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WMS takes on automation orchestration

Warehouse management systems have been used for decades to manage processes carried out by people and lift trucks, while warehouse control systems governed automation. Now, some WMS suppliers are taking on more WCS-based visibility and business logic in areas like order releasing. Find out why this matters to e-commerce intensive operations and why orchestrating automated zones with people-focused processes is next for WMS.

By ·
By ·

Warehouses and distribution centers (DCs) are struggling to keep up with the pace of e-commerce fulfillment with its short order cycles times and labor-intensive piece picking. This pressure combined with the challenge of finding enough warehouse labor is leading many DCs to turn to automation like put walls, pick-to-light systems, shuttles and sortation to get the right goods out to customers on time.

These industry shifts are making optimal use of automation more central to successful operations, and warehouse management system (WMS) providers are taking notice. Recently, more WMS vendors are incorporating warehouse control system (WCS) capabilities into their solutions. That’s a change for WMS suppliers whose solutions have traditionally focused more on inventory control, as well as directing people in picking and other work activities, says Dwight Klappich, a research vice president with analyst firm Gartner.

“If you look at most WMS solutions, they are principally designed for people-driven processes,” Klappich says. “And, over time, capabilities have been added [in WMS] to make humans more effective—with functions like wave planning or task interleaving. Now, there is a realization that how we can make work more effective in an automated world is going to require some rethinking.”

This rethinking by WMS vendors is resulting in more attention to WCS functionality. In some cases, vendors have added order-releasing logic that builds on WCS-based automation visibility, while in other cases, WMS vendors offer WCS.

According to the MHI 2018 Industry Report survey, adoption of robotics and automation is currently at 34%, but adoption is predicted to reach 53% in two years, and 73% within five years.

WCS solutions emerged in part so transactional systems like WMS or warehouse management modules of enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems could communicate to one middleware layer rather than having to interface directly to control systems for individual pieces of automation. Most WMS vendors, however, did not write their own WCS, but rather integrated to WCS from warehouse automation equipment providers or integrators who offer WCS.

WCS/WES on tap

But with more warehouses adding automation, and e-commerce pressures on the rise, this is elevating the need for WMS solutions that can make decisions based on real-time automation status. Of course, WCS providers aren’t standing still either. Several have gravitated upward toward WMS-level functions like order releasing, evolving some WCS solutions into a category known as warehouse execution system (WES) solutions.

Right in the middle of this WMS/WCS confluence is the need to govern order releasing and drive a productive pace of work across all zones of automation, so the systems in a warehouse work cohesively. “The need is to look at everything as an entire system so that you don’t release too many picks into the system because it might flood the put wall toward the end of the operation,” says Klappich. “There is more attention on how to optimally release work into the overall system so it just continuously flows through, and that’s where WMS solutions are getting away from more purely people-driven processes.”

Sean Elliott, chief technology officer of HighJump Software, a WMS vendor that is adding WCS-based capabilities, agrees that WMS-level decisions increasingly need to be cognizant of what is currently happening within all automated zones. “A WMS’s strengths around planning, execution and warehouse processes is made more intelligent when you have better data from that automation layer,” says Elliott.

In HighJump’s case, the WCS capability is derived from an established WCS from sister company Inconso, also part of Körber Group, that HighJump has linked to WMS functions. Earlier this year, HighJump announced it would be leveraging that WCS as the basis for “automation aware” features within its WMS solution. According to Elliott, those features are well under development, with beta customers being identified and the first implementation to be underway by the fourth quarter of 2018.

The features revolve around automation-aware order releasing as well as routing and work segmentation decisions within the WMS, says Elliott. Beyond just surfacing WCS-based visibility within WMS, it really uses that visibility to change the way the WMS does order releasing, arranges routing and work segmentation. “It allows us to extend our value proposition by taking better advantage of that real-time view into automation capacity and route decision making, in effect pulling that visibility up into WMS to improve allocation and waving,” he says.

Another best-of-breed WMS provider pursuing WCS/WES functionality is Manhattan Associates. In May, the company announced WES capabilities would be in its latest WMS release, building on “Order Streaming” functionality it has offered for a couple of years. Manhattan’s Order Streaming is a way of handling order releasing for better single order throughput and to accommodate insertion of priority items into a concurrent picking session.

