This month in Modern: WCS makes its move

One of the many satisfying benefits of covering a market over many years is watching trends evolve into operating procedures that revolutionize how companies conduct business.

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One of the many satisfying benefits of covering a market over many years is watching trends evolve into operating procedures that revolutionize how companies conduct business.

In fact, Modern’s executive editor Bob Trebilcock—who has had his eyes on the materials handling market for a few decades—has identified another trend that’s just now making its way onto U.S. warehouse and distribution center floors. It’s one that not only stands to change the way two critical pieces of software are perceived, but how they may work together in the long term to improve order fulfillment.

In the latest installment of his series The Big Picture: Where Business Meets Materials Handling, Trebilcock offers us an in-depth look at the evolution of warehouse control systems (WCS), the software that’s best known as the traffic cop of warehouse and DC operations.

WCS has been traditionally responsible for interfacing with the warehouse management system (WMS) and providing direction to materials handling equipment to synchronize processes like full pallet and pick-to-pallet picking operations, or ensuring that all of the components of an order arrive at the dock at the right time.

But as Trebilcock has been noticing over the past year, more highly automated operations are starting to rely on their WCS to handle tasks once reserved for their WMS. In fact, this month’s System Report on Oriental Trading Company’s (OTC) highly automated, 750,000 square-foot distribution center falls perfectly into line with this trend and helped inspire this month’s Big Picture.

“To fill as many as 400,000 orders a day without wearing out its employees, OTC needed a highly automated, complex order fulfillment engine,” says Trebilcock.

“It pulled that off with a WCS that is handling many of the activities we normally associate with a WMS.”

For example, when OTC starts to break down a large order wave into packets of work, assign picking tasks through its voice recognition system, and direct packing stations—chores usually tackled by a WMS—it lets its WCS take over. Why? According to John Niemeyer, the systems integrator who worked on the project, the WCS is closer to the action. In the OTC system, Niemeyer tells Trebilcock, that proximity to real-time events puts the WCS in a better position than its WMS to dynamically determine which parts to pick and release to the sorter.

“If the WCS is going to make decisions about what to pick and release, better that it speaks directly to the voice system, the sorter, the packing stations and the shipping sorters,” says Trebilcock. “It’s a new model for directing order fulfillment, and I think it’s exciting for our industry.”

And while WCS is certainly stepping into WMS turf in these more highly automated systems, this does not mean that WMS will eventually be pushed to the sidelines—quite the contrary. In fact, analysts see WMS suppliers continuing to evolve and add functionality as they get more involved in shipment visibility, tracking inventory flow, keeping an eye on labor and getting deeper into the management of overall supply chain processes.


About the Author

Michael Levans, Group Editorial Director
Michael Levans is Group Editorial Director of Peerless Media’s Supply Chain Group of publications and websites including Logistics Management, Supply Chain Management Review, Modern Materials Handling, and Material Handling Product News. He’s a 23-year publishing veteran who started out at the Pittsburgh Press as a business reporter and has spent the last 17 years in the business-to-business press. He’s been covering the logistics and supply chain markets for the past seven years. You can reach him at [email protected]

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