Like many other software categories, warehouse management system (WMS) packages have continually changed over the years to meet user community needs and technology advancements. Unlike 25 to 30 years ago, where a handful of vendors offered highly customized solutions, we now have a mature, highly segmented marketplace. The upper ends of this marketplace have been relatively stable for the past 15 years. While vendors have continued to build out their capabilities and feature sets, change has been more evolutionary than revolutionary.
This does not mean that WMS software vendors haven’t positioned new product releases as major paradigm shifts in the industry. WMS industry analysts have also contributed to these perceptions over the years by identifying trends that will significantly impact the WMS marketplace, so it’s easy to dismiss recent developments as more of the same. But some recent trends have the potential to be game changers—more importantly, these trends have the potential to alter the WMS value proposition for many distribution operations.
If the WMS industry is at an inflection point, here are the trends that are propelling this movement:
- Software-as-a-service (SaaS) and cloud native solutions. WMS subscription pricing and cloud delivery are hardly new concepts. Low- and mid-tier vendors have been offering them for years, but many top-tier vendors have been reluctant to embrace or support these models. However, SaaS-based offerings are now becoming the norm. This has changed the total ownership cost equation by removing IT infrastructure and ongoing administration services from client-side responsibilities. Cloud native and microservices architectures have made the next trend possible.
- Versionless software and low-cost and low-impact upgrades. End-of-life version policies have been a standard WMS industry fixture, especially among top-tier providers. Highly customized versions were commonplace for operations with any significant complexity level. This frequently led to upgrade projects that were too difficult to justify. Many organizations currently support their distribution operations on past end-of-life WMS platforms with limited support that is only available on a time and materials basis.
Some vendors have taken version obsolescence out of the equation by leveraging cloud native and microservices architectures. These architectures allow them to continuously update their solutions deployed across clients. Other vendors offer low-cost and low-impact upgrades through managed services and extensibility capabilities that reduce or eliminate the need for modifications.
- Extensibility. The ability for end-user organizations to directly modify how their WMS works without having to resort to vendor supplied modifications is not new. Some vendors have been offering this capability through scripting tools for years. But extensibility has recently grown to a prominent position in the WMS marketplace. Most top- and mid-tier vendors now offer extensibility and workflow development tools. These features differ in capabilities and skill sets required to use them.
- Autonomous operations and optimization. Top-tier WMS vendors are embracing machine learning (ML) and predictive analysis features to take their optimization capabilities to new levels. Order streaming and intelligent work optimization are examples where the WMS continuously looks to optimize order and work release on current conditions and workload. This allows the WMS to operate more autonomously without constant managerial intervention.
- Material flow control capabilities. Many top-tier WMS vendors now offer warehouse execution system (WES) capabilities that connect directly to lower level warehouse control systems (WCS). This provides a flexible, unified approach for dealing with diverse material handling automation systems. It also enhances WMS order streaming and optimization capabilities by integrating material handling subsystems into the equation.
- Deployment tools and configuration wizards. WMS configuration has traditionally been a time-consuming, knowledge-intensive process. Many WMS vendors have sought to streamline this process through sophisticated configuration wizards and workflow-enabled setup screens. Often, they are also offering deployment and configuration management tools for keeping environments and instances in sync.
- Usability and engagement. Most vendors recognize the importance that user experience (UX) has on productivity and workforce retention. Data visualization, actionable visibility, contextual work instruction delivery and workflow agility have become hallmarks of a best-in-class UX. Labor management solutions are beginning to leverage gamification and provide app-based scheduling and management tools appropriate to a digitally savvy workforce.
The marketplace for any type of commercial software application is not static. Change is a fundamental foundation for the supply chain and software industry. There are changes in the WMS industry that may have a profound impact on your distribution operations now or in the near future. Contact us today to help you effectively navigate these changes.
This post is part of our blog series on WMS implementation. Learn more about this topic in the related articles below or visit our newsroom to stay up to date on our latest news.