Optimizing warehouse logistics is imperative for any company, large or small, which aims to maintain high levels of competitiveness and efficiency. The system must work smoothly and be fluid, resilient, able to meet business needs that derive from the needs of increasingly demanding customers and markets.
Meeting this imperative today would be impossible without a Warehouse Management System (WMS), a warehouse management software able to adapting to specific needs and ensuring the perfect functioning of the logistics chain.
Warehouse Management System: what it is, and what it is used for
A Warehouse Management System can support the company in all phases of organization, coordination and control of movements and logistical processes.
The WMS software is based on a client-server or web-server type architecture, in the most recent solutions. It has to integrate both with the ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) system, which manages the administrative part, and with any other software used in automatic storage and handling systems inside the warehouse. A particularly efficient solution is the one in which WMS is also able to control the automation at a low level. This allows improving the functioning and capacity of the system.
The Warehouse Management System serves to optimize the activity of all the resources in the warehouse: goods, people and vehicles. From product tracking, which identifies the best location for storage, to picking functions, from inventory control and the automation of goods receipt to the management of shipments and carrier tracking.
The functions performed by a good WMS are different and adaptable to specific needs. We may say it is the arm and the mind of the warehouse itself.
Among the main activities that can be carried out or simplified by the use of a Warehouse Management System we may find:
• Identification: each item entering the warehouse is identified by reading a barcode or RFID tag (Radio Frequency Identification). The WMS automatically receives and updates the information in the database.
• Picking: the presence of a WMS allows to automatically or semi-automatically manage the picking activity from the warehouse shelves. For each item picked, the barcode is read and the information gets updated in real-time.
• Inventory management, stocks and reorders: the Warehouse Management System contains all information relating to warehouse stocks, monitors the minimum stock thresholds and allows the automation of the order of products.
• Allocation: The WMS can define and recommend the best location for allocating items, packages or pallets, taking into account the needs of the warehouse itself.
• Rotation and handling: using a warehouse management software allows optimizing the handling time of the goods, responding to the needs of efficiency, time-saving and standardization of handling, according to specific needs. It also allows the traceability of batches and to record expiration, shelf life and serial number.
• Inventory: the WMS also constitutes the warehouse database, therefore, during the inventory phase, it is sufficient to recall all the information necessary to obtain clear and complete documents, based on real-time data. However, there should be no confusion between IMS (Inventory Management System) and WMS. The former can be part of the latter, but not the other way around.
• Reports and Warehouse Analytics: the large amount of data contained in the WMS makes it possible to process reports and dashboards, which analyze and evaluate the degree of efficiency of the warehouse, providing a clear overview, which facilitates any improvements.
• Staff Management: personnel management can be considered one of the primary activities of the WMS since it is one of the factors that most influence the management costs of a warehouse. The WMS allows to monitor and verify personnel management, ensuring a more complete view of employee performance.
7 benefits in using a WMS
Having a WMS brings advantages to the company that, already in the short term, significantly affect the efficiency of warehouse flows and processes, whether it is a traditional warehouse, an automatic warehouse or 4.0.
To summarize, we can identify 7 benefits associated with the introduction of a Warehouse Management System. A WMS, in fact, allows you to:
1. Increase productivity
2. Reduce order fulfillment times
3. Reduce errors
4. Reduce the environmental impact
5. Optimize freight handling costs
6. Optimize the management of spaces
7. Automate reporting
On the other hand, there are mainly three elements to discourage the introduction of warehouse software:
1. The costs of purchasing, especially for small companies and in case of need of buying several licenses. However, it is good to keep in mind that the costs are mitigated by the offers in Cloud or SaaS.
2. The cost of customization (in cases where the customer's needs are so specific that they are not covered by a market WMS).
3. The implementation times - when considered too long.
The characteristics of a good WMS
Fewer errors, more efficiency, faster picking and storage operations, maximum traceability, flexibility. These are the benefits and the characteristics of a good WMS, which is crucial for warehouse logistics.
