf life remains the same in each country,” muses Clark. Provia’s ViaWare WMS with enhanced date coding makes it possible.

• Swisslog Software USA Inc. flies out with new WarehouseCockpit software that seeks data on key performance indicators and reports it back to the WMS and then on to managers. “We provide a unified view of inventory across the buyer’s entire network, showing in-transit inventory,” says Steve Simmerman, chief operating officer, Swisslog Software USA.

Standards and WMS communications

Standard communications protocols are also adding more “M” to warehouse management software. “Business collaboration and better management of your warehouse operations are being made possible with wider use of standard communication,” says Greg Wandrei, regional sales manager for irista. XML and business object document (BOD) are standard communication protocols that simplify and speed data transfer between vendors’, suppliers’ and customers’ WMS, ERP and transportation management software.”

Wandrei says the Open Applications Group (www.openapplications.org) is a consortium of business and software leaders that has defined a number of BODs for use in the supply chain. “Irista has adopted these standards, and BODs reduce the cost of doing business. That’s new for ERP and WMS vendors,” Wandrei adds.

Latest news on standards includes the UCC EAN 128 label format. It’s being developed by a U.S. and European standards association as a one-scan bar code label. “The bar code has embedded fields that include product, lot, quantity, package type — all in the same label,” says Art Fleischer, sales and marketing manager, WMS group for Ann Arbor Computer. With this new label, the bar code terminal won’t ask the worker for each piece of data separately. It automatically scans the code, and the scanner sorts out the data to the proper database location.

“A lot of large corporations with international operations will find this a valuable tool. While current scanners can handle it, WMS must be adjusted with some leading character to identify the label as EAN 128,” says Fleischer. Today, warehouses have to print out and apply their own labels on incoming product. “The standard will eliminate all that duplicate labeling,” adds Fleischer.

Web-enabled WMS and visibility

Everyone is talking Web-enabled when it comes to WMS. Robertson says the days of confining WMS to the warehouse are over. “Everyone wants a clear pipeline, and the Java language our WMS is written with makes it much easier to create e-commerce catalogs and allow queries into warehouse inventory. And multiple foreign languages make it easier for 3PLs to do their business.”

Here’s another example. “This morning we were visited by a 3PL looking for a Web front end to our i-Series pcAIM WMS product,” said Fleischer at the recent DC Expo Show. “They’re in Miami and distribute flowers from around the world. The 3PL needed to let its global customers see what product was available in the warehouse, follow tracking numbers for shipments and see what orders have been placed.” Fleischer says that buyers are looking for a self-serve Web-front that requires a user name and a password for access. The i-Series software from Ann Arbor allows access to multiple warehouses and also takes the user to the UPS Web site or other carrier site to track a shipment.

Vendor-managed inventory (VMI) comes out the winner with Web-enabled WMS too. “We’ve added the EXceed Portals product for our WMS,” says Jeff Perry, vice president, alliances for EXE Technologies. “It lets our clients and their vendors and suppliers access the WMS with an Internet browser for VMI applications. It lets smaller-sized buyers use automatic shipping notices [ASN] via the Internet and helps users print compliant labels. Then when product is received, there is an ASN in place and labels are already printed to speed receiving.”

Labor productivity makes its debut

Nearly everyone at the recent DC Expo show in Chicago was talking about how WMS software can handle labor measurement, planning and productivity.

“WMS is branching out into work measurement software and workcell re-engineering for best industry practice,” says Jim LeTart, director of marketing communications for RedPrairie (formerly McHugh Software International). The firm has partnered with eight major consulting firms to help put the right procedures and labor practices in place for its clients. That includes industrial engineering like ergonomics, safety, product weight and more. “Engineered standards can also add goal time factors to standardized jobs that take into account distance, product weight, correct slotting and use of the Golden Zone for orderpicking fast movers,” adds LeTart.

Speed isn’t the top goal, for if laborers work too fast, they get tired, guaranteeing problems with quality and safety. The goal is for workers to move at a comfortable pace and root out inefficient motion and unsafe methods.

