Warehouse Control Systems | WCS
Warehouse Control Systems (WCS)
A warehouse control system is a software package that not only manages some forms of WMS functionality in a facility, a warehouse, or manufacturing environment, but at the same time also controls automation equipment within that same environment. A WCS controls vertical carousels, vertical lift modules (VLMs), horizontal carousels, conveyor systems, sortation, autonomous guided vehicles (AGV), automated storage and retrieval systems (ASRS), goods to person (G2P), pick by light, put by light, hands free picking, robotic picking, and numerous items above and beyond these items.
The lines often get blurred a lot between warehouse control systems and warehouse execution systems (WES). Warehouse control systems are often confused with automation programmable logic controllers (PLCs) but WES is the level of software that interfaces with automation PLCs. A WCS directs the automation equipment PLCs what to do. PLCs, also known as machine controls, supply the signals to the electromechanical automation systems for movement and equipment operation. Warehouse execution systems (WES) direct the dynamic warehouse operations activity to connect WMS and WCS components.
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A warehouse control system (WCS) interfacing with all these different technologies can sound quite complicated but it depends on what the automation is that you’re dealing with. For horizontal and vertical carousels, it can be relatively straightforward. For instance, Intek and Minerva WCS software modules interface with the underlying PLC-based controls so an extra OEM software system or integration point to communicate to automation PLCs is not required. This eliminates an entire layer of software complexity across a warehouse operation. A WCS can considered the brains or the intelligence of the automation as opposed to the direct control of equipment. The underlying PLC machine controls execute the decisions dictated by the WCS or WES.
Today, there is a tremendous number of technological solutions that are being employed with robots, AGVs, conveyors with MDRs, etc. that have quite a bit of complexity and a WCS needs control all of it. Automation falls into different categories. A conveyor system is a delivery solution and/or sortation system. Vertical lift modules, vertical carousels, horizontal carousels are automated inventory storage and picking equipment. Horizontal carousels also are used for order fulfillment, consolidation, and staging functionality. Each form of automation has a distinct purpose or purposes in the facility and having the WES or WCS capabilities to manage the intelligence to drive the correct decisions is critical.
Often a highly customized WCS is employed on automated equipment when initially purchased or when warehouse operations grow out of the controls package. The controls system has now grown in a very customized fashion which then interfaces with the WMS. This tends to make for costly implementations, costly upgrades, and costly ownership over time. This problem occurs very frequently and Intek and Minerva’s WCS eliminates this complexity from developing as warehouses grow and can eliminate this entire complex layer with a much more efficient monolithic WCS layer.
When reviewing a warehouse operation and optimizing it for WCS, it’s best to find a vendor that has worked in similar industries as often the business challenges are similar. Whether it is e-commerce, wholesale distribution, aerospace, manufacturing, industrial distribution, SMT, jewelry, etc., there’s generally a category of automation that’s going to be a good fit and a category of automation that’s not going to be a good fit. For instance, voice picking technology is a fantastic fit for hands-free picking, full case picking, bag picking, things where an operator needs both hands to actually perform the process. There is common both industry and operational configurations that drive which form of automation is most suitable.
The ability of a comprehensive WCS system is to bring all these items together, almost like orchestrating an orchestra, is important. The devil can be in the details as the WCS and WES needs to support the specific kind of automation that’s the right fit for the operation.
Often legacy WMS, WES and WCS systems are upgraded to eliminate multiple integration points. A business such as a manufacturer or distributor has grown to the point where they need greater capabilities, and due to their use of low level WCS packages, every time there is some form of automation or change or improvement, another software solution is needed. When this happens, it imposes yet another requirement of extra integration points. Extra integration points degrade the efficiency, increase the cost, and increase the complexity, and often there’s a negative impact on the reliability of the solution with excess of integration points in the facility.
Increasing infrastructure complexity is a common issue as a business grows and modifies its operation. It’s important to create a baseline architecture that can scale with the business and not always have to reset or start over every time there is change, such as including more automation or improving operational processes. It’s not uncommon for companies to change the ERP out on Intek and Minerva multiple times over the life of the relationship which can be 10 or 20 years, and still have Intek and Minerva’s software suite of WMS, WES, WCS capabilities in place. Businesses do not outgrow it due to its scalability. Selecting a platform something that can direct a warehousing distribution or manufacturing operation that one doesn’t outgrow and have to replace is ideal.
As one evaluates a WCS package it is best not to get hung up on the acronyms of WES, WCS, and WMS. You have to actually look at your requirements, look at operations, at the business challenges, current growth trends, growth strategies, labor cost impacts, and at operational accuracies. Determining what will help improve the business immediately and in the future, evaluating the solutions based on the capabilities your current requirements and future requirements is important. The terms WMS, WES, and WCS get horribly abused, it’s not a one size fits all, so it’s best to delineate the business needs, evaluate solutions, and obtain references from similar implementations.
WCS industry-specific capabilities or operational-specific capabilities are very important. Experience specific industries such as surface mount technology (SMT), E-commerce, pharmaceutical, biotechnology, food, all of these have specific functional requirements that require optimization. If the WCS package does not have these in its package, then it’s a non-starter.