Consider a WMS upgrade to improve warehouse efficiency

By James A. Cooke

If your electrical distributorship hasn’t upgraded its warehouse management system (WMS) in the past five years, then it’s worth looking into. Recent developments in this type of software can bring about improved operational efficiencies in the warehouse, justifying the investment.

Traditionally, the WMS managed inventory and oversaw activities like receiving, put-away and picking in the warehouse. Because this type of software typically provides instructions for workers on what to do, it’s critical to a well-run distribution center operation.

In recent years, WMS vendors have added extra features, or modules, to their packages, which were not found in earlier versions of their software. Two features are of particular note. One is dynamic slotting, which allows the WMS to set up new or temporary slots in rack storage for items designated for certain orders or customers. By setting up a temporary slot for items with many picks, it can reduce travel time for order selectors, thus improving operational efficiency.

The other was labor management, which allows a company to measure worker activity on such tasks as put-away and receiving. Because this feature generally sets up activity benchmarks, it makes it possible to evaluate individual worker performance.

Along with additional features, some WMS packages are now designed for easier customization. Typically, a WMS came with built-in rules for how work processes should be performed in a warehouse. If a company wanted to change the rules to match its particular operation, that meant writing custom code. Paying the WMS vendor for customization jacked up the project cost and increased implementation time. Now, however, a few upstart vendors offer applications that take advantage of English-like commands and tables to make rule changes for a specific warehouse operation. For example, if a distributor wants certain types of products placed in specific section of the warehouse, then the put-away rules in the WMS could be changed to accommodate that request.

Finally, electrical distributors now have the option of renting this software rather than buying it. Traditionally, when a company wanted a WMS, it had to purchase a software license and install the software program on its in-house computers. Nowadays a distributorship can take advantage of the “cloud” and access the WMS application online over the Internet. Indeed, several WMS vendors now offer so-called “cloud” versions, thus sparing a user the huge upfront costs for a license and computer equipment as well as the associated expense of integrating the WMS with other software for a smooth data exchange. It should be noted that at the moment cloud-based WMS applications are best suited to non-automated warehouse operations, which do not employ sophisticated material handling equipment such as automated storage and retrieval systems and robotic delivery systems.

In light of all of those changes, it’s very possible that the distributorship can get a payback within two or three years from the latest WMS offerings through warehouse efficiency gains. And if your distributorship is still using spreadsheets to track inventory and direct the warehouse, then it’s high time to consider renting a cloud-based WMS.

James Cooke is the editor of CSCMP’s Supply Chain Quarterly magazine, the premiere journal of global thought leadership for supply chain professionals. He has been writing and reporting on the best practices in supply chains for more than 30 years.

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