Working with Tompkins Associates as the consultant, RedPrairie suggests relaying out picking areas for one client that had positioned dead ends at the end of each aisle. Only one lift truck at a time could service the aisle. “We recommended cutting holes in the wall to allow trucks to improve workflow pattern,” says LeTart.

Making these kinds of physical changes to layout and workflow is critical to a more effective WMS. What sense does it make to dramatically increase data speed and directed picking just to have a pre-existing bottleneck glue up the works?

“Our next i-Series WMS module will manage labor, allowing users to take a group of incoming orders by truckload and compare the amount of work that must be done against a configurable table. The table stores the amount of time it takes to execute a pick, putaway or other function, and then calculate a headcount,” says Fleischer. Fleischer’s software will generate a graph showing how long it will take to work that shipment. “This is especially helpful to companies that hire temporary workers at peak times. The software can indicate when to hire extra workers or when to break down loads differently to get the job done quicker.”

The WMS industry

The past one-and-a-half to two years have been tough on the software business, and WMS is not immune. “We’ve seen consolidation among vendors and the erosion of viability of some WMS vendors,” observes Simmerman. “Now ERP vendors are offering their own WMS software, which makes it even harder on WMS vendors to maintain market share.”

Simmerman doesn’t think you’ll be seeing larger WMS vendors gobbling up as many smaller ones, as most of the small WMS vendors with exciting market share or technology assets have been snatched up already.

These downward market trends run counter to the 10 percent growth in the WMS market recently forecast by the ARC Advisory Group, says Vizzini. “The Tier 1 and Tier 2 market will be flooded with WMS.”

At the same time, the WMS marketplace is maturing. “When it comes to WMS vendor financials, roughly a third of revenues are driven from software sales and two-thirds from service,” says Trew of Catalyst. “I expect this mix will change in favor of more service as software license fees come down and cheaper software is offered.”

Trew maintains that the only surviving WMS vendors will provide not only software but also material handling consulting, initial analysis audits of your firm, implementation service and ongoing software maintenance.

Look for more advanced planning modules and vendor-rating software in the near future. “Vendors will be rated bronze, silver and gold — evaluated on how well they ship what you requested, including high ASN compliance rates. Delivering on ASNs can significantly reduce inbound receiving costs,” adds Trew.

Powerhouse functions

Getting more out of your WMS translates into more and smarter functions.

One example is eliminating idle time from a worker’s day:

• Time spent getting up and down from a lift truck to read a sign or find a location;

• Traveling to the office to clear up a question about a pick list;

• Searching for items up and down an aisle.

Simmerman says WMS interacts with the worker, telling a person where to travel and accepting feedback from the worker in real time. “The point is not to burn out the lift truck operators, but to make better use of their workday and eliminate common problems that drive workers crazy,” observes Simmerman.

Software now offers advanced drill-down menus, pop-up calendars, checkboxes and more. “We offer software that eliminates the five to six screens it once took to navigate a task on WMS. Now it’s done in just two screens,” says Vizzini. This adds up over a day’s time to significant labor savings with Optum’s software.

Voice software has an important place in today’s warehouse. “It’s passed the test of working in noisy places and with workers having heavily accented speech,” says Ken Finkel, vice president, business development for VoxWare. The company’s new VoxView Management Console lets you configure and see a picking area, whether it’s a U-shape pick, batch pick, consolidation or circular picking. The VoxWare Web-browser lets multiple warehouses be overseen by just one manager. Finkel emphasizes that voice isn’t just for orderpicking anymore. “You see it used effectively in replenishment, too,” offers Finkel.

When it comes to replenishment, Robertson of Knapp Logistics says today’s WMS doesn’t wait for bins to be empty. He says, “No, our WMS looks at all the orders for the day as they are released. It orders replenishment in advance of stockouts by interleaving tasks.”

Major don’ts

WMS vendors warn about the following WMS snafus:

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