According to Adam Kline, senior director of product management for Manhattan, the WES capabilities are focused on the orchestration of automation with WMS processes. A site using Manhattan’s latest WMS could retain existing WCS or other control systems to govern physical movement of automated equipment, but the WES capability would tap automation visibility to help improve WMS decisions.

“We’ve taken WMS and built warehouse execution capabilities directly inside,” Kline says. “That provides the system with a much more real-time view of capacity to allow it to make decisions that drive high utilization. So, for example, the system knows not to assign more work to [equipment] that is close to being overwhelmed with work, while making sure it isn’t overlooking assignments to resources that may be close to being under-utilized.”

Kline says that while the initial approach with order streaming was to use an approximation of a site’s automation capacity to figure out how to release work, now with WES visibility built into the WMS, the order-streaming algorithm has real-time knowledge of available capacity to make decisions to keep work steady and productive.

Real-time location solutions could help WMS

The trusty bar code has done much to improve inventory control in warehouses and support warehouse management system (WMS) workflows, but now real-time location solutions can bring real-time visibility to assets or even people in a warehouse, says Mark Wheeler, Zebra Technologies’ director of supply chain solutions.

Zebra, known for rugged mobile computer and bar code printers, also offers locations solutions that work with multiple edge technologies including radio frequency identification (RFID) and ultra-wide band (UWB) devices. In June, Zebra announced a portfolio of its MotionWorks location solutions that could in some instances be used to feed better information to WMS solutions, says Wheeler.

“Most warehouse management solutions, if well implemented, are pretty highly structured and can do a good job of optimizing workflow, but they do have limitations,” Wheeler says. “Their visibility to operations is usually transactional. Generally, a WMS knows where a material movement starts and where it stops, but it doesn’t have constant visibility into the paths being taken, dwell times or congestion issues that you can get with real-time location solutions.”

Under MotionWorks, Zebra now offers three solutions: the MotionWorks Asset solution, the MotionWorks Material solution, and the MotionWorks Yard solution. The materials solution, says Wheeler, is focused on real-time management of materials in factories, while the yard solution is a yard management system with real-time location visibility.


The asset solution is probably the one most likely to be used within a warehouse, where it could be used to track assets like lift trucks, other vehicles or equipment, returnable transport items (i.e. containers like pallets, kegs or bins that need to be returned to a supplier or service provider), or even people. If people were to be tracked, the solution could do that with technology added to an employee badge, says Wheeler.

The yard solution might not physically track assets within a warehouse, explains Wheeler, but its real-time control over yard activities would have a beneficial spillover on WMS processes. “The information from a yard solution can integrate with WMS, and that visibility can certainly help in areas like workload planning for the docks,” Wheeler says.

Powered by Savanna, Zebra’s data intelligence platform, MotionWorks can integrate edge data from multiple sources, including UWB, passive RFID tags, Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) beacons and cameras. “We’re agnostic on the source of the edge information,” says Wheeler. “It’s important to maintain that independence because different physical environments and operational challenges may point you to one technology over another.”

“The system knows at any given time if a sorter chute has just cleared, for instance, creating more capacity to allow more assignments to that unit sorter,” Kline says. “Or, if a cubby has just been cleared on a put wall, there is more capacity the algorithm can now assign work to.”

Under the latest WMS release, adds Kline, order streaming techniques become the default “engine” for order releasing. Early in the morning, the engine can group work for efficiency, but as the shift continues and carrier pick-up times approach, the engine automatically adjusts so hot orders get shipped on time. “This is no longer just a rules-based push of work onto the floor; it’s an optimization engine,” Kline says.

Multiple providers

Many vendors are involved in the evolution in the blending of WMS and WCS software. While some WMS providers are only recently adding WCS/WES functions, other players have been at this combination for years. These include automation integrators that have evolved their WCS solutions into the WES arena, as well as major warehouse automation equipment vendors that have made software acquisitions.

Some WMS providers have roots in Europe and offer both WMS and WCS. Vendors such as Consafe Logistics, Ehrhardt + Partner Group (EPG), and SSI Schaefer are among the vendors blending WMS with WCS. Indeed, the complete list of vendors who can lay claim to being in the WES market is quite long, with some coming at it from WMS roots, while others come at WES more from roots as automated equipment providers or integrators.

