Before implementing a WMS, it is critical to consider a few key factors. Most notably, a WMS must be thoughtfully integrated with existing external systems, any WCS already in place, and all other relevant peripheral systems.

What does the word “integration” mean in the warehouse and distribution center environment?

In the warehouse and distribution center environment, the word “integration” refers to communication between systems. Those systems could be software systems, hardware controls, or any other type of peripheral. When integrated successfully, these systems are able to work together using a well-defined language that consists of a specific set of questions and answers. Integrations provide a variety of business benefits. They allow applications from different suppliers to be combined to create the most effective implementation.

What systems do WMS and WCS integrate with and what is the role of each?

WMSs and WCSs can integrate with upstream and downstream external business systems. Most commonly, the external business system they integrate with is an upstream enterprise resource planning (ERP) system; however, in manufacturing environments, there may also be integrations with downstream external systems, such as material requirements planning (MRP) systems, shipping systems, or transportation management systems (TMS).

Generally speaking, an ERP is designed to manage processes across the entire business. It is the system of record for a wide range of processes, including financials, forecasting, procurement, order management, production planning, and resource management. Although highly effective for managing those processes, ERPs are usually not optimal for real-time workflow optimization within a distribution center or stockroom.

A warehouse management system (WMS) is a specialized application used to manage all of the inventory activity within a distribution center or manufacturing facility. Typically, a WMS interfaces with an ERP system, using information from the ERP to manage workflow and optimize processes. It tracks inventory, regardless of where that inventory is stored. For example, a warehouse might have inventory stored in carousels, VLMs, flow racks, and other shelving locations. A WMS can manage inventory in all of these areas and provide a fluent, fluid, and seamless transaction going from one to another. A WMS can also interface downstream, integrating with other systems, such as a TMS.

WCS stands for warehouse control system. Unlike a WMS, a WCS cannot manage all storage areas within a distribution center or manufacturing facility. Instead, it can only manage automation. This automation can take many forms, ranging from routing cartons or totes on a conveyor system to material handling equipment, such automated storage retrieval systems (ASRS), carousels, or vertical lift modules (VLMs). A WCS integrates with, communicates with, and controls these various automated material handling components within the overall solution. Any inventory in non-automated storage areas needs to be managed by an independent and separate WMS or ERP.

A WMS/WCS is typically more agile than an ERP. That is because a WMS/WCS has more tools and business logic available to manage and optimize workflows within a distribution center or stockroom. As a result, they are able to make localized improvements with far-reaching benefits for inventory control, customer service, assembly, QA, etc. Generally speaking, a WMS/WCS is also easier to change for adaptation to fluctuating business conditions.