A Warehouse Management System (WMS) helps optimize operations at a warehouse or distribution center. It can track the storage and movement of inventory in real-time. It reduces errors, improve efficiencies, and increases productivity overall. To deliver real-world benefits like these, a WMS must be integrated with other software and equipment systems.
Given the complexity of modern warehouse and distribution environments, the process of integrating a WMS with other systems has become somewhat confusing and time-consuming. To help, this post explains everything you need to know to get started with WMS integration, including:
● The definition of WMS integration
● The trends driving WMS integration
● The 5 key considerations for WMS integration to an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system
● Additional considerations for integration to a Warehouse Control System (WCS)
● Integrating directly to vertical lift modules (VLM), horizontal and vertical carousels, automated storage and retrieval systems (ASRS), or other peripherals
Done right, WMS integration offers the advantage of combining best-of-breed software and equipment from different suppliers to create one comprehensive implementation. A single, integrated solution is the most effective way to respond to today’s unprecedented supply chain challenges.
The definition of WMS integration
In the context of WMS integration, the term integration means communication among different types of systems, such as software applications, hardware controls, and various peripherals.
The integration that happens with a warehouse management system uses a defined language and a specific set of questions and answers. These questions and answers are expected and understood by all the involved components.
What are the trends driving WMS integration?
Multiple factors are driving warehouse managers to consider WMS integration. The most significant trends driving WMS integration are:
1. Accelerated e-commerce growth
2. Shortage of warehouse and distribution space
3. Ongoing labor concerns
Accelerated e-commerce growth
Before the COVID pandemic, e-commerce was growing incrementally, and relatively modestly, year after year. But recently, consumer preference for online shopping has skyrocketed across all sectors. This has created a variety of extraordinary demands throughout global supply chains.
Shortage of warehouse and distribution space
Accelerated e-commerce growth has caused demand for warehouse and distribution space to significantly outpace supply. Before the COVID pandemic, 35% of warehouse, distribution, or retail space was leased for e-commerce. Now, more than 50% is dedicated solely to e-commerce and analysts are estimating that another billion square feet of warehouse space will be needed by 2025.
Warehouse and distribution center managers are looking for ways to make better use of the space that they are currently using. They are changing layouts to increase storage density, implementing goods-to-person technologies (i.e., robots, AMRs, ASRS), or optimizing systems with WMS integration.
Ongoing labor concerns
Over the past few years, warehouse and distribution center managers have been struggling to attract and retain workers. The labor market was already tight. Its suffering additional squeeze from health and safety concerns related to COVID, as well as competition from retail and distribution giant Amazon. Warehouse managers are turning to automation as a way to reduce labor costs, minimize training time, improve job satisfaction, and increase productivity.
The key considerations for WMS integration
Integrating a WMS with other systems can enhance operational accuracies and productivity while at the same time lowering overall labor costs. The impact of those improvements can be quite substantial, particularly in e-commerce. Customer demand is high and customers have a very low tolerance for errors. To ensure your WMS integration is successful, be sure to:
1. Understand the differences between an ERP, WMS, and WCS
2. Determine the process and data flow for the specific business operation
3. Think proactively about long-term business objectives
4. Identify touch points between the WMS and ERP systems
5. Define the methods of integration
Understanding the differences between an ERP, WMS, and WCS
Before beginning a WMS integration, it is important to fully understand the different software and equipment systems involved. A WMS integration typically includes an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, a warehouse management system (WMS), and possibly a warehouse control system (WCS).
What is an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system?
An enterprise resource planning (ERP) system is designed to manage processes across the entire business, including financials, forecasting, procurement, order management, production planning, and resource management. It is the system of record for all financials, part number creation, procurement, order entry, and other critical business functions.
While an ERP may be effective at managing certain business processes, it is typically not well-suited for real-time workflow optimization within a distribution center or warehouse.
What is a warehouse management system (WMS)?
A warehouse management system (WMS) is a software solution designed to optimize operations within the four walls of a distribution center or stock room in a manufacturing environment. In other words, a WMS is much more localized and specialized than an ERP.
