What system should control your warehouse automation?

More and more companies begin with e-commerce and implement omni-channel in order to be competitive. This increases the cost of both warehouse logistics and distribution significantly. Mainly due to increased amount of orders with low amounts of orderlines 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 is no easy answers when it comes to automation. 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 general aspects regarding things to consider when choosing software to control warehouse and automation.

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 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.

One very important thing you need to think about is how high level of automation you intend to have in the warehouse. How much manual operations will you still have in the warehouse and how much labor costs do you still have in the manual warehouse? A big mistake many companies do 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 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 is used for automation. In my experience, there is a huge difference between an established WMS and a WMS module from an automation vendor. A risk is what you win in automation you lose in your manual warehouse because it lacks flexibility and features an established WMS have.

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 that you can’t use all of the features in some of the systems and more important it is a great risk the future upgrades will be complex and expensive. It is also a risk 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 fulfillment requirements by enabling waveless order processing. For example, developing order-streaming capabilities that allows users to set the cadence of orders released to the floor according to fulfillment priorities and available capacities. Similarly, several WMS vendors is 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 done 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 to lose any possible synergy effects between manual warehouse and the automation.And you don’t risk 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 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.

Do not forget the manual warehouse, in most of the automated warehouses you still have manual departments who often requires the biggest part of the total labor costs and have the most complex flow. Do not invest in a software who cannot handle these tasks in a proper way.

Roberth Karlsson

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