My first encounter with a WMS...

...was long before I got interested in logistics and transportation.  My first encounter was as a 12 year boy.  I took a slip of paper to a burley old man in the will-call window at the JC Penney DC in Lenexa, KS.  After taking the skip and reading it, he walked up to a screen and typed a few numbers into a keyboard.  The screen changed and he walked back into the storage area.  After about 5 minutes he came out with the motor my dad needed to fix the dryer. 

Warehouse Management Systems evolved from the early days of 1975, when JC Penney launched the first real Warehouse Management System, through the original Marwood/Chain Store Systems, until now. Thousands of different WMS packages entered the market.  You may think that nobody would be still using a system first marketed in 1990, but know of two companies still using the same software they were using 20 years ago, software designed to run computers that went out of production 10 years ago.

The basics of WMS have not changed, either in mission or in function.  The systems still support the basic functions of Receiving, Put-a-way, Replenishment, Picking and Shipping.  What has changed is the volume of transactions the systems support, and the complex processes now used in fulfillment operations.  The old systems required manual entry; the current systems are using automated ID to such an extent that manual entry at a keyboard-based terminal never happens.

The genesis of this section started with a group of experienced colleagues discussing (complaining) how there were so many WMS vendors making claims about how well their systems work, but few real end users willing to speak publically about success.  I know from my own experience that implementing a replacement WMS package is harder to do than most other system upgrades, harder than implementing a new system where there was no system.  We started writing, some people only one entry.  Don Benson, the Warehouse Coach, dusted off a number of his old articles and refreshed them for publication here.   

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Articles in This Series

Articles in This Series

What is a WMS?

Imagine you traveled back in time to see a state-of-the-art distribution center of the early 1980s. Would you recognize the systems they use? While the technological advances are obvious, would you recognize the system functions? How many of the functions in today’s state-of-the-art systems do you think existed in 1980 WMS applications? Perhaps more than you would think. Look at many of the second- and third-tier Warehouse applications on the market today, and you will see systems lacking many of the “must have” functions that existed in the older systems.

Look past the obvious technological advances of cheap R/F data terminals, barcode scanners, and thermal transfer printers. Focus on the functions of these old systems, and you will find most of the same functionality that WMS vendors tout as cutting edge today. Try to understand the functions and purpose of the systems of today, and you see the legacy of the old systems’ designs. Could it be that WMS applications matured in functionality over a decade ago, perhaps two decades ago? If you think you need to upgrade your WMS, are you having a hard time developing compelling reasons to upgrade—ROI kind of compelling? If you look closely at your current systems, understanding the basic functions of a good WMS, you will acquire the knowledge you need to help make the right decision. Understanding the basics helps you to ask the right questions.


Wednesday is WMS Day

If you grew up in New England in the 1950s – 1970s, you might remember that Wednesday is Prince Spaghetti day, as the long-running iconic TV advertisement reminds us. (Read about the story behind it.) Today we are not talking about spaghetti. Well, maybe not. Today we start looking at the spaghetti bowl of Warehouse Management Systems (WMS), on a mission to see how we can untangle these systems to improve your understanding. This is not a mission that can be accomplished in a single blog post, or even a in a ten-part series. This mission is important enough that we are dedicating the Wednesday posts at We Are The Practitioners to an ongoing examination of Warehouse Management Systems.


WMS: The Idea of the Distribution Center

In the early 1980s I worked in an office furniture factory that sat next to the Montgomery Ward’s distribution center in Kansas City, Missouri. To my eyes in 1983, that building was huge. A massive eight-story, 1.5 million square foot, reinforced concrete warehouse building in operation since 1915. Closed when the company went bankrupt in 2001, the building now serves as a colossal flea market and light manufacturing operation. I remember the heavy activity of trucks in and out of the busy warehouse in the early 1980s, and how the bright red DISTRIBUTION CENTER sign etched a concept into my memory.

The Start of the Direct-to-Consumer Business Mail-Order catalogue

It is fitting to consider this relic of a building in a discussion about the idea of the Distribution Center. Montgomery Ward, more than any other US company, established the difference...


WMS: Your Expected Outcomes, Your Desired Outcomes

What is an Expected Outcome?

A company investing in a WMS application expects that the performance of the system will create a return. If management does not expect a return on investment, the purchase of a WMS application is just an exercise in asset pimping. No management team in its right mind goes through the effort to invest in a WMS application for any other reason. Management teams invest in WMS applications to deliver a return on investment.

While many think that is an obvious statement, there are companies that do not define an ROI for the investment. You might think that this is crazy. There are companies that expect an ROI, but they do not define the expected ROI. To those managers, the exact ROI number is not worth the effort to calculate.


Basic Inbound Warehouse Management System Functions

How does a Warehouse Management System (WMS) operate and function? The answer to that question depends on the functions in the WMS and the systems functions that a specific distribution operation uses. With hundreds of different WMS systems on the market, and tens of thousands of user warehouses, countless combinations of functions exist.

Still, basic functions exist across all WMS platforms, following the basic functions of any sound warehouse operation.


Putting Stock Away with a WMS

One of the main benefits of a WMS is the ability to track stock in a warehouse. Even the basic WMS applications include a locator function, tracking the movement of goods into and out of the storage locations. But basic systems do not direct where goods go in a warehouse. System-directed Put-away is one of the major functional upgrades between the basic and more advanced systems.

Basic Systems Processes

The most basic systems will direct put-away to the primary pick location. These systems often do not include the data table elements for the capacity of the pick location. Like the old manual pre-WMS operations, the warehouse personnel decide where to put the goods if the stock exceeds the capacity of the pick location.


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