More and more companies begin with e-commerce and implement omnichannel in order to be competitive. This increases the cost of both warehouse logistics and distribution significantly, mainly due to the increased amount of orders with low amounts of orderliness and often low value. With increased costs, it is suddenly much easier to make an ROI calculation that works for investment in automation.
However, like everything else, nothing is black and white and there are no easy answers when it comes to automation. The first thing is to choose the hardware solution, but in my opinion even more important is to choose what software you should use to control the hardware. I will not go into any details because each project is unique and has different possibilities and difficulties. I address the general aspects regarding what to consider when choosing software to control warehouse and automation.
Warehouse management AND/ OR control AND/OR execution systems?
Warehouse management systems (WMS) and Warehouse control systems (WCS) have often been complementary systems with adjacent and sometimes overlapping functionality sets. On top of this, we also have a warehouse execution system (WES). WES emerged as a hybrid system that combined specific WMS functionality with Warehouse Control System (WCS) functionality for automated warehouses. WES also tends to be more “productized” than WCS, more WMS-type features are fully developed and often come as standard.
1. How high the level of automation is going to be?
One very important thing you need to think about is how high do you intend to have the level of automation t in the warehouse? How many manual operations will you still have in the warehouse and the number of labour costs you still have in the manual warehouse? A big mistake many companies make in my opinion is to forget the manual operations and only focus on the new automation. When they invest in automation they choose the software for the automation vendor propose without any thorough research. The argument is often that the supplier of automation claims that their software is tailored for their hardware and most optimal.
I know it is tempting to use the WCS from the automation vendor, they often have WMS modules to control the manual parts of operations. But it is important to understand that their core business is automation and most of the resources are used for automation. In my experience, there is a huge difference between an established WMS and a WMS module from an automation vendor. Risk is what you win in automation but you lose in your manual warehouse because it lacks the flexibility and features an established WMS has.
2. How many systems to apply?
It is important to see the big picture. It is never optimal to have too many systems like for example ERP, WMS, WCS and/or WES. It is a complex solution, of course, it is not impossible to make it work and connect all these systems, but it is a big risk as you can’t use all of the features in some of the systems and more importantly it is a great risk as the future upgrades will be complex and expensive. It is also a risk that you cannot take advantage of all the new features in future upgrades because the different vendors of your systems do not collaborate with each other and probably have different agendas for the future.
WMS vendors making their systems more adaptable to e-commerce fulfilment requirements by enabling waveless order processing. For example, developing order-streaming capabilities that allow users to set the cadence of orders released to the floor according to fulfilment priorities and available capacities. Similarly, several WMS vendors are developing machine-learning capabilities to enhance its ability to intelligently process orders in a waveless environment and optimize slotting features.
I do not say it is wrong to use automation vendors WCS or maybe third party software, but my advice is to make a thorough research of relevant opportunities and a list of your company’s current needs and possible future needs as well as comparing the systems different and unique features.
Another advice is to talk with colleagues in the business who have made the same trip and discuss with WMS and automation providers. Many WMS vendors have close collaborations with WCS vendors and sometimes they have their own WCS modules. In this way, you don’t risk losing any possible synergy effects between the manual warehouse and the automation. And you are not taking the risk that you will have features in upgrades you can’t use.
Even if you use third-party consultants, it is important you have some in-house competence employees who can be a part of the project and can communicate your company’s needs and expectations, also have some knowledge in both WMS and automation in order to find the best solution.
3. Do not forget the manual warehouse.
In most of the automated warehouses, you still have manual departments who often require the biggest part of the total labour costs and have the most complex flow. Do not invest in software that cannot handle these tasks in a proper way.
Roberth Karlsson is a logistics expert and the author of roblogistic.com.