Evaluating warehouse management system (WMS) vendors and software

Warehouse management system (WMS) software comes in many flavors. Here are tips for finding the right kind for your needs, narrowing down the WMS vendor list, and asking the right questions.

Selecting a warehouse management system (WMS) vendor is an important decision for any manufacturer. WMS software is a major cog in most supply chains, but it's just one part of a complex, interconnected system. The first step in evaluating WMS vendors is to understand the varieties of WMSs and how they differ from such related tools as inventory management software.

WMS software is sold either as a standalone application or an optional module in a suite from a major ERP vendor such as Oracle or SAP. Standalone products, in contrast, are often called "best of breed," according to Steve Banker, service director for supply chain management at ARC Advisory Group.

Some best-of-breed players include High Jump, Manhattan Associates and Red Prairie, while Infor is a hybrid ERP and best-of-breed vendor. Banker noted that while most WMSs are rule-based, a few of the independent vendors -- specifically, High Jump and Sterling Commerce -- also sell a more flexible kind that applies business process management (BPM) logic to warehouses.

Although inventory management software handles one of the primary tasks of a WMS, it is more narrowly focused. It is also more of a planning tool and doesn't provide the live, real-time monitoring of a WMS, Banker said. ERP suites have long had inventory management tools, but ERP companies have moved their inventory logic into a WMS, or purchased one.

Manufacturing v. retail WMS software

Some WMS software packages are more oriented to either manufacturing or retail warehouses. ERP-based WMS tends to go into warehouses attached to factories, according to Banker. Large distribution centers, in contrast, handle finished goods and are typically best served by best-of-breed WMS.

Still, in this article on ARC Advisory Group's blog, Logistics Viewpoints, Banker writes that simple distinctions have started to blur as WMS heavyweights like Manhattan have added ERP-like human-resource features, and Oracle, for example, sells its WMS to aerospace customers who like its integration with Oracle's enterprise asset management module.

The most highly automated facilities also have a warehouse control system (WCS) that controls conveyor belts, carousels, and other materials-handling systems. It's important to pick a WMS that can integrate with your WCS at both the technical and process level, Banker said.

"The WMS is sort of the order logic," he said. "They know that this customer has an order, they know the SKUs. The WCS is more the move logic."

Selecting a WMS vendor

Once you've narrowed your focus to vendors that sell the right kind of WMS, the usual advice applies: Look for those that seem financially viable (and therefore likely to be in for the long haul), have recently invested in their software, offer strong consulting services, and are experienced in your industry.

Other tips from WMS software analysts and consultants:

  • Ask how easy it is to add optional modules, such as yard management and slotting optimization, as your needs grow.
  • Beware of lowball software pricing. It can mask higher overall costs for implementation, training, customization, and maintenance.
  • Scrutinize the thoroughness of the integration between WMS modules and the vendor's other offerings. Some WMS software that came into the portfolio through acquisition is not as well-integrated as software developed in-house. Asking about a WMS's history can smoke out a legacy product that could soon be discontinued and replaced by the vendor's own brand.
  • Ask for references to customers with similar needs as yours and talk to them.

About the author:
Freelancer David Essex has covered information technology for BYTE, Computerworld, PC World, and numerous other publications and web sites.

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