The best WMS is the one that meets the specific needs of the company and is suitable for covering the typical needs of the sector in which it operates.
There are, however, some transversal characteristics, which, regardless of the type of warehouse, have to be present:
• Interaction ability: the system must be able to "talk" with all the different technologies (Wi-Fi, RTLS, Bluetooth, etc.) and the devices used for data acquisition (terminals, barcode scanners, RFID, etc).
• Flexibility: it must be possible to update the WMS, add or remove modules according to the evolution of needs related to its use.
• Integration capabilities: a good WMS must be able to integrate with systems and tools already in stock or that could be in the future.
• Minimum customization: a truly “complete” WMS has the ability to satisfy the needs of different customers and, therefore, commercial categories, without the need to develop ad hoc functions, but through its own standard version.
In addition to the basic functions, a good WMS offers the possibility of integrating or choosing different modules, which respond to different needs, deriving from the type of warehouse: traditional, automatic or hybrid.
Among these, the most important are:
Pick to Light
Pick to Light allows warehouse operators to work hands-free, without the use of paper support or tablets. A light signal guides the operator in all phases, from picking up the goods to fanning. It is also available in a wireless version and integrates with various software and systems.
Voice Picking is a technology that uses speech synthesis devices to send voice commands to the picker, equipped with headphones and a microphone. The system is capable of providing instructions and understanding voice commands. It allows operators to work hands-free.
Automatic Picking involves the automation, through the use of anthropomorphic robots, of picking activities, according to business needs. This module allows you to reduce costs and optimize processes, relieving employees from heavy and repetitive tasks, subject to error. It can concern the picking of pallets, single and layered packages, allows better stock management and the exploit of the warehouse space in terms of height.
The RTLS (Real-Time Locating System) allows you to locate, at any time, pallets and forklifts through georeferenced indoor or outdoor coordinates, in real-time. Without the need for additional operations, it is possible to memorize the storage coordinates of each pallet, avoiding the reading of the barcodes, to always be updated on the state of stock and to view the map of the warehouse in 3D graphics.
Integration with shipping systems
The transition from warehouse to shipment is very delicate, which is why a module dedicated to creating a connection between the warehouse management system and the different carrier systems can make the difference. This specific module usually acts as a bridge between the two actors and guarantees efficiency and clarity in the passage of information. Also, this often involves the production and printing of the waybill and the monitoring of the various statuses of the shipment.
How to choose the WMS that best suits your needs
It is clear how a WMS is crucial for logistics, especially for its ability to optimize warehouse functions that would otherwise be very slow, subject to error and alienating for the insiders. How do you choose the WMS that best suits your needs?
There seem to be no substantial differences between the various WMS options, especially between those that already meet the characteristics that a good warehouse management software should have, listed above. Given then good levels of integration, interaction, flexibility and completeness, what actually makes the difference in the choice of management software, is the degree of awareness of the company about its needs and the partner/supplier to whom it relies on for their system implementation.
To choose the right WMS, the company must start with:
• Getting a good awareness of its needs
• Getting clearness about the level of customization needed
• Deciding whether it will need automation and to what extent, now or in the future
• Having a clear idea of the characteristics of the software on the market
• Choosing a supplier based on previous experience and the level of reliability
• Evaluating the costs.
When it comes to Warehouse Management Systems, it is clear that, even if there is no universal WMS suitable for every warehouse, every warehouse needs a specific one. A Warehouse Management System is vital for the smooth functioning of the entire company and, precisely for this reason, it cannot be entrusted to random providers.
The choice of the right partner is key. It is not just about the simple provision of a service, but it's a real sharing of a project. The success of it depends not only on the skills of the team involved in purely technical activities but also - and above all - on the partner's ability to support its customer, from the needs analysis to any future software updates.
The relationship between partner and customer, therefore, is continuous and the former, after the initial implementation phase, continues to follow the evolution of the warehouse, the company and its needs.