A warehouse control system (WCS) is a software package that not only manages some forms of warehouse management system (WMS) functionality in a facility, a warehouse, or manufacturing environment, but also controls automation equipment within that same environment. In other words, a WCS controls, directs, and manages vertical carousels, vertical lift modules (VLMs), horizontal carousels, conveyor systems, sortation systems, autonomous guided vehicles (AGV), automated storage and retrieval systems (ASRS), goods to person (G2P), pick by light, put by light (i.e., put wall), hands free picking, robotic picking, and more.
Many confuse WCS with WES or with programmable logic controllers (PLCs) that control automation; A WCS directs the automation equipment PLCs about what to do. PLCs, also known as machine controls, supply the signals to the electromechanical automation systems for movement and equipment operation. It is the WCS or WES that directs and integrates the dynamic warehouse operations activities with the underlying machine controls while fully integrated to the ERP and/or WMS.
A WCS interfacing with all these different technologies can sound quite complicated, but the level of complexity depends on the type of automation equipment under control and the capabilities of the WCS. In fact, for most horizontal carousels, vertical carousels, and vertical lift modules (VLM), the WCS can be relatively straightforward. Other technological solutions, such as those involving robots, AGVs, and MDR conveyor systems, typically introduce more complexity.
Intek Integration Technologies, Inc. and Minerva Associates, Inc. WCS software capabilities interface directly with the underlying PLC-based controls so an extra OEM software system or integration point to communicate to automation PLCs is not required. This eliminates an entire layer of software complexity across a warehouse operation. A WCS can be considered the brains or the intelligence of the automation as opposed to the direct control of equipment. The underlying PLC machine controls execute the decisions dictated by the WCS or WES. At the end of the day, understand your exact requirements because the terms WMS, WCS and WES are frequently applied incorrectly and vary significantly from one vendor to the next.
Integrating WCS with warehouse automation
Today’s different types of automation fall into different categories which are important to understand from a WCS standpoint. For example, a conveyor system is a delivery solution and/or sortation system. Vertical lift modules (VLMs), vertical carousels, and horizontal carousels are automated inventory storage and picking or order storage and buffering solutions Each form of automation has a distinct purpose or purposes in the facility and having the WMS/WCS/WES capabilities to manage the intelligence to drive correct decisions is critical.
Often a highly customized WCS is employed on automated equipment when it is initially purchased or when warehouse operations outgrow the controls package. In these situations, the control systems become very customized. That tends to add complexity and increase costs associated with implementations, upgrades, and high long-term cost of ownership over time. Intek Integration Technologies, Inc. and Minerva Associates, Inc. WCS/WES software eliminates this problem and can be used to simplify and replace entire monolithic complex customized layers of automation integration and control.
When reviewing a warehouse operation and optimizing it for WCS, it’s best to find a vendor that has a history of proven success in similar industries and with similar business challenges. Whether it is e-commerce, wholesale distribution, aerospace, manufacturing, industrial distribution, SMT manufacturing, jewelry, pet supplies, food and beverage, or some other sector, there’s generally a category of automation that’s going to be a good fit and a category of automation that’s not going to be a good fit. For instance, voice picking technology is particularly effective for hands-free picking in most full-case picking and bag-picking environments where an operator needs both hands to actually perform the process. A WCS system needs to be able to bring all these functional pieces together, and the WCS and WES need to support the specific kind of automation that’s optimal for the operation.
If a manufacturer or distributor is not using the right WCS, they will need to add on more software capabilities every time they grow or want to introduce some form of automation, change, or improvement. When this happens, it imposes yet another requirement of extra integration points and/or customization. These extra integration points degrade efficiency, increase cost and complexity, and can negatively impact the reliability of the solution.
Increasing infrastructure complexity is a common issue as a business grows and needs to modify its operations. It’s important to create a baseline architecture that can scale with the business and not always have to reset or start over every time there is change, such as including more automation or improving operational processes. Selecting a platform that can direct a warehousing distribution or manufacturing operation that one doesn’t outgrow and have to be replaced is ideal. It’s not uncommon for companies to change an ERP system multiple times over the history of using our software suite of WMS/WES/WCS capabilities.
When evaluating a WCS package, it is best not to get distracted by the acronyms of WCS, WES, or WMS. These terms are often misused and misunderstood because warehouse software solutions are not one size fits all. Instead, focus on the business requirements, operations, business challenges, current growth trends, growth strategies, labor cost impacts, and operational accuracies. In addition, evaluate the solutions based on the capabilities needed for your current—and future—requirements. Look for WCS industry-specific and operational-specific capabilities. Specific industries such as e-commerce, pharmaceutical, biotechnology, medical devices/supplies, food and beverage, manufacturing, surface mount technology, etc. all have specific functional requirements that require optimization. If the WCS package does not have these in its package, then it’s a non-starter. With our solutions delivering the comprehensive WMS/WES/ WCS capabilities for distribution and manufacturing respectively, there is no reason to pick and choose. We are vendor partners that can deliver what businesses need today, and they can scale over time.