Many distribution operations continue to struggle to meet service level requirements within a cost-effective framework. During the past year, pandemic-related disruptions have amplified the challenges behind these struggles, including:
WMS vendors are keenly aware of these challenges and have positioned their solutions as prospective remedies. While core WMS functionalities and features have always been about efficiency and effectiveness, vendors are offering new solutions to help address these challenges, including:
Warehouse execution systems (WES). More WMS vendors are now offering WES products or WES capabilities embedded in their WMS solutions. WES solutions sit between WMS applications and lower-level warehouse control systems responsible for managing material handling equipment like conveyors, robotics and sortation and storage systems. WES platforms help optimize and orchestrate order processing and material flow across an automated distribution center. Traditionally, WES solutions have come from material handling automation providers, but WMS vendors see opportunities and advantages in providing this functionality within their solutions.
Labor planning. Many WMS vendors offer labor management system (LMS) solutions as well as integration capabilities for LMS solutions from other vendors. These solutions offer a platform for measuring individual employee performance against defined standards. While complementary, labor planning provides a different value proposition. It allows operations to plan labor requirements against workload over time and redirect scarce resources to the areas they are most needed.
Autonomous operations and predictive analysis. These features can also be categorized as artificial intelligence or machine learning capabilities. WMS applications generally require user interaction to monitor and release work. Autonomous operations features support lights-out operations. They include waveless order processing and continuous task and allocation optimization. These capabilities go hand-in-hand with predictive analysis features that sense, adapt and respond to real-time conditions on the warehouse floor.
Automated picking and packing devices. Some WMS vendors have started offering hardware-based solutions that traditionally have been the province of material handling automation vendors and integrations. These include autonomous mobile robots, smart pick carts and pick-to-light and put-to-light solutions. These solutions must be gauged against their ability to meet specific customer needs. This is especially true when comparing them to more mature solutions from WES and material handling automation vendors. A more robust and adaptable WES coupled with a lighter WMS solution may be a better fit for some operations.
The key challenges behind distribution operations increasing focus on material handling automation, robotics and machine learning are likely to intensify. Consequently, many WMS vendors that target medium to complex operations will continue to develop, embed and build out solutions that directly address these needs. This will be as much a key component of their go-to-market strategy as pursuit of specific opportunities.
Tom Singer is project manager at Tompkins Solutions.
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