Day 3 at Modex

WMS makes its case in a waveless world.

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Reporters love catchy phrases – especially when someone comes up with a very clever way of nailing a thing. Years ago, I was interviewing an elderly patrician Yankee who lived in one of those huge, glorious mansions on the waterfront in Newport, Rhode Island. Along with inheriting a fortune that reached back to the Mayflower, he’d had a distinguished career in business and public service, having been an ambassador during the Reagan Administration. I asked him what it was like living in a house with more bathrooms than my home has rooms. His answer: “There’s room enough to swing a dead cat.”

My favorite quote from the MODEX show is a phrase I heard at Dematic’s press conference to describe the pressure that retailers and industrial distributors are facing in the new world of next- and same-day delivery: The tyranny of now.

Over the last few years, the systems integration and consultants in our industry have been responding to the tyranny of now with a new layer of software that Forte coined as a warehouse execution system, or WES. It’s a solution that sits in that space between the WMS that is receiving orders from an ERP system and managing inventory and the back-end processes of packing and sorting to the shipping dock.

WES has been a very hot topic in the industry for several years now and for a time the WMS industry was back on its heels. That is especially true as the systems integrators have talked about the concept of waveless picking: Rather than batching and releasing work to the floor, orders are prioritized and released into the flow as they are received. That would seem to leave WMS out of the part. Yesterday, I had conversations with a representative from both camps – Intelligrated representing the WES space and Manhattan Associates making its case for WMS. What was most interesting is that in some sense, they see the same problem but come at it with a different solution.

Adam Kline, a director of product marketing for Manhattan, took exception with the notion of waveless picking and argued that WMS still has analytical capabilities that he believes WES does not to make decisions around whether an order can be cross-docked, can it be sourced from another area or does it need to be released now based on the customer service level agreement. Instead of waveless, he defines it as a “friction-less flow” of work or “order streaming.” The WMS is looking at orders in real-time as they come in, but is still optimizing work based on configurable rules and optimizing how they’re released to the floor. “Why get rid of the wave if you can re-use it to optimize the flow,” he argued.  With regard to this larger issue of WMS versus WES, he said, “there is going to be some redundancy between what we offer and the WES offers.” In the end, he argued, the customer will decide.

I went directly from Manhattan to talk to several executives at Intelligrated, including Kevin Roach, the executive vice president of Intelligrated’s software division. He made the case for WES by arguing that it has a view of the work flow that the WMS does not have, which is what’s happening across the automated equipment and the work stations on the shop floor – the people, inventory and processes that affect the flow – at a level not visible to the WMS. “The WES can wait until the last minute to assign a task based on what is happening in real time,” he said. If you liken a warehouse to a city street, the flow of traffic is controlled by stop lights and stop signs because so much is variable. There has to be a braking mechanism. “We think that with a WES, we can eliminate stop signs for a constant flow,” Roach said. “You can’t do that unless you know where ever box is, where it needs to go and how it will get there.”

Those were the points where they diverged. Of interest to me was that Roach and Kline converged on two points: As the WES moves into WMS territory and the WMS moves down into WES, there are redundancies – areas where the circles of who does what intersect. They also agreed that it’s a coin toss as to who will win control of the system. “Those that have the data will win the day,” Roach said.  “In the end, the customer will decide.” 


About the Author

Bob Trebilcock
Bob Trebilcock, editorial director, has covered materials handling, technology, logistics and supply chain topics for nearly 30 years. In addition to Supply Chain Management Review, he is also Executive Editor of Modern Materials Handling. A graduate of Bowling Green State University, Trebilcock lives in Keene, NH. He can be reached at 603-357-0484.

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