New warehouse management systems automate warehouse storage, retrieval processes

New warehouse management systems are doing more than managing products in the warehouse -- they are automating more warehouse processes, streamlining operations and bringing about cost reductions across manufacturing organizations.

The homegrown warehouse management system at Blue Bell Creameries' manufacturing facility in Sylacauga, Ala., functioned

quite well for many years … until 2006, when the maker of Blue Bell ice cream put in a large, multistory automated cold warehouse with a temperature of -18 degrees Fahrenheit.

Under such conditions, Blue Bell needed to replace its homegrown warehouse management system (WMS) with a state-of-the-art system with more warehouse automation functionality.

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Most early WMSs were slow batch systems. But the newest generation of WMS software brings "control and integration with automation," said Steve Banker, service director for supply chain management at ARC Advisory Group in Dedham, Mass. These WMS systems provide a real-time warehouse control layer that enables a manufacturer to streamline warehouse operations and automate the warehouse storage and retrieval processes.

That was the case at Blue Bell Creameries, a century-old ice cream operation serving mainly the Southeast. Introducing a 7,000-pallet automated freezer warehouse enabled Blue Bell to eliminate one major problem: the need for bundled-up workers in winter clothing to stay warm before moving pallets around in a warehouse kept well below zero -- where they could stay for only limited amounts of time.

Now Blue Bell warehouse workers can handle pallets of ice cream while sitting comfortably at a Windows terminal running the company's new WMS. Called Savanna.NET, the Microsoft.NET-based product is from Westfalia Technologies Inc., which installed the automated warehouse equipment.

"Our warehouse guys went from forklift operators to sitting at a computer console and solving warehouse problems," said Jim Crace, Blue Bell's warehouse and distribution manager. "Once the pallet is created, the operation is pretty automated."

Using the Savanna.NET WMS system, Blue Bell workers can find any SKU, apply bar codes and redirect pallets -- and perform all these tasks without risk of frostbite.

Blue Bell did not have to coax its people to come out of the cold. "The younger guys who are familiar with computers and Windows took right to it, although none were experts in WMS," Crace said.

WMS software being integrated with ERP, SCM, RFID

Today's WMSs have come a long way since the old batch WMS products. Most of the current generation of WMSs are Web-enabled, incorporate an intuitive GUI, handle voice commands and operate in near real time, allowing workers to control the movement and storage of items within a warehouse and handle most associated operations, such as shipping, receiving, picking and restocking.

Vendors of the latest generation of WMS also have ironed out much of the integration required to work with the leading ERP packages, thereby enabling WMS to play a much larger role in the overall supply chain. These state-of-the-art WMSs can also be integrated with automation equipment such as conveyor belts and robots, which is fortunate for Crace, whose Sylacauga facility contains a quarter mile of conveyor belts.

Similarly, these latest WMS products include interfaces for RFID and 2-D bar codes. "We looked at RFID, but we're not at that point yet," Crace said. "We think of [RFID] as more of a traceability tool." The company uses standard bar codes with cold storage adhesive.

The new generation of WMS tools does more than just manage the flow of products in and out of the warehouse. The tools can be integrated with not only the ERP system, but also supply chain management, shipping and logistics, and inventory planning systems. Between streamlining warehouse operations and increased functionality, these WMSs are responsible for significant cost savings.

Evolving WMS functionality

For example, a WMS that supports direct shipments to consumers will have to be able to assemble orders made up of multiple individual items and insert appropriate accompanying materials, such as manuals. A WMS used extensively for third-party logistics will need robust security and multi-tenancy to separate work for different clients.

"We're seeing a lot more demand for third-party logistics, essentially the outsourcing of logistics. These require different capabilities in the WMS," said Eric Lamphier, senior director of product management at Atlanta-based WMS provider Manhattan Associates.

Of course, companies can use their ERP systems as a WMS, and large ERP vendors such as SAP and Oracle are trying to bolster their WMS capabilities. This is the classic battle between integrated solutions and best-of-breed functionality. Many IT people prefer the simplicity of the integrated products; many warehouse operations people prefer the feature-rich functionality of the best-of-breed WMS.

There's no rule that says a company can't run multiple WMSs. Blue Bell Creameries controls its automated freezer warehouse through the Savanna.NET WMS. However, it continues to operate conventional warehouse space for 3,000 pallets, for which it still uses that old homegrown WMS.

About the author: Alan Radding researches, analyzes and writes about business and technology. His articles have appeared in The New York Times, BusinessWeek  and numerous technology publications and on websites such as SearchManufacturingERP.com.

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