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Focus: Distribution/Materials Handling

Feature Article from Our Distribution and Materials Handling Subject Area - See All

From SCDigest's On-Target E-Magazine

- June 11, 2013 -

Supply Chain News: Are Warehouse Management System Modifications Going Away? Should They?

Trend is Towards Much Fewer Mods, but They Have Not Disappeared; Stifling Innovation?


 SCDigest Editorial Staff

There is no question that leading vendors of Warehouse Management Systems (WMS) have dramatically improved out-of-the-box capabilities, substantially reducing and sometimes even eliminating the need for modifications to the vendor's core offering.

This is a big deal, because of all supply chain software applications, Warehouse Management Systems have historically been among the most heavily modified, for several reasons. The most prominent factor is just that a WMS must model a given distribution center's physical product flows, which can vary dramatically. This is especially true in the integrated process of order release to the floor, order picking across different selection areas, and then order consolidation.

SCDigest Says:

Barnes does notes that while there has been a great reduction in modifications around core DC functionality, there are still often a lot of mods relative to integration with ERP, order management systems, and material handling automation.
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Add to that the fact that any or all of those picking areas could use material handling automation, of numerous types and strategies, and the potential need for modifications to the base just in this area of functionality alone should be clear.

But there is also a distinct movement, led in some cases by the WMS vendors themselves, to not just reduce the number of modifications, but to eliminate them completely for new implementations. And many potential WMS customers seem to be jumping on that same bandwagon, deciding to conform their processes to what the WMS can do out-of-the-box rather than having modifications made to accommodate their perceived requirements.

Why? There are several reasons. Modifications cost money, not only up front but also down the road, as WMS providers usually charge maintenance on those modification dollars each year. Perhaps more importantly, modifications to the WMS base code, as with virtual any enterprise software, can be barriers to making system upgrades, or add a lot more to the cost of those upgrades. Modifications can also be a source of operational problems when the WMS is deployed, since they have not really been field tested.

Many vendors and in some cases customers also pitch the idea that "best practices" are built into the WMS, and question why a user would want to deviate from those practices.

There is no question that in the past, WMS modifications were often made to "pave over cow paths," meaning to make changes just to fit the way a company is used to doing things, not to add any real economic or customer value.

So what is really going on? Has the pendulum perhaps swung a bit too far in terms of dismissing opportunities to drive value? Are most new WMS deployments going in with no mods, or is that a myth? What are the pros and cons of modifications to meet unique business needs? Should companies really push to have a WMS deployment that has no mods?

We'll explore all those topics and more in a series of two articles, featuring observations from some of the industry's leading WMS consultants who have real insight on this issue, and including in part 2 a new "WMS Modification ROI Calculator."

"The trend is obviously towards reduce the number of customizations, and that's a good thing," says Mark Fralick, president of GetUsROI and one of the WMS industry pioneers in the late 1980s and early 1990s. "The question is whether having no modifications should always be the real goal."

Fralick added that "I worry about stifling innovation. I also wonder if the out-of-the-box system gets you 95% of the way there but you could get that other 5% of benefit through some customization if that still isn't the smart thing to do."

(Distribution/Materials Handling Story Continues Below )


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However Jim Barnes, CEO of consulting firm enVista, thinks the zero modifications goal is a good one, saying the key to achieving that is doing the right upfront work in terms of system design and vendor selection so that you can find the total solution that doesn't require mods.

"I believe the goal really should always be zero mods," Barnes told SCDigest. "Let's face it, WMS is a becoming something of a commodity. We should not be spending a lot money changing an application that has five basic functions: receiving, put-away, replenishment, picking and shipping. Surprisingly many companies don't get the basics correct."

Barnes does notes that while there has been a great reduction in modifications around core DC functionality, there are still often a lot of mods relative to integration with ERP, order management systems, and material handling automation that users must content with.

Don't Believe WMS Mods are All Really Gone Just Yet

David Meyers and Kevin Hume of Tompkins International say the reality is that despite what you might here from vendors, WMS customizations are often still required - though the level of such mods has indeed dropped significantly.

"We continue to see WMS modifications with virtually every implementation we support," Meyers and Hume said in email comments to SCDigest. "However, overall, we see a sharp downward trend in the scope and volume of WMS modifications, as well as a better understanding from client's operations and IT staff about the long term impact to total operating cost related to modifications."

They add that many WMS vendors are providing tools that empower users to make their own mods.

"The nature of these WMS modification is now changing," Meyers and Hume say. "Some vendors offer tools that allow customers to basically develop their own modifications or enhancements without touching base source code," often in a way that will not impact a later upgrade.

So the trend is clearly towards a substantial reduction on WMS modifications, vendors providing tools that can enable a form of modifications that don't impact the base code, and some but certainly not all implementations done without any mods - though perhaps at the cost of losing some additional productivity that a few smart mods might deliver.

So how can a prospective WMS user think about all that, and how to manage the tradeoffs? We'll have a lot more on that in part 2 of this series, including the new SCDigest WMS Modification ROI Calculator.

Should the goal be zero mods in a WMS deployment? What about innovation? Let us know your thoughts at the Feedback button (email) or section (web form) below.

Recent Feedback

I would like to suggest that not all WMS charge for customizations in order to adapt to your warehouses processes. And, if it may be true that all of the ones you have contacted suggest this in parallel to this article, you may want to contact a different WMS provider. I found this one recently myself and found that they tailor the WMS based on your specific requirements preventing you from changing your working processes but just optimizing them.

Franklin F.
3PL Warehouse Owner
Jun, 12 2013

This article is very useful for all supply chain professionals. Thanks.

Hamid Siddiqui
Head of Stores
Del Mare Foods (deals in sea food)
Jun, 12 2013

The goal of a distribution operation should be to configure the WMS to conform to Best Practices.  A good WMS should be able to be configured to Best Practices without much in the way of modifications.  A really good WMS will also allow for these minor modifications to be supported without on-going support and maintenance issues if it is built with the right design on the right platform with the right tools.

David Price
Jun, 12 2013