When I started my career in the early 2000’s with one of the largest third-party logistics (3PL) providers in North America, Warehouse Management System (WMS) implementations focused on project-specific customizations to drive efficiency.  These implementations, even at single facilities, were massive undertakings bathed in risk; often career-defining projects for stakeholders on both sides of the fence.  The analogy that a WMS implementation mirrors raising a child – there are no short cuts and it takes consistent and longstanding organizational focus, effort, and time – was branded onto my back.

WMS implementations, their strategy, and ultimately their associated risk profile has changed significantly in the 15+ years since.  Let’s discuss what that evolution looks like, what factors contributed to the changes, and how companies can maximize the value of their WMS today.

The Early 2000’s

This period saw organizations spend significant time and dollars creating unique functionality inside a WMS to differentiate and drive value to both customers and shareholders.  Implementation at each site was laborious and laden with tripwires capable of derailing the best planned and executed implementation.  Few organizations were able to complete network-wide rollouts in reasonable timetables. The network-wide standardization necessary to shorten deployment times and eliminate risk didn’t exist  The oft-seen result – a WMS tapestry, or patchwork quilt of vendors, versions, and codebases across their distribution IT landscape, due to acquisition and sluggish or abandoned rollouts.

While the exact reasons for the state of WMS in the early 2000’s is worthy of a separate dissertation, most big WMS vendors spent the early 2000’s focused heavily on platform or architectural updates and migrations.  The advent of the need to support multiple databases and operating systems to expand customer reach drove the need to decouple business logic from a specific hardware or infrastructure stack or model.  While a giant step forward for customers that did not idolize Linux, mainframes, or Oracle, it was a distraction in relation to code hardening, incremental functionality expansion, and general improvement. But at least we moved past DB2.

Circa 2010 to 2018

After completion of the architectural revisions, WMS vendors settled into their new landscape and shifted their focus towards functional improvements and code hardening.  This time period saw significant adoption of these new platforms and improved deployment success.  This success was in large part due to the improved stability, incremental functional improvements, and more low-code personalization features. In combination, these eroded the need for customization to key WMS functions.

The ability to scale the software through multi-warehouse, multi-tenant, multi-threading, and server clustering drove down the infrastructure cost of large deployments and increased throughput capabilities for high-volume operations; particularly true in retail and the ever-present omnichannel hype train of this time period.  The overall WMS capability improvements of this time aligned with the general IT goal of standardization and reduced infrastructure footprint. This helped drive adoption and successful multi-site deployments.

Additionally, the advent of new lightweight SaaS products, purpose-built to bolster weaker areas of the WMS, created new avenues for differentiation between supply chain organizations.  This spearheaded the shift from the previous timeframe’s affinity for single vendor monolithic deployments to a ‘best of breed’ approach.  Along with this shift, the idea of templatized network deployment became the IT mantra, and any software or process that supported this initiative skyrocketed in enterprise value.

2019 to 2020

The past several years saw a paradigm shift in WMS platforms and customer goals.  First, deployments with the aim of zero customization are the new gold standard in large network implementations, allowing for both templatization and continuous upgrade.  The best WMS vendors now bring to bear the necessary tools and solutions, even if found externally, to fully support this rapid deployment model with robust testing and deployment options.

We have experienced a shift to an ecosystem- or platform-based model, that allows for systematic integration of best of breed solutions while maintaining a unified user experience.  Platform solutions are future-ready, with modules to support external point solutions, automation, and autonomous mobile robots (AMRs).  The goal is to expand the capabilities of the WMS platform, embed it in an overarching supply chain technology vision, while maintaining a seamless user experience.

In addition, most WMS vendors are now far more partner-oriented than they have historically been.  Customers expect their best system integrators to create differentiation and value in the sales and implementation cycles.  Vendors want their ecosystem strong, vibrant, and full of new ideas leveraging the most cutting-edge technology available.

This has created a significant opportunity for customers willing to explore and embrace the platform vision:  a holistic set of connected supply chain systems, each empowering the next.  Compelling visions emerge and mature day-by-day, as experts race to realize the benefits of this new WMS landscape.

WMS deployments have gotten safer and faster, even as the holistic connected supply chain model grows to support the tenets of industry 4.0. Differentiation now lies in the ability to rapidly deploy new ideas, while maintaining network unity, seamless user experience, and technical sustainability.

The Future

It is an incredible time to be a WMS user.  The options are vast and the ability to execute a network-wide deployment has never been safer and cheaper.  However, the landscape is shifting quickly.  We often engage customers in conversation and strategy around the following questions:

  • What will a WMS look like in 5 or 10 years as warehouse execution systems (WES) bleed into historically WMS functions and responsibilities?
  • Where can I create differentiation and separation from my competitors in a world where everyone deploys the same WMS solution?
  • How can a network-wide WMS deployment fit into my overarching supply chain technology, data, and visibility strategy?

Check back in for the next blogs in the WMS series that tackle these very questions.