Inside Logistics

A tailored fit

Today’s warehouse management systems offer a broad range of functions to suit companies’ specific needs


September 15, 2011
by Michael Power

FROM THE MM&D JULY/AUGUST 2011 PRINT EDITION: Jennifer Shannon can’t say enough good things about her company’s warehouse management system (WMS). The vice-president of supply chain for the Shandex Group said the Pickering, Ontario-based distribution and logistics company went live with the system two years ago with RF Pathways’ WMS software, version 300. After 21 years, it’s the first foray into WMS systems for Shandex’s DCs.

It has really transformed our company,” Shannon says. “Obviously, it gives you visibility into your inventory; you have more control. We use it for all the quality features, quarantining and releasing product. It’s helped us on cycle counts and our year-end inventory.”

Version 300 has an updated console user interface that RF Pathways says allows users to get more out of applications. Added functions include multiple filter capabilities for queries, viewing header and detail information simultaneously, simplified system administration and embedded controls for on/off functionality.

The system’s audit function is particularly appealing to Shandex, says Shannon, since the company is licensed to distribute pharmaceuticals and natural health products and Health Canada audits the company regularly. Every transaction is recorded and can easily be traced.

“It gives that whole other level of control and traceability which has been integral to our business,” she says.

Improved cash flow

Another boost Shandex has seen since it began using a WMS has been from a cash-flow perspective. Shannon says by using version 300, the company now ships and invoice the same day. “Our invoice timing has improved as the process has become more automated,” she notes. “You can ship and be invoiced at the door within an hour of each other—that was huge for us.”

WMS systems on the market continue to evolve to suit the needs of warehouse and distribution centres. So what is it that managers of such facilities are looking for?

According to Brian Ware, Versacold Canada’s director of national marketing and business development, ensuring WMS functions are lean, efficient and time-saving is a major way the company is helping its clients. The logistics services provider operates 38 facilities servicing clients in Canada’s cold chain, and Versacold is rolling out its proprietary WMS system, Power 2.0, across those facilities. The system has recently been upgraded and customized to the Canadian market.

“Our customers have spoken and we’ve listened,” Ware says. “In order for us to be a valuable partner, we need to continue to do things as efficiently as possible—this system will provide that efficiency.”
Power 2.0 is a fully integrated system, says Ware, meaning it’s available with all Versacold’s service offerings. Clients’ systems are tied directly to Versacold’s system, which also eliminates the need for heavy customer service or order entry staffing.

“Our WMS system will also be fully integrated with our transportation mangement system (TMS),” Ware says. “We have a national transportation network, and customers that are looking for full solutions will not only have the benefit of our WMS system but will have the benefit of our TMS system as well.”

Eliminate waste

Versacold’s WMS emphasizes eliminating wasted time and resources in a warehouse or DC and borrows from the Japanese management tool, Lean Six Sigma. For example, the more employees that handle an invoice before it goes to a customer, Ware notes, the more money it ends up costing the company. Power 2.0 focuses on streamlining such processes.

“It’s something that Versacold has embraced—that was a big part of developing this WMS software,” Ware says.

The system assigns tasks to employees and tracks how much time they spend accomplishing those tasks. The WMS can be tied into the voice-pick system, which reduces case pick errors to practically zero, since the system tells employee on the floor where to go and how many cases to pull. At every step, Ware says, employees have to confirm verbally that they’ve received an instruction.

“The advice I would have for any other DC or warehouse looking to implement a new WMS system would be, talk to your customers,” says Ware. “What do they want? How can you best meet those needs, and that will point you in the right direction of a system.”

Adaptability is key

One recent trend in WMS systems is the emphasis companies are placing on the need for “business intelligence”, says Jennifer Sherman, senior director, product strategy, at Oracle based in Redwood Shores, California. A few years ago, companies would ask what reports a WMS system provided, Sherman says. More recently, organizations want to know whether a WMS provides a dashboard providing configurable information rather than just reports.

“It has very much transitioned to, ‘tell me about your intelligence solution,’” Sherman says. “What they’re saying is, ‘what I’m going to need is going to change. Am I buying a tool that has an intelligence platform that will allow my company to continue to evolve without having to get a developer to write every new report that I need?’”

For example, Oracle’s system provides features such as conditional alerting. The system will show clients if a KPI such as on-time shipment percentage has declined out of range. The discrepancy will be highlighted on the screen, but clients can also receive an email alerting them to the fact.

The Oracle WMS includes several other new features, including advanced wave planning to minimize material movements, optimize labour resources and integrate warehouse activities with transportation planning. The system also synchronizes material handling with transportation, eliminating inbound material handling steps and increasing material flow.

Today’s WMS systems offer a large range of functions. So how to choose? What functionality a WMS offers now depends on what industry it’s servicing, says Brian Dawson, RF Pathway’s director of supply chain solutions. For example, in the pharmaceutical industry, traceability is key, he notes. The company’s WMS provides security features to ensure that traceability. When someone logs onto the system, that employee will only see certain options—or be able to perform only certain tasks—depending on what approvals they have from the company’s management.

But if a function makes sense for more than one client, Dawson says, that function can migrate into the WMS systems offered to other companies.

“If it makes sense for additional clients, it becomes part of the embedded code within our system and is offered to our clients within that same type of work environment,” he notes. “In the food industry, for example, if somebody has a control measure that wasn’t thought of at another company we’ll embed it as part of the standard system.”