A WMS often contains a warehouse control system (WCS) to integrate with automation and may also include a labor management system (LMS) and/or transportation management system (TMS).
What is a warehouse control system (WCS)?
A warehouse control system (WCS) incorporates automation as part of the overall warehouse solution. This automation could be in the form of routing cartons or totes on a conveyor system. It could incorporate material handling equipment, such as automated storage retrieval systems (ASRS), carousels, or vertical lift modules (VLMs). A WCS communicates with and controls these various material handling components within the overall solution.
Determining the process and data flows for the specific business operation
In addition to understanding the different individual software and equipment systems that are involved, a successful WMS integration requires detailed knowledge of the process and data flows within the business and how they are supported by the ERP system. Every warehouse or distribution center has unique challenges and managers usually find creative ways to work around those challenges. It is critical to uncover and understand these workarounds so if necessary, they can be included in the WMS integration. In other words, there is no need to reinvent the wheel and it is important to maintain the integrity of systems of record for certain components within the organization. In addition, identifying processes and data flows can uncover pain points within the current operation.
Thinking proactively about long-term business objectives
When planning a WMS integration, it is vital to think ahead and consider the long-term objectives of the business. Many businesses have systems built around particular parameters, such as a certain product set or order size; however, an effective WMS integration will be able to accommodate changes to not only the business but also the industry overall. For instance, grocery distribution centers traditionally have been built around supply chain needs and getting cases of goods out to stores [case-take]. As the grocery industry shifts to serve e-commerce customers [each pick]. As you plan your WMS integration, be sure to answer questions like: How is the business going to grow? What is the product mix going to look like in the near- and far-term future? How can the WMS integration be designed to allow for variability within the supply chain?
Identifying touch points between the WMS and ERP systems
When integrating a WMS with an ERP, the touch points between the two systems must be clearly identified. For example, if the ERP is the system of record for part number information, then systems downstream cannot be permitted to create new part numbers. The best practice is for only the system of record, the ERP can do that, and it would send part number information to the WMS (or WCS). Receipt information is another touch point from ERP to a WMS or WCS. That is considered inbound information, inventory coming into the facility, and there is also outbound information, which includes all orders. Another critical touchpoint is adjustment. Typically, WMS and WCS are the system of record for inventory, so these systems know how many items are in a specific location. The ERP system has the total quantity on hand, but the system downstream is tracking the inventory at discrete locations.
Defining the methods of WMS integration
There are a variety of different methods for integrating a WMS with an ERP—which one is used depends on the ERP involved. One of the most common methods of WMS integration is to use shared database tables, which are also known as “staging tables.” These are a set of database tables either in the ERP database or in the lower-level WMS or WCS database where these systems are sharing information. They are called staging tables because they are not internal tables that either system would use in order to process their own business logic and perform their own functions. Instead, there is a gatekeeper between these staging tables and the other systems. Other common integration methods include WEP services or flat files.
Additional considerations for integration to a WCS
A WMS can integrate with a warehouse control system (WCS). A WMS is designed to track inventory throughout a warehouse or distribution center. By contrast, a WCS includes an automated component, meaning it is automating specific material handling equipment such as conveyor systems or storage devices (carousels, VLMs, ASRSs). If there is an independent and separate WMS or ERP system in the mix, the WMS and ERP would then manage the inventory in the static shelving. The integration between an external system to a WCS is similar to what is explained above with an ERP; however, some WCSs have a separate database and an API (Application Programmable Interface) which can limit their flexibility in terms of integration.
Is it possible to integrate directly to a VLM, carousel, ASRS, or other peripheral?
Yes, most of the time it is possible to integrate directly to a VLM, carousel, ASRS, or peripherals such as print-and-apply machines, barcode printers, and weigh scales. But every equipment manufacturer tends to have their own proprietary interface. So, be sure to check with the supplier to learn whether direct control is available and if it is, how best to integrate with their architecture.
Contact us for more information about WMS integration
This blog post provided information about the key considerations for WMS integration. We hope it was helpful as you begin your planning to optimize your warehouse or distribution center operations. For more information and to discuss the details of your project, please contact SencorpWhite at <add contact info>.