To keep pace with e-commerce service levels, many companies are accelerating their transitions from manual to automated order fulfillment processes. Doing this will require the integration of new material handling equipment, processes and distribution software — all of which can seem like daunting prospects to many DC operators. The concept of a warehouse execution system (WES) has advanced significantly in recent years, securing its place among other legacy distribution software as a key enabler of the automation required to succeed in today’s hyper-competitive retail sector.
When we think of warehouse distribution system software, we’re typically referring to one of three common platforms: warehouse management systems (WMS); warehouse control systems (WCS); and most recently, WES. While their specific purposes are sometimes subject to debate, we can look at their traditional roles to better understand how they work together and determine how effective they are in addressing modern fulfillment challenges.
WMS — As the primary means for connecting to Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems, the WMS provides core order fulfillment functions, including: inbound and outbound product flow; inventory tracking and management; order management; and waving. However, the WMS has very limited decision-making capabilities when it comes to the management of fulfillment activities and the dynamic reprioritization of orders and tasks once they are released to the warehouse floor. The WMS provides the financial records of transactions and updates to the ERP whereas the ERP typically handles all necessary sourcing and allocation outside the four walls of a DC to ensure proper order fulfillment.
WCS — The WCS has a much more limited scope of responsibilities, the extent of which is dependent upon the amount of material handling equipment and automation systems present in a warehouse. It provides the machine-level integration that allows material handling equipment to take instructions (data inputs) from other systems — typically the WMS — and performs specific, pre-defined functions (outputs). The WCS lacks the visibility to inventory, orders and people necessary to provide on-demand, decision-making capabilities.
WES — As the most recent distribution software to emerge among these systems, the purpose of the WES is to enable greater degrees of automation, address the need for higher throughput, and provide an effective means for dealing with modern fulfillment challenges — including tighter service level agreements, SKU proliferation and rising order velocities. Unlike the WMS and WCS, the WES connects disparate material handling equipment and automation systems throughout a facility to enable the coordination needed to execute sophisticated automation workflows.
Recent WES offerings have even evolved to provide integrated, machine-level control with varying degrees of automation to address the full spectrum of modern order fulfillment needs, including: AS/RS shuttles and cranes; robotic picking; automatic palletizing and depalletizing equipment.
But what really differentiates the WES from its counterparts are its robust order fulfillment capabilities. By enabling dynamic, real-time decision making for order prioritization and release execution, the WES provides smart workflow allocation based on available capacity in downstream picking zones, or in order consolidation processes like put walls or unit sortation. Simply put, the WES fills the gaps left by the WMS and its inability to integrate with the automation technologies necessary to compete in the fast-paced, high-stakes world of e-commerce.
To learn more about the emerging potential of the WES in DC operations, download our white paper, “Material Handling Automation Driving Wider Adoption of WES.”
My next blog will look at specific instances of how the WES delivers automated throughput and workflow efficiencies in the DC.