Vendors of Warehouse Management Systems (WMS) get it: What you want these days is a fast and cheap installation. In response, they're pushing the concept of software that comes preconfigured to the needs of specific industries—like retail or automotive or pharmaceuticals. Buy one of these packages, vendors say, and you can skip right over some of the programming work during the installation phase.
For all the hype, the idea of preconfigured WMS packages isn't particularly new. In fact, the consulting firm Coopers & Lybrand (now part of PricewaterhouseCoopers) came up with the idea years ago, according to consultant Steve Mulaik, a partner at the Alpharetta, Ga.-based Progress Group.
Nonetheless, it's clear that vendors believe the time is ripe for a product whose chief selling point is the promise of simple, low-cost installation. "The WMS vendors are really pushing this because everyone is cognizant of the time element and the costs of implementation," says John Sidell, a managing principal at the Kansas City, Mo.-based systems integrator TranSystems ESync.
A big head start
The appeal of a WMS that's tailored to the customer's specific industry isn't hard to see. Terminology, business rules, and practices vary widely from one industry to the next, but within a given sector, there's usually a great deal of commonality. Buying software that's preset to reflect standard industry practices can give a company a big head start when it comes to implementation.
For example, consider the difference between buying a WMS package that's preconfigured to the needs of a pharmaceutical warehouse vs. a generic package. With a generic solution, someone has to program the software to recognize the difference between, say, an apparel industry stock-keeping unit (SKU) number, whose digits might indicate a garment's style, size, and color, and a pharma industry SKU, whose digits might indicate a drug's lot number, batch number, and expiration date. A preconfigured program eliminates that task. On top of that, the preconfigured program doesn't have to be "taught" to use, say, lot expiration dates as a criterion for product selection. Instead, the software will arrive pre-programmed to generate pick lists that ensure that workers fill orders from older batches of medications before drawing on new ones.
But preconfiguration work isn't always about tailoring a WMS to the requirements of a particular industry. It can also include tasks like the creation of programming templates that streamline the process of assigning items to storage locations, says Bill Bastian, president of Indianapolis-based systems integrator Bastian Material Handling. Instead of having to input data for each storage location in the warehouse, he says, integrators can use these templates or "masters" that incorporate common data such as the length, width, and height for all bays. The integrator can then create a unique identifier for each storage location and simply copy and paste the template data. "I want to replicate [common information] using this master as opposed to going one by one and putting in the information," says Bastian.
As for how much time is saved, estimates vary. Sidell of TranSystems ESync says preconfigured modules can cut 20 to 30 percent from the programming time. On top of that, he says, presets can reduce the post-installation testing period by 25 percent. "The less you have to configure, the less you have to test," says Sidell. All told, he says, preset modules can cut the typical implementation period from seven months to five.
Matt Wilkerson, a principal at Tompkins Associates, a Raleigh, N.C.based consultancy with a systems integration practice, has a more conservative estimate. He says preconfiguration work can eliminate three to four weeks from the design phase of a project. Differences among individual operations limit the amount of work that can be done in advance, he explains. "There's too much variation to ever arrive at a standard preconfiguration."
Not for everyone
Although the systems integrators contacted for this article agreed that preconfigured WMS models can cut installation time, they also warned that the software has its drawbacks. For example, some believe buying a preset package discourages users from exploring the software's full range of capabilities. "It can inhibit the clients from learning and understanding the product because you come up with preconfigured opinions on how the system will run," says Rod Wyles, a vice president at Fortna Inc., a Reading, Pa.-based systems integrator. "You can miss out on [features] that may work for your business."
It's important to note that not all DC operations are good candidates for preconfigured software. For example, highly automated distribution centers may not get much benefit from installing a preconfigured package. Operations that use a lot of automated equipment will need to have a lot of interfaces written, canceling out the advantages of preconfiguration.
Integrators say unrealistic expectations on the client's part can lead to disappointment as well. It's not uncommon for customers to opt for a preconfigured package but later decide they don't want to settle for the "standard" features. "The clients often wind up customizing the software package," says Paul Faber, director of software and systems integration at Tompkins Associates. "It takes an awful lot of discipline from a client's management team to stick to base functionality."
And even if a warehouse operation is willing to live by the system's "canned" rules, Wyles says, the company shouldn't assume the package is plug and play. A WMS still must be configured to reflect the facility's own physical layout. "The setup of a WMS is built around the facility," he says, "and that often can't be preconfigured."
Although a preconfigured WMS may not be right for every warehouse operation, prospective customers should still take note of which vendors offer packages tailored to their industry. The mere fact that a software company has designed a program for, say, the retail or the automotive industry indicates that its software is suited to that type of business. "If somebody has a template for a specific market," says Mulaik, "I would have a lot more confidence in buying that system."