Many warehouse management system (WMS) vendors are creating relationships with automation vendors, such as robots or automated storage and retrieval systems (ASRS), and defining standard integrations. This means they can create a predefined automation solution and offer a one-stop shop to provide a WMS with wired automation. The WMS vendor builds a standard integration into the automation vendor and keeps those connectors current and tested.
WMS vendors are doing this because they view automation vendors as cutting into their market share. Naturally, WMS vendors want to remain competitive and profitable in the warehouse space. One of the ways to increase market share is through innovation. Partnering with automation vendors to create standard integrations is a great strategy to maintain control and increase the profitability of the WMS.
Let’s start by discussing why this might be a good thing for a prospective warehouse manager who is interested in implementing automation. First, and most importantly, in these early days of automation maturity, you know it will work out of the box. The automation integration should be well-tested and the implementation has already proven to ensure a faster (and hopefully cheaper) solution. Second, your ongoing support should also be more effective and reliable since the combined solution is likely deployed at a wide range of customers ahead of your go-live.
Unfortunately, there is a downside to buying automation from your WMS provider. If you are in the planning phase of implementing an automation project within your warehouse, the very last thing you are likely to do is to change your WMS at the same time. If you are hoping to access the out-of-the-box automation from your WMS vendor, it is almost guaranteed that the solution is only available in the latest version of the WMS software. This means that automation will force you to upgrade your WMS; a very onerous, costly, and unpleasant task to perform while trying to take on a whole new paradigm of robots or ASRS in your warehouse.
In addition, taking the automation ‘that comes with your WMS’ means you must use their selected automation vendor and their selected automation solution. We are all familiar with the breadth of automation solutions in the marketplace. Each automation solution is suited to a specific need and your organization’s need may not match the version that comes with your WMS. Be warned that compromising the type of automation generally results in very poor outcomes (think square peg and round hole).
The last issue with having your WMS vendor select your automation is if you need two types of automation — one type of automation for one area of the warehouse and another type of automation for a completely different type of item, process, or workflow in the warehouse. Why would a WMS vendor make it simple to embed a different type of automation into their WMS when they already have a ‘standard’ offering? It is very likely that as time goes by and automation gets more sophisticated, each type of automation will become more and more specialized within the warehouse. We will see cobots for mixed order picking, ASRS for e-commerce fulfillment, and vertical lift modules (VLM) for heavier goods picking all operating effectively and smoothly together in the same warehouse. If your WMS vendor has a clear preference for one vendor, this restriction may become impossible to live within.
So, what should you do? Initially, you need to decide if you are going to be independent or if you are going to commit to one vendor’s ecosystem. Contemplate your journey to automation because where you start will invariably be different from where you are likely to end.
Additionally, consider how quickly you think your automation solution will evolve. Is your current WMS the one you will stick with within the foreseeable future? Replacing your WMS and implementing automation simultaneously will be a huge lift. Make sure the WMS vendor you select has a clear automation strategy for the longer term. The last thing you want is to choose a WMS vendor who has an automation quick fix for today, but a couple of years down the road you are on your own.
I encourage you to talk to people in the warehouse industry. Ask your WMS vendor lots of questions and know your own needs to make an informed decision.
About the Author:
Bill Denbigh serves as the vice president of product marketing at Tecsys. Bill started working in supply chain software some 30 years ago; his entire career has been laser-focused on designing and building pragmatic supply chain solutions that address the real problems that customers are facing in their supply chain operations. Bill has worked on virtually every aspect of the software in the supply chain, gaining insight into the inner workings of some of the industry’s most complex challenges; Bill, however, tackles those challenges with a no-nonsense levelheadedness that has earned him great repute both internally and among customers.