November 14, 2012
Column | techwatch

Buying a WMS? Have it your way

Recent developments in programming are making software implementations less painful and less expensive.

By James A. Cooke

Most distribution centers want it their way when it comes to running their warehouse operations. That's why warehouse management systems (WMS) often have to be modified at the time of installation. Trouble is, that's not cheap. Making changes to a WMS package usually requires custom code, and paying a programmer to write individual lines of code jacks up the cost of software implementation and adds time to the project.

Recent developments in software programming are making it possible for the next generation of WMS vendors to install their solutions faster and more cheaply. By taking advantage of so-called "toolkits" for customization, these vendors avoid the task of writing individual code for each client. "The toolkit helps the vendor create more functionality without any coding or with minimal coding," says Phil Obal, president of IDII, a consulting firm that specializes in supply chain software.

To add the functionality needed for a specific warehouse operation, toolkits take advantage of tables and English-like commands, explains Stephen Pullo, owner of Blue Label Systems Inc., a consulting and systems integration company. For example, if a warehouse wants fish to be put away in the freezer section, as opposed to the refrigerated area, the software programmer can encode those instructions in the table. And it doesn't stop there. The programmer can even add a notation prohibiting fish from being placed next to the ice cream. In the past, Pullo says, incorporating these kinds of restrictions on item placement would have required hundreds of lines of code.

Although some of the larger WMS vendors have begun adopting this approach to implementation, they're not the only players in the game. A couple of lesser-known companies are also taking advantage of these advances in software programming. One vendor offering this type of toolkit solution is Made4net, a supply chain software specialist based in Paramus, N.J. Amit Levy, director of marketing for the Americas at Made4net, says his company's WMS solution allows the user to configure business rules and policies to reflect its own workflows. This capability means, for example, that each distribution center can tailor activities like putaway and picking to its own requirements.

Another vendor that has taken this approach to software customization is Tampa, Fla.-based Datex, which uses the Windows Workflow Foundation from Microsoft to customize its WMS for individual clients. Windows Workflow provides a system to establish rules for specific activities—say, inventory management or putaway—in the WMS. The activities are then joined together. "Basically, you're creating a diagram [of the warehouse operation] with a lot of if/thens," says Laura Olsen, director of sales and marketing for Datex.

Because the use of the workflow engine avoids the need for writing custom code, it cuts implementation time in half. "The result is a WMS installation that is less painful and less expensive," says Derek Armanious, vice president of client services at Datex.

Not only do toolkits speed up project installation, they also make it easier for distribution centers to make changes at a later date—say, if a food warehouse decides to start carrying flowers in addition to produce and meat. That's because with toolkits, it's easy to change the rules that tell the WMS how to handle new products with differing storage, putaway, and picking requirements. "You're not dependent on coding to change the rules on how the warehouse operates," says Pullo.

About the Author

James A. Cooke
James Cooke is a principal analyst with Nucleus Research in Boston, covering supply chain planning software. He was previously the editor of CSCMP’s Supply Chain Quarterly and a staff writer for DC Velocity.

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