It's easy to be amazed by warehouse management systems—both by their technological progress and their lack of it. For pure warehousing and distribution, managers have a wealth of WMS choices and they don't all have to be from the pricier Tier 1 shelf, either.
As Ian Hobkirk, of Commonwealth Supply Chain Advisors, notes in his recent blog titled “Do I really need a Tier 1 WMS?,” features which were previously unavailable in mid-tier WMS are now solidly within these providers' offerings. Plus, the software as a service (SaaS) trend is helping users avoid upfront licensing fees, enabling them to pay a monthly usage fee for access to these advanced features. That's why Hobkirk believes WMS shopping is a lot easier than it used to be.
“The relatively large number of providers and lack of consolidation in the vendor community in the last five years gives companies a wide selection of choices that they should take full advantage of,” he writes.
However, when I was researching the story on veterinary medical supplier IDEXX Laboratories for our July issue, I talked to them about their experience with finding a way for their WMS to mesh with their complex manufacturing processes. At its Memphis DC, temperature-sensitive products fall under three categories of delivery: frozen (next day), refrigerated (two days), and ambient (could be three days or more). Three temperature ranges often meant three different packages going to a customer for a single order because the company's SAP Extended Warehouse Management module identified everything as a separate shipment. That meant as orders crossed these different zones out of production and into distribution, they were picked, packed and shipped separately and time-strapped veterinary offices had to accept multiple shipments instead of one consolidated order.
My point here is that as advanced as WMS systems are today, sometimes they still need the help of engineering and a good warehouse control system (WCS) to handle such manufacturing process complexity. In this case IDEXX uses Forte's Automation Director.
What else makes IDEXX's application so complex, besides the different temperature environments, is that some of the components that go into their finished goods have to be tracked by lot, batch and serial number. This information chain must stay intact from manufacturing, through distribution and all the way to the end customer.
“A lot of design work went into marrying the complexity on the manufacturing side to the distribution process,” said Bill Tyng, principle consultant at Forte. “The WCS allows us to move an order with components from each of the different temperature areas systematically through the process so when it gets to the packing area you can pack stuff into one shipping carton.”
And here's another important aspect of WMS implementation: the IDEXX IT staff played a critical role in helping the Forte team marry the WMS to their WCS. Order information is now routed through the WMS and the WCS controls how totes are routed through these different processes.
Yes, WMS has come a long way in terms of capabilities. But sometimes the most important feature of a WMS implementation isn't in the package but in your people.