According to Cory Jines, vice president of North America Services for EPG, a software provider that offers integrated WMS/WCS, when a vendor’s WMS truly blends with WCS, the combined solution drives decisions at the WMS level. “When you have a solution in which WCS and WMS really work together, that’s what becomes WES,” Jines says. “And now you have these WES capabilities in effect thinking for the system, so the warehouse can automatically adapt for issues like seasonality.”

Jines agrees that the smarter order releasing that accounts for the real-time utilization and material flow of automated systems is a hallmark of a WMS with embedded WCS. However, he adds, the real endgame is e-commerce or rush order fulfillment, so WMS/WES solutions should have workflows and processes that make smart adjustments when it comes to outbound logistics processes.

“From the point of view of the operations team, when you say ‘order releasing,’ what they’re most interested in is how that releasing is going to help them when it comes to labor resource management and carrier planning,” says Jines. “When you have WCS combined with WMS, now you have better forecasting for your labor resources, and you are more precise in how you can manage your dock availability and turn times at the docks because you are able to narrow your windows in the warehouse.”

Sensors and AI

At EVS, a Cloud-based WMS vendor, a core strategy for the company is to provide simplified integration to various applications including ERP systems, transportation management system (TMS) solutions, labor management systems (LMS), or specific equipment or controllers on industrial networks. To this end, EVS has partnered with integration middleware company MuleSoft to streamline integration to ERP and TMS.

In keeping with this integration-friendly approach, says Evan Garber, CEO of EVS, it isn’t developing embedded WCS features, but does place attention to simplified integration to WCS or to specific automated equipment. “There are many cases where you might want to integrate WMS to industrial machinery. With print and apply stations, for instance, every time a label gets applied, you know an item or case is ready for the next step, so integration between a print and apply station and WMS automatically lets the WMS know that,” Garber says.

Another front EVS sees for integration is data from handheld devices used in the warehouse. EVS’s WMS solution runs on IOS devices such as iPads or iPhones, and the positioning sensors in these devices can be tapped for geofencing and location-related information, explains Garber. EVS is working with this positioning data to enhance system security, so the system can’t be used outside the building, and in applying predictive analytics to the data stream. The analytics show ways to enhance WMS processes like dynamic slotting or picking management and optimal routes.

“An IOS device like an iPhone can act like a big sensor,” says Garber. “You are able to measure where people are, and where they’ve moved. It’s not transactional data, but rather, interesting and potentially useful data that surrounds the transactions.”

Garber says EVS is in research and development on how to glean specific insights from sensor data, but adds he’s confident this type of analytics will be important to future improvements in WMS. “At its most basic level, sensor data and analytics are like a learning engine that can discover insights that you just couldn’t hard code into a system,” he says.

Kline says Manhattan is also starting to apply machine-learning algorithms to how WMS handles order releasing. Machine learning, he says, can quickly predict how long “draft tasks” might take and use those insights to drive better order releasing. The machine learning, says Kline, will be fed by WES-level visibility into the automation, and also might assess historical data on how long similar tasks have taken.

Klappich points out that, generally, this blending of WCS and WMS is mainly geared for DCs with high-velocity fulfillment demands and multiple automated systems. The growth of relatively low-cost robotics might broaden this need for an automation savvy WMS, but for now, he adds, “the key to this [trend] is that it is really for highly automated facilities.”

For WMS vendors making the foray into WES, however, the new capabilities are changing up the WMS value proposition. As HighJump’s Elliott says, “With WMS, we can make really good decisions about human activity in the warehouse, and with WCS we can make really good machine-level decisions. And now with the interplay between the two, we can make the best facility decisions that fully leverage capacity to better service the customer.”

Companies mentioned in this article:

Ehrhardt + Partner Group (EPG)
Manhattan Associates
Zebra Technologies

About the Author

Roberto Michel
Roberto Michel, an editor at large for Modern Materials Handling (MMH), has covered manufacturing and supply chain management trends since 1996, mainly as a former staff editor and former contributor at Manufacturing Business Technology. He has been a contributor to MMH since 2004. He has worked on numerous show dailies, including at ProMat, the North American Material Handling Logistics show, and National Manufacturing Week. He can be reached at [email